Psychological Hunger   Leave a comment

One of the strange things about humanity, especially modern humanity, is that we deliberately, repeatedly choose to shape our lives, both individually and collectively, in ways that, in the big picture, make us unhappy. It’s one of those great paradoxes of the Enlightenment and its legacy – that people, presented with the tools to make their lives better, choose not to.

Is it just perversity? Do we do it for the same reason that we refuse to eat our vegetables, because achieving happiness is “boring” when it’s “good for you”? Certainly I think that’s one aspect of the problem, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

One of the things that I have wondered at during the last few years, as I have endured some very difficult life lessons of my own, is the bizarre extent to which this crucial element of success and happiness is left to a mixture of chance and imprecision. There are qualified experts to teach us all manner of technical things: how to be a mechanic, a software engineer, a yoga teacher. But there are no credible, established paths for how to lead a healthy and successful life.

Sure, there are gurus and leadership experts, preachers and life coaches, that all claim to provide us with guidance in our lives. But the field is so full of cranks and phonies that, were our technical fields to be run in such a way, we might regard our technology with a much more wary eye.

I learned a great deal from my professors, but there was one in particular who had an impact on me – not merely because she was a brilliant teacher and scholar, but because I could see in her a rare skill for living life, something that my parents were certainly not equipped to do. It was a skill I hungered to know more about, but could not ask her without seeming like a stalker. Every little insight she spoke about the life of the mind I have clung to, for they have proven to be precious pearls of wisdom over the years.

Emotional need is a taboo topic for a basic, paradoxical reason. We avoid people who are needy because it denotes insecurity. They are often passive-aggressive, unreliable, and demanding. Worse, giving such people attention often does not satisfy them, but leads instead to an black hole of endless emotional demand. This situation, however, is unfortunate, because it makes us withhold our attention from people who might be needy in a positive sense – that is, who may be hungry now, but wish to learn how to feed themselves.

The other reason emotional need is a problem is that, culturally, we have downgraded it as being merely a “luxury,” something that is secondary to the more pressing necessities of food and shelter. I think it’s fascinating, though, to consider a point raised by Erich Fromm near the beginning of The Fear of Freedom (1941), in which he asserts that humanity needs more than just the physical necessities in order to live. Fromm’s point is not that life is better with the emotional care of others, but rather that without it, human beings cannot survive. Even if we have all our physical necessities met, but have no sense of community whatsoever – if we are “morally alone,” as Fromm puts it – then we are driven to madness and suicide.

I’m teaching Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) in one of my classes this semester, and Fromm’s insight seems to me the key to unlocking this complex novel. The narrator’s physical hunger is transformed by Hamsun into a mirror of his psychological hunger, of society’s neglect of its spiritual and emotional side.

How bizarre that, in the twenty-first century, as the shadow of the obesity epidemic looms over us, that this metaphor has mutated once again. Now, gorging ourselves with cheap comfort food has become the new sign of our emotional starvation. We eat to fill a void in our lives that can never be filled. Obesity is a signifier, ironically, of our lack of contentment.

There is a scene in Hamsun’s Hunger in which the protagonist, out of a bizarre sense of pride and contrariness, refuses food, even though he is starving. We live in a society, in a similar way, that continues to denigrate the humanities as a luxury even as, emotionally, we are longing for just a moment of real, solid satisfaction.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted April 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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