If I traveled back in time to confront me about something that could potentially ruin my life, would I listen? We have seen this plot recycled too many times in Sci-Fi made-for-TV movies or during reruns of Doctor Who. This particular, ole deus ex machina implanted itself into our own culture so well, it would be ludicrous to dismiss the warnings of our future-selves. But would we really listen? If we were stopping at a gas station to use the restroom and our future selves time-traveled to forbid us from doing it, would that actually change our fate?
I think, No. I think I would stop despite my own protesting because as a human, curiosity acts as a better motive than self-preservation. In fact, we can be downright self-destructive at times.
But the phrase “Self-destruction” has many meanings to many people, not just an odd architectural choice for the Death Star. Why am I so interested in this as a writer? Why does it matter? Fiction writers are merely very biased philosophers, so when we write a story, we instill our own values and beliefs into the characters we write. Not that I agree with my characters, but through them, I try to make a point; in this way, writers must balance characters as real and fleshed-out people as well as symbols for something bigger. In Victorian novels, characters often acted as spokespeople for whole social groups, but today, we can’t generalize people in that fashion through literature.
Self-destruction is a purely human trait, which is why it interests me as a writer. Every bit of the human condition intrigues me. Other
animals act out of self-preservation. We, however, have a tendency to choose to do things we know with certainty will harm us. Of course, suicide comes to mind. Apparently, panda bears also commit suicide by either starving or suffocating themselves, but there is not much substantial evidence as to why they do this. In that way, we are of a select few animals who practice self-inflicted death or even self-loathing.
Then think, suicide is a definitive form of self-destruction, but there are more ways to kill yourself than just with a gun. Suicide needn’t be instantaneous but can take place daily, a system, a routine. Sometimes, even while doing what we love, we are actually causing our own deaths or at least our own unhappiness.
Animals eat to survive; we eat for pleasure. We keep eating even if it is killing us. We eat too much, drink too much alcohol, and smoke too many cigarettes because what we love can one day kill us unless we kill whatever it is (that craving, impulse, or desire) we love. Think of Wile. E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner across the desert for eternity, allowing ACME bombs to blow him up and anvils to drop him off cliffs, boulders crashing on his head, for what? For a single delicious meal? In a way, he is killed by his own needs, by his insatiable addiction.
Because self-destruction does not only occur when we hate ourselves but when we love something else more. In that vein of thought, we could argue that Jesus possessed self-destructive tendencies. Because he doesn’t do what best serves him, he effectively destroys himself, allows himself to die. We argue that this is compassion, a special type of altruism, yet nevertheless is also a form of self-demolition.
Or any volunteer worker who commits his or her time for a cause– this is time not spent selfishly and therefore perhaps “self-destructive.” For that reason, the term is difficult to define, and the boundary pushing toward altruism or some other distinct human trait can be blurred.
When I talk about self-destruction, do I just mean causing our own deaths through bad habits or also causing rife within ourselves? We spoil our own emotions knowing that what we do will make us unhappy. We are fully capable of torturing ourselves physically and emotionally. Other animals attempt to escape pain, but sometimes we invite it or self-inflict it.
Out of a pure Darwinian lens, this makes no sense. Why do we make choices that we actively know will yield terrible results? Why don’t we just listen to our future selves and avoid all this pain and misfortune? Biologically, we like all animals exist for a short time, but our DNA can exist forever through procreation. Producing offspring becomes the true test of success when concerning an animal. We need only produce viable offspring with a mate, and BAM, we’re considered a success.
Humans, however, sometimes purposely refuse to have children. Is that self-destructive, because even if we care about the survival of us, we don’t care about the survival of our genes. In a world of over-population, does that truly matter any longer? From an evolutionary standpoint, we would see not having kids as counterproductive, but many adults choose careers over their potential parenthood.
This entire essay is composed of questions, not any sort of theory or secret notion that ties the truths together. I am a writer because I ask questions. In fiction, we explore the subtleties of what makes us human. When we use words so freely, we have to consider their meanings, even those which are barely-defined like “self-destruction.” The meaning of words gets so lost in vagueness: self-loathing from compassion, love from deadly obsession.
We must quietly consider why we commit acts we know will cause pain, and why this sets the human race apart, what it might mean for our future.