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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/17/09

On Masochism

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The unselfishly selfish start out by negating themselves and their own worth. They experience the pattern of vicarious living, feeling that they are bad and unworthy. And so their primary goal becomes one of pleasing others in an attempt to earn and obtain their love and approval. They need others to validate them and tell them that they are okay, because they do not primarily believe this about themselves. They are not positing their own values based on their own desires—regarding themselves as the font of their own values—but rather seek others to objectify them and to convince them that they are objectively good—though since values are fundamentally subjective, they find the feeling of validation that others can provide them with perpetually elusive and unconvincing. God becomes a useful construction for them, because this imaginary ultimate subject can continually be telling them that they are good and on the right side (as opposed to others) and they can believe this to be objectively the case. He continually reaffirms for them the standard they themselves have made, delivered as if from the outside, the only perspective they respect. They seek to act unselfish in order to obtain validation, but in that they are really doing this in order to get something from others, they are really themselves acting selfishly. They resent that no one appreciates them, because they are doing what they do, not because they want to perform that action for its own sake, but in order to obtain appreciation from others. They seek to manipulate others in order to force their appreciation, and they often seek to point out how unselfish they are.

They want to make a big show and spectacle of their unselfishness, yet if you comment on how good they are for what they are doing, they, paradoxically, are embarrassed by this. Why? Because you make them self-conscious of what they are doing. If you praise them, it indicates that they are doing what they are doing in order to be praised, which would be selfish. Rather, they want you to see and know that they really are unselfish, to say nothing about it, but to show through your actions how much you think of them and how highly you value them. They renounce egotism as sinful—though they themselves, in truth, are deeply egotistical (sanctimonious) as a defense for their deep insecurity. When others act selfishly, they deeply resent it, because they do not really love those other individuals and regard them as ends in themselves—or if they do, they are too limited and resentful as a result of their own vicarious living to bless this. In their coarser form they will curse these people as being bad. In their more refined and insidious form, they will talk of pity for these lost little lambs and unconscious children who they are here to help. Either way this is a means of looking down on these individuals and reaffirming their own perverted values, obtained through ressentiment.5

Of course, we all want the love, approval, validation, and appreciation of others, but the difference in this case is that the vicarious individual has internalized the hatred, rejection, and conditional approval of others to the point that the search for approval becomes their sole obsessive goal. But if you think I am seeking to fault them for this, you are mistaken. In some ways, it is precisely for love of them that I write. You feel dark and ashamed for things that you sense inside yourself, but I see to the bottom of your soul and I think nothing bad of you. My hope for you is that you become more selfish and happy. Because so far you have let others rule your life so that they would not pick at your wounds—your insecurities. So starving for acceptance and approval are you that you embrace ideologies that promise to love you if only you abandon yourself. They want only to exploit you, to turn you into an instrument of their own power, but you go along with it. They anesthetize you to your pain. They let you forget for a little while what you are running from. But they do not bring you health. On the contrary, your sickness is precisely what they require that they may keep you as an instrument—as a slave. Christianity, for example, is like Munchausen syndrome by proxy on a mass scale—they are keeping you sick in order to maintain control over you and acquire glory for themselves. And as for you yourselves? Well, many of you would seem to suffer from Stockholm syndrome. You would defend your abusers to the end.

Does Christianity make people feel more accepted? No. In fact, in makes them feel less accepted. It alienates them from themselves and their own natural tendencies. In order to feel accepted by Christianity, they have to renounce parts of themselves, but this they can never really do, because those things are a part of them, and so they feel even guiltier. Christianity keeps them lowly, because it is not unconditional love. It is love “in spite of.” R.D. Laing, perhaps the greatest clinical psychologist to ever live, talks about how, when he was a little kid, his mother use to say,

“I love you. Do you love me?”
“No you don’t. I love you, but you don’t really love me. I love you, but no one else does. Do you believe me?”
“Don’t believe me! You don’t love anyone—how could you? And no one loves you, except for me—how could they? But don’t believe what I say just because I say it—if you look in your own heart you’ll see that what I am saying is true. And the only reason I am telling you this is because I love you.”6

There is a similar kind of emotional manipulation that goes on in Christianity.7 But this is not real love. Real love exalts the object of its love. It does not make one feel guilty or lowly or try to indebt the object of its love to itself. Real love proclaims “You are perfect”—it is a categorical affirmation of the object of love not contingent upon the loved one’s usefulness to the lover—which is the basis of calling something imperfect. False love proclaims “You are imperfect, but I love you”—that kind of statement is really meant to glorify the one saying it, and not the object of love. It is manipulative and sick.

No one that believes in sin can fully love anyone, because to find fault in someone for being what they are (or doing what they do, which grows out of what they are) is a hatred, and to condescend to one by “loving them anyway” is a hatred. And even if you regard one as clean and faultless, in that they could fault and become tarnished in your eyes means that your love is really conditional. You don't really love them for what they are to the bottom of their being—you love those aspects of them that are useful to you. Anyone that asks you to apologize for your actions themselves, as opposed to, for example, some harm that came about as a result of them, does not appreciate you. You did what you thought was best. To apologize for that is to apologize for being. If I am sorry for doing something, it is because I regret some result that occurred because of it. But how can I ever truly be sorry for being what I am and doing what it occurs to me to do? And how could I ask someone else to be? If I don't like something, I will act in such a way as to protect my will, but I don't want to fault others for their being and add insult to injury.

