And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven
Ingmar Bergman’s movie “The Seventh Seal”, is a story about a knight returning from the crusades who encounters Death. He plays him in a game of chess that lasts the entire movie and ends in the defeat and death of the knight. The central question of the movie is “is God there and what happens after death?” I’m also fascinated by Bergman’s suggestion that we engage in a game of chess of sorts with death from the time of our birth until the day we die. It is also interesting that there is no way to win the game.
I am haunted by the question of life and death. Maybe that is one of the reasons I’m a psychiatrist. I have been fascinated with this and the contrast that seems to show itself in life and the world in the form of self destruction. You would think that, given the fact that we all know that we are going to die, we would be embracing and clinging to life with unmeasured intensity. Instead, I see in many and even in culture at large, a tendency toward self destruction. We start wars, deny global warming to our own peril, and seem to be obsessively bent on repeating behaviors that cause us pain and suffering.
Freud was disturbed by this tendency and labeled it as a repetition compulsion. He saw that there is a kind of impulse to repeat behaviors that are destructive and painful to us. He was operating from the frame that humans were born to work and to love. It didn’t make any sense to him that we would engage in self destructive behaviors. He even proposed a death instinct to try and explain this tendency.
What his drive theory did not take into account was that we humans are born to be in relationship. We want to be in relationship with each other and even if it is bad, we will go for it because a bad relationship is better than no relationship. I think there is also a tendency to repeat a pattern of bad relationships in order to “fix” broken relationships from our past.
I don’t think that it is only in relationship to each other that we can see the pathology of broken relationships playing out. We see it in our relationship with our environment as well. Denial of our impact on the earth we live on is a lot like the denial of our negative impacts on each other. The abuse we inflict on each other and the abuse we endure is a lot like how we interact with nature. We don’t seem to respond to the increase in climate stress, and we don’t seem to acknowledge our negative impact on the environment. It would seem from the outside looking in that we have a death instinct with respect to our environment. racing toward our own destruction without any notice of our own role in the process. Maybe psychoanalysis will not just help us survive the relationships we form with each other. Maybe it will help us heal the relationship we have with the earth on which we live.
— Stephen M. Taylor, MD