Where does the survival instinct come from?

I'm having a hard time figuring out why we go on from day to day.


Cary Tennis
July 27, 2005 9:20PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I have a vague question that I've never seen addressed specifically in your column, and I was wondering what your thoughts on it are. Where do you think humans' survival instinct comes from? Why do you think so many people go on living day after day when they're completely miserable?

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I was called to start considering this question after rereading Graham Greene's "End of the Affair" for the second time. I've recently suffered my third completely devastating broken heart in the past seven years, from the man I really thought might be The One. "The End of the Affair" is what I read after my last breakup, so I decided to check it out again this time. The main character, Bendrix, is possibly the most broken, angry and sad character I've ever read in fiction, but every word of the book rings true to me. Much more so than last time.

I'm not suicidal, but I honestly don't see how I can recover from this. My boyfriend was one of the most generous, fun, unique, intelligent, curious, life-loving people I've ever met, and while our relationship had its share of problems, I don't think any of them were insurmountable, but he simply gave up, saying he couldn't do it for me. I loved him more than I've ever loved anyone, including the last two boyfriends, and the idea of anyone else being able to replace him in my heart feels impossible. I'm still very young (28), and I'm already so tired of feeling this way that the idea of living even another 30 years just seems exhausting, lonely and pointless.

But so many people, I realize, have things far worse than I do. They live with terminal illness, or death, drug addiction, abusive spouses, childhood incest, murders of loved ones, homelessness, intense and crippling loneliness, wars, you name it, but people just keep on keeping on. Where does this spirit come from? I know it exists, because I do it as well, even though every morning that I wake up, I just want to swallow more sleeping pills and sleep for days. But eventually I drag myself from my covers and go to work, go hang out with my friends, watch movies, whatever, even though the whole time I just wish I would disappear. I seem to have lost interest in everything I've ever cared about. I feel lost, jealous, unlovable, petty, and completely out of control of my own life. I hate my job, my artistic career is going nowhere (even though now, I don't even care about it). I'm going back to school in a few months, but I don't really want to, I'm only doing it to get out of my job for a couple of years. I've recently started therapy, but the going is slow. Hopefully it will improve soon.

Do you think all this is just proof that humanity is inherently hopeful? Is it nothing more than hard-wired evolutionary behavior? Would you consider it proof that God exists? I know every sentient creature's most powerful instinct is survival, but since humans are the only ones (that we know of) that can rationalize and really feel emotions, why is it that so many people feel that life is worth living, when on the outside, or even to themselves, it often seems like it's not? Do you think it's fear? Do you think more people would kill themselves if they had some solid proof of an afterlife? Or are they afraid of being forgotten by the people that they love? What if they have no one?

Again, I'm not suicidal. I want to live. But I can't exactly explain why I want to.

Surviving

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Dear Surviving,

I spent most of yesterday thinking about the survival instinct and now I am angry and depressed because I let myself get sucked down a winding ductwork of logic that narrows and darkens and grows colder and colder until you can't move your arms and legs and all sound is muffled and if you could get a breath you'd scream but your chest can't expand. And besides nobody would hear you anyway. Plus now on account of spending all that time thinking about the survival instinct I'm way behind in my work but I'll just have to stay in this crumpled-up fetal-type position until something happens.

Meanwhile, here's the deal. At the end of that winding logical airshaft lies a tiny hopeless, unknowable situation that, if faced squarely, brings utter surrender and a blast of absolute faith in either the existence of God or the existence of an HVAC guy with an acetylene torch. The contemplation of such things leads to a quandary that only faith and action can get us out of.

I usually try to answer the question that was asked. But in your case, I have responses to your condition but not answers to your questions. If you show up at the hospital with a broken arm do you ask where broken arms come from? For me your questions are simply a dodge. You are wounded. You need help. You need a splint and a cast and maybe some pain killers.

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Me, I'm just a citizen on the subway. If I see you sobbing in a corner I do not think, gee, if that guy just thought a little harder about where our survival instinct comes from, he'd feel a whole lot better and be able to face life with greater courage and dignity. I think, man, that guy needs a hobby.

That's not entirely charitable, I know. OK, so, if not a hobby, then a purposeful activity, a life-giving dedication to something larger than a job, a thing that if completed will be remembered by someone whose remembering makes a difference: A ship to build, a continent to describe, a medicine to invent.

You have a therapist. You say the work is going slowly. That's good. The work should be going slowly. Just help the therapist out a little. Stop with the philosophical. Say to your therapist, I'm wounded, I'm hurt, I need to get stronger, I need a reason to get up in the morning. Give me some exercises I can take home. I'll do them. Your therapist may suggest, reasonably, that you yourself need to find that reason to get up in the morning.

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What could be a reason to get up in the morning? What can you do today to fight depression and hopelessness? Let's make a list of what's worth living for. Good coffee? Good sex? Your family? That house you're hoping to build? The feeling you get when you're standing on top of a mountain?

What are you trying to do with your life? You must invent this thing you hunger for. It then becomes the thing you seek.

Picture a man holding a freshly baked apple pie at arm's length in front of his face: This is how I motivate myself! I walk toward the pie!

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Finally, here is a thought that may make sense, and it may not. Remember, having crawled down this dark and silent air conditioning duct, I am somewhat mentally impaired. (Plus I have been looking at a lot of surrealist art.) So bandage yourself up from head to foot and walk down the street to your favorite aquarium. Wander the aquarium bandaged like a mummy. Look at the fish looking back at you. Do they have any idea why you're staring at them? Think about being a fish. Just move your fins in the water, stare out of the glass at the man wrapped up like a mummy. Just move your fins in the water. Imagine how the fish feels.

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