More Pathologies of Ultimate Satisfaction

This is the ninth in a planned series of posts on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.

A person is in a pathological state when their ability to participate in the practices of their community is significantly restricted. This can be a matter of restriction of specific important practices, enough to appraise the restriction as “significant”, while the person continues to participate in the community’s world and experiences it as making sense. These are not pathologies of ultimate satisfaction.

Pathologies of ultimate satisfaction involve a more pervasive restriction. (Note that I said more pervasive – not deeper or more significant or more important.) In pathologies of ultimate satisfaction my world does not make sense, nor does my place in it. I may struggle to act as if the world did make sense – but unless it actually does make sense to me, it will remain an unsatisfying effort.

Let’s look at some examples:

Some communities, most notably formal religions, have a codified version of how the world makes sense. This is useful for the fortunate individuals whose actual experience of their world corresponds to the canonical version; in their case, the public version serves as a good description of what they personally experience while participating in ultimate practices. For others, the doctrine is problematic: People aspire to experiencing their world as making sense in the canonical way, but the failure to achieve this can leave them in a pathological condition. For example:

  • Linda experiences pervasive anxiety, since the actions available to her make no sense  how can she be even slightly sure that she will succeed at doing what is called for?
  • Robert is depressed; he is aware that he is not eligible to actually participate in the community’s practices, but doing so still matters to him.
  • Sydney feels guilty about just going through the motions of worship, while John feels deep shame about being unworthy to receive grace through the sacraments.

These are all pathologies of ultimate satisfaction; the specific “presenting issue” depends on the individual’s personal characteristics.

My friend and colleague Wynn Schwartz recently posted an account contrasting his personal pervasive experience of satisfaction in his life with the pervasive experience of dissatisfaction that characterizes “a woman I know.” (In his account Wynn uses some of the thoughts on ultimate satisfaction in this series, while focusing primarily on the connection among instrumental, intrinsic and feeling in all satisfaction.) The woman is “entangled in her family’s affairs, [and] complains constantly about the endless tasks she angrily undertakes. Very few people would have the focus or competence to manage what she toils at daily. ‘When will I get back to my life?’ she asks. When her week finally ends, she doesn’t look forward to the next.”

Here is a clear illustration of someone living, quite effectively, within a pathology of ultimate satisfaction. She accomplishes the tasks imposed upon her by her place in her world, and experiences no personal satisfaction in doing so. All of us have duties we perform instrumentally, as a means to a reward or to avoid a consequence; very few of us are capable of finding the performance of such duties intrinsically satisfying. But most of us perform our duties within the context of a world that makes sense to us, where who we are called upon to be is a good fit. Whatever pathologies may apply to us, they are not pathologies of ultimate satisfaction.

For the woman in Wynn’s account, however, everything she does is instrumental; she experiences no actual satisfaction in any of it. She in fact is significantly restricted in her ability to participate in her community’s practices because she never actually participates at all – remember, crucially, satisfaction accompanies participation. It is easy to see this, in Wynn’s words, as a kind of “pathology of ordinary life and providing a key to the diffuse pattern of malaise that is frequently part of banal existence.” There are some interesting therapeutic implications of this recognition.

Finally, let’s consider the possibility that addiction is a pathology of ultimate satisfaction.

We use the term “addiction” to refer to a wide variety of conditions. Some involve substances like heroin, etc.; these have a clear physiological component which has been well-studied and documented. But even with substances the physiological is only part of the picture; the full addiction involves a complex set of roles and ritualistic behaviors. And many addictions do not involve substances at all, like addiction to gambling, pornography, etc. yet still involve a powerfully compelling and in fact irresistible need for the addictive experience. What do these have in common?

I suggest that they may all be instances of looking for ultimate satisfaction in the wrong places.

Addictive behaviors are like viruses. Viruses co-opt some biologically necessary functions of healthy cells and destroy the cell in the process. Similarly addictive behavior co-opts a person’s capacity for experiencing ultimate satisfaction and destroys the person’s life in the process. (Please note this is a metaphor and only a metaphor!)

So how does this co-opting work? To sort this out let’s consider some lore from the largest and most publicly-known community of addicts: alcoholics.

Every alcoholic has his or her own story, which in treatment they are encouraged to share, and each story is as distinctive as the individual. There are, however, recurring themes and among the most canonical is some version of this:

I had my first drink when I was 15. I was an ordinary teenager with a good family life, not lost or rebellious, just curious. I sneaked a sip from my parent’s bourbon bottle and I was instantly aware of three things: The taste of the bourbon; the way it felt going down and – I liked it! I liked all of it, especially how I felt, and that was it – I started drinking and didn’t stop for forty years.”

This origin story, in one form or another, has been shared by literally millions of alcoholics. The details vary; what remains consistently is the sudden discovery of a world that was a lot more satisfying than they one I lived in, and/or a version of myself that felt more powerful and authentic. Sober, I might be shy or fearful or inarticulate, in a world of drudgery and hardship; drink enough, and I’m charming, bold and I do what I want in a world of exciting possibility.

Note the similarity between these origin stories and Bertrand Russell’s experience of Truth in Euclid’s proofs: Suddenly the world makes sense, and my place in it is clear. I like it! Was Russell a logic addict? In his case, the evidence seems to tilt toward that conclusion.

Note also that millions of people could tell a similar story: experimenting with alcohol as a teenager, really liking it, taking up drinking and never stopping – and they never have a bit of trouble as a result. These people like to drink, and their drinking fits into their life without much if any conflict. Are they addicts? Of course not.

Wherein lies the difference? The routine answer for many years among alcoholics has been: It’s a disease. My physiology can’t handle alcohol; I’ve got the “alcoholic genes.” While this serves the salutary purpose of removing the stigma that attaches to seeing alcoholism as a character failure (or some other sort of personal deficit) – and indeed may some day be shown via research to be the case – in fact it is currently more an article of faith than of fact. And it helps us not at all when we switch the addiction to gambling or pornography or the very new but troubling addictions to video gaming and online connection. Are we to believe that these all have some common physiological cause, or share an all-purpose addiction gene? That strains credulity past the breaking point.

I suggest the issue lies, not with the person’s embodiment, but with the person’s world. The need is not physiological, even when it is experienced as a deep feeling of craving. The need is for ultimate satisfaction: the direct experience of a world that makes sense, in which I have a clear place that fits me well. And if I don’t find ultimate satisfaction in the world I’m in, I’m motivated to find a world where I can – even if it costs me dearly.

So when do we call it addiction? When it is in fact pathological: When engaging in the behaviors significantly restricts the person’s ability to participate in the world of his community. When drinking significantly damages your health, or badly disrupts your work or your family life – and you keep on drinking. When pornography uses up all your available time and then some, or greatly diminishes your interest in intimacy with your partner – and you keep watching it. When gambling has used up your savings, put you deeply into debt and makes it impossible to meet your financial obligations – and you keep on gambling. In short, when the satisfaction of the world you enter through your addictive behavior has co-opted the ultimate satisfaction of your life, destroying that life in the process – that is addiction.

There is much more to be considered on this topic; perhaps in a future series. But let this suffice for now. Let’s move on to the 10th and final post in this series on worlds: Ultimate Satisfaction and Therapy.


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