Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Emotional Cost of the Struggle for Existence

Charles Darwin famously linked the biological fact of diversity in characteristics (we now know recognize as genetic diversity) with the pressures he collectively called, following the nomenclature of his time, as the "struggle for existence." The latter acted like a wedging device, shoving out from the world stage those characteristics of organisms that were less likely to reproduce and therefore hand down their own particular variants to the next generation.

His cousin, Francis Galton, popularized all this with the term "survival of the fittest."We know the theory by the name Darwin gave it: Natural Selection.

In his book On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that these biological facts would have great impact upon the burgeoning science of psychology, and indeed it did. Today, behaviorists, evolutionary psychologists, psychoanalysts, and others have claimed the mantle of Darwin's evolutionary thinking for their own particular field of academic or clinical endeavor.

But while the fact of evolution is scientifically accepted, and Darwin's own selectivist theories are fine-tuned and assimilated to the world of modern genetics, overlooked is his emphasis on the "struggle for existence." It is my contention here that this struggle for existence is in fact an omnipresent influence on our patients and on ourselves, and recognition of this fact is important in treating numerous mental ailments, including stress, anxiety, depression, hyposexual desire, and PTSD, among others.

The "struggle for existence" takes on many forms. For Darwin, it was primarily the competition between organisms for supremacy. It could take on many forms, from the classic predator-prey relationship, to the existence of parasitic forms of life, and even, counter-intuitively, the altruistic forms of cooperation, in which helping others becomes a form of helping oneself.

In fact, in his book The Descent of Man, Darwin explicitly rooted the sociability of human beings in the sociability of earlier forms of anthropoid and mammalian life. In doing so, he rejected the ideas of "social Darwinism," and believed that helping others was a key evolutionarily-derived part of human nature.

Nevertheless, it was also clear to Darwin that the struggle for existence in it more cruel aspects took a great toll on humanity. Microscopic organisms caused disease, whose fatal victims were drawn from the weaker parts of human society: the physically debilitated, the old, the very young. (He lost a very loved daughter himself when she succumbed to illness at age ten.)

Today, the struggle for existence takes many forms, including the competition for livelihoods, the warring of ethnic clans and groups in various societies, as well as the classic ongoing struggle against bacteria, viruses, and environmental disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, etc.).

As a working psychologist, I am aware of how the ever-existing pressure of these forces, collectively, the struggle for existence, affects my patients. This is true even when I work with couples, as it is a given that one very important aspect of the relationship, most often unstated, is how one's partner is helping one with what perceives are the pains and difficulties of life. Often it is a perceived failure of the other partner to alleviate one's own suffering, or satisfy basic needs that causes trouble in the relationship (usually because the couple hasn't found a neutral, non-blaming way of discussing such problems).

For the individual, fear of being found to be "weak," or a "failure" is a haunting constant in one's life, powerfully affecting self-esteem, and through that, one's sense of general well-being and health. Indeed, often the pressures of life are first felt somatically, with the body finely attuned to stress, and breaking down or showing symptoms in relation to such stress.

The emotional cost of the struggle for existence is too hard to bear for some, and for them suicide can seem like a way out. Tragically, that is a choice thousands in our society make every year. We cannot deny this social fact.

What we can do is be there to help our fellows. As therapists, we often provide the sole, or nearly the sole source of emotional support for the struggling patient. We provide through our respect for the struggle of our clients the necessary therapeutic environment for them to heal, to grow, to find new sources of support, and to find their own creative way to copy with their own unique blend of conflicts, struggles, victories and defeats.

It's a noble and rewarding task to take on the very struggle that is existence and the human condition, and in my practice over the years I have learned a great deal about the dignity of such struggle, whose value lies not in success or failure, but in a mutual recognition of what all human beings, indeed all living beings endure, and how in spirit they prevail

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