There is a tree near my apartment that, until recently, has been host to hundreds of birds in the evenings. There are two species, the great-tailed grackle and another smaller species that I haven’t identified. Some white-winged doves also hang out there, chilling with the grackles.
The birds seem to be gone now. They have begun their migration south.
I was on a walk last night and noticed that the birds were gone, and thought about what migration must feel like to them. Although I’m not a bird, I think I can feel safe in saying that at this time of year, they don’t say to each other “Say, Alastair, Central America seem spiffing right now!” “I say, old chap, you’re correct, let’s be off then, pip pip!” I imagine, instead, they just feel this strong desire to be in central America, so, they just… go. In fact, I’d posit it seems like the most rational and natural thing for them to go to central America. Since they’re birds, they don’t need to come up with reasons, they just… go.
This morning, my cat was running around and meowing, I could hear her attacking things. Cats don’t just wake up and decide “It would be a great idea to attack something, it’d really help with my muscle tone and would be good practice if I ever need to catch a bird or mouse.” No, they just have this desire to attack stuff, so they do.
The thing about humans is, we’re not different at all. But we have language so that we can pretend we have rational reasons for whatever we do.
So noticing the absence of the birds, and the train of thought I outlined above, I wondered… what is it that we humans have an instinctual desire to do, but think it’s rational and perfectly sensible, just like the birds do flying south?
There are many core drives us humans have that fit this category, I think. Eating, sleeping, surviving, fucking. I think nearly everything we do as humans tends to fit these four categories. Of course, to behavioral scientists, this wouldn’t be a very controversial observation, but it’s easy to forget. What in life do we do that is not related to these four things?
Well, sure. You could think of a couple of things that don’t seem related at first thought. One that comes to mind is the drive to succeed at something. Well, why do we want to succeed at something in the first place? Well, it helps us eat, to begin with. It helps us fuck, because successful people tend to attract a mate. And it helps us survive, because the more we’re known, the more we’re remembered, and it’s important to remember that “survival” doesn’t just mean we continue living – it means our memory continues living even after we’re gone.
But we don’t think of these things. We just think “I want to do this”, and then come up with all sorts of reasons it’d be a good reason to do it, and often, those reasons are just made up.
Why do you think we often ignore red flags while dating? That’s often not a very smart thing to do. But we do it because we really, really want someone to either put your thingy in or someone to put their thingy in you. It’s not any more complicated than that. We tend to exhibit long term mating behaviors not only because not being along helps us survive, but it’s long-term access to having someone to do thingy-putting with. We make it complicated, but that’s it. That’s all it is. We even attach spiritual significance to it and pretend God has some opinions as to how and who we do thingy-putting with (and maybe he even does), but that’s just to regulate our thingy-putting behavior. It has absolutely no significance past being human.
I mean, after all, why do you think dogs look at you all confused when they see you doing that kind of stuff? While they have their own thingy-putting behaviors, they’re very different than ours. They don’t share quite the same drive, or at least it doesn’t manifest quite the same way.
So why am I saying all this stuff? Because, while there are healthy and unhealthy ways to express our drives – thingy-putting drives or other drives – they exist, and I think most of the mental illnesses we experience on a day to day basis are trying to rationalize those drives away. For example, I’m single, I’ve been single most of my life and I probably will be single for the rest of my life. There are lots of rational reasons for me to be single, particularly in this day and age. I can justify that all day long as a choice. And in some ways it even is. But at the end of the day, it’s simply because I’m damaged. I have the same drives as everyone else, but I don’t have the social abilities to do with them what I’m meant to do with them.
And, as utterly irrational as that may be, it leads to what is an inarticulately, irrationally miserable existence.
Mental illness, at its core, is generally caused by convincing someone that going against their drives is rational and in their best interest.
And that really is the worst thing, because while it makes perfect and absolute sense to go against your drives in many cases, when you do, the drives don’t go away. It just causes stress and conflict, and too much of that, well…
You see what happens.
What happens when a bird is unable, for whatever reason, to fly south for the winter?
Maybe we’ll never know. But the bird does.