1 This is not to say that masochistic tendencies, like all tendencies, cannot be used artistically—that is to say, selectively and for a creative purpose. Through selective self-destruction I can become a stronger and more powerful being, but this goal is precisely the opposite of the one I am here chastising.

2 People say we should be in the moment—as if it were even possible to be anything else! If you are thinking about the future or the past, you are just as much in the moment as if you are starring at a wall. Why should your sensory experiences be considered more the object of now than your internal cognition? Your immediate sensory experience by itself is fundamental but not significant.

3 Circuitry in the actual brain would seem to confirm this conceptual description of meaning. Kelly G. Lambert (neuroscientist, psychologist, and chair of psychology at Randolph-Macon College) has identified what she refers to as an “effort-driven-rewards circuit” (Lambert 35) consisting of the nucleus accumbens (the reward center of the brain—problems here can lead to loss of pleasure or addiction), the striatum (the motor system—problems here can lead to “sluggishness and slow motor responses” (Lambert 35)), the limbic system (“involved in emotion and learning” (Lambert 35)—problems here can lead to negative feelings), and the prefrontal cortex (“which controls our thought processes, including problem solving, planning, and decision making” (Lambert 35)—problems here can lead to poor concentration). The more this circuit is fully activated the greater the sense of meaning and psychological well-being the individual experiences. “It is this accumbens-striatal-cortical network—the crucial system that connects movement, emotion and thinking—that I call the effort-driven-rewards circuit” (Lambert 35). Mental health and resilience result from the individual 1) understanding the significant structure of its external environment, 2) accessing the deepest parts of its emotionality in response to that structure, 3) determining a way to alter that structure in the service of the deepest levels of its emotionality, and 4) engaging its physical body (especially its hands, to which most of the motor cortex is devoted) in the production of tangible external results in line with the service of that emotionality. But, one must note, the process of performing such an activity actually activates this system more than any particular result that one achieves through performing the task in question. In other words, we experience the process of working towards something as more meaningful than actually achieving it.

Lambert, Kelly. "Depressingly Easy." Scientific American Mind August 2008: 30-37.

4 This process by no means is exclusive to human beings. You can come to appreciate nonhuman animals, plants, inanimate objects, abstract ideas, geographical locations, or anything else as an end in itself. It is all power and will to power—it all counts as things that can become objects of your will and regarded as ends in themselves. To the question of whether animals have rights, a Utilitarian would reply “of course” and a Kantian would reply “no way.” A Kantian would say that it is a category error to regard animals as having rights. But in reality it is a category error to regard anything as having rights in any sort of objective sense. Rights are a psychosocial construction. You are the one that makes the rules. You are the one that determines the criteria for what you choose to regard or disregard. You are the one that says “this quality is important” and “this quality is not.” You can include anything you want in or exclude anything you want from your “kingdom of ends”—be it an insect or another human being. And you can do this on a case by case basis, for any reason, or for no reason that you can articulate at all. You can include things just because you like them or exclude things just because you do not like them. Of course, I think the more aware and sensitive you were to the energy patterns of others, the broader you would probably draw your lines and the more wills you would probably try to integrate with your own, but it is not as if it has to be any particular way. You decide how you want to interact with things. When you first hear that rights are a psychosocial construction it may sound bad, but in reality it is awesome. No one can tell you that you or others don’t have the right to something, because they have no more right to tell you that you can’t than you do to assert that you can. The ideal world is exactly what you want it to be, but you yourself are responsible for bringing it about. On the other side, if someone wants something to be the case that you are opposed to, you don’t need any carefully worded formula to deny them this. That it is contrary to your will is all that you need to assert (unless, of course, you are trying to persuade others). This is a factual description of the reality of the situation—it’s what you are doing anyway, although some of you are better at rationalizing your behavior than others. And what will prevent this situation from collapsing into brute conflict? Knowledge. Ideally you will look out for your own interests as much as possible (autonomy) and look out for the interests of all others as much as possible (homonomy).

5 “Observing compassion and forgiveness can spur those virtues, too. But in theses cases, whether you are likely to be forgiving or vengeful, compassionate or cold, may depend less on having a role model and more on emotion. A specific cluster of emotional traits seem to go along with compassion. People who are emotionally secure, who view life's problems as manageable and who feel safe and protected tend to show the greatest empathy for strangers and to act altruistically and compassionately. In contrast, people who are anxious about their own worth and competence, who avoid close relationships or are clingy in those they have tend to be less altruistic and less generous, psychologists Philip Shaver of the University of California, Davis, and Mario Mikulincer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel have found in a series of experiments. Such people are less likely to care for the elderly, for instance, or to donate blood.”

Begley, Sharon (2009, May 4). Adventures in Good and Evil. Newsweek, CLIII (18), 46-48.

6 I saw a video in psychology class in which Laing was relating this story to someone. I'm paraphrasing from memory, and I don't remember what the video was called. If anyone can help me out, I would appreciate it.

7 If you’re not aware of this, you really owe it to yourself to observe it up close. Go to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, watch fundamentalist programs on TV or listen to them on the radio, or read Christian tracts like those by Jack Chick. These are the places where this tendency is most potent and obvious. Afterwards it’s easier to notice it in more liberal presentations where it’s more watered-down and concealed.

If you identify with the message of this article, please email it to people, tell your friends, even print out copies to pass around. Together we can raise awareness. Thank you.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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