The Burden of Usefulness


Whenever a celebrity commits suicide, the process begins. The press contextualizes the death within a larger narrative about the growing popularity of suicide. Friends passionately advocate for hope. Clinicians present statistics and propose interventions. Edgy hot takes litter the op-ed pages. Morality tales abound, preaching the dangers of addiction and the limitations of money and fame. 

The loss of life is disheartening enough, without having to sort through the editorializing from chipper people who claim to know something about happiness. After our most recent celebrity suicide cluster, my depressed patients found most of the standardized hopefulness and obligatory suicide hotline info somewhere between redundant and insulting. They all know the stories about how life is worth living, and they know how to use the internet to find suicide hotline information. 

No wonder we soothe ourselves through repetition; the suicide statistics are grim. According to the CDC, 25 states have seen increases in suicide rates of more than 30% in the past 20 years. More and more people are hitting the limits of their despair and can go no further.

Despair is a feature, not a glitch, of human existence, and given a long enough time line, everybody feels it. Pain is not doled out fairly, nor is the ability to tolerate it. Some periods of life feel entirely full of pain, and contrary to certain anti-suicide sloganeering, suicide is indeed an option – at least for anybody with access to a belt or a bottle of Tylenol. 

Suicidal people are prone to feeling useless, purposeless, and numbed by the apparent indifference of the universe to their lives. Mainstream “positive psychology” would have us believe that suicidal thoughts are fundamentally negative and distorted, and must be drowned out by positive counter-thoughts. With the cognitive re-training, the formerly suicidal person can find their passion. All of this sounds good, but in many cases these ideas of positivity, negativity, and passion are terribly misleading. 

“Happiness” is not a useful goal, since no one agrees on what it actually feels like or looks like, and the fuzzy vagueness of “passion” can be dangerous. When depressed people hear talk of passion, they tend to focus on the seemingly impossible distance between their current emotional state and the passionate happiness they are supposed to acquire. Highlighting this shortfall not only makes them feel worse, but also diverts them from the truth about how to actually fight their way out of depression. 

Humans create meaning for their lives by doing some kind of useful work. If they care to pair up in their downtime, love helps too. To solve the problem of meaninglessness, it’s usually best to tackle the problem of work first; love is infinitely more complex, given that it involves at least two people rather than one. Also, people’s attempts at love are often undermined when nothing outside the relationship feels meaningful. Once a person can work purposefully and autonomously, that person tends to stop looking to relationships to manage self-esteem in unrealistic ways.

Humans work by applying attention and focus. They fuel that attention and focus with their own aggression. However, because the word “aggression” sounds hostile and antisocial, positive psychology has largely redacted it, leaving us with bland, anodyne concepts like passion and happiness. These limited concepts prevent people from thinking honestly about how minds actually function. 

Psychoanalysts, on the other hand, have been thinking about aggression for over a century, and integrated it into many robust explanatory theories. Aggression is the flow of energy that, if property tapped into, drives human culture forward. It is expressed in a huge variety of ways, most of which don’t look anything like hostility. Human aggression fuels the sustained attention required to write a novel, win a tennis match, paint a mural, draw a skyscraper, build a business, and bake banana bread. These things make life worth living, and cannot be achieved without some measure of intense focus on one task and withdrawal from others. 

On the other hand, in its most destructive form, aggression can fuel very bad things. Human history is not a story of nice guys taking it easy; it’s a story of ambition driving culture to the pinnacle of beauty and the nadir of horror. Just as Michelangelo tapped into his creative aggression to heroically paint the Sistine ceiling by hand while lying on his back, Hitler channeled his destructive aggression to fuel his terrible work. 

The aggressive forces that fuel creativity and destruction are alive in all of us, and everyone must acknowledge and contend with them, lest they make themselves known in destructive ways. Denying their existence only ensures their unplanned appearance in the most unwanted place at the worst possible time and in the most destructive form. Suicidally depressed people, for instance, tend to cycle through periods of extremely low energy, along with periods of higher energy, and this emotional cycling prevents them from applying themselves in a sustained way to constructive work. If given the right circumstances to execute a suicide plan at a high-energy point in the cycle, they will channel that free-range aggressive energy in the most self-destructive possible course. 

Suicide epitomizes the destructive danger of misdirected aggression. Closer examination of the life of a suicidal person often reveals a calcified pattern of self-sabotage. Most non-psychoanalytic versions of human psychology do not account for the motivations behind self-sabotage, such as the seductive allure to self-identify in a way that both generates sympathy and justifies passivity, i.e. “Some guys have all the luck, but it seems like I’m always a day late and a dollar short.” 

Self-sabotage is among other things an unconscious strategy for confirming uselessness, and psychoanalysis is among other things a calculated attempt to increase usefulness. Analytically questioning people’s foregone conclusions about their identities (e.g. “I’m the type of person who…”) usually reveals problematic assumptions and underpinnings, often unconsciously implemented to protect the outside world from the dangers of their own aggression. 

However, a quest to make meaning in the absence of aggression is a hopeless recipe for uselessness. Therefore, the hopelessness of a depressed mind is not in any way negative or untrue; an undriven life lacks vitality, and in order to get out of it, that depressed voice of hopelessness and uselessness must be heard, interpreted, and analyzed. 

Everyone must carry the burden of usefulness, and no amount of fame or enlightenment can free anyone from this burden. In order to feel useful, everyone has to do something that the world finds valuable. The world values people who solve problems, and in order to consistently do that, the ever-flowing channel of aggression must be accessed and applied to some form of productive work. Productive work sustains humanity, and even more importantly, it sustains the human. If we continue to deny the reality of the aggression that brought human culture to terrestrial dominance, we will continue to see more people destroy their lives and the lives of others. The way out of ever-increasing suicide and self-destruction is not around the channel of human aggression, but through it.