Why Are We So Bent On Harming Ourselves?

I knew someone who used to say that ‘everything that is good in life is either illegal, immoral or fattening.’ He himself was fat, and an alcoholic and heavy smoker, and had a sedentary occupation and lifestyle.

He always travelled with his favourite brand of cigarettes, and wherever he went a priority was to look for where he could obtain his liquor – the higher end brands. Eventually, in the midst of a brilliant career and making loads of money, he succumbed to his vices of sedentariness, tobacco and alcoholism.

Man’s inclination to self-harm and harm others is one of the age-old conundrums of humanity. No amount or variety of theorizing by any number of thinkers, philosophers, psychologists and scientists on the matter has been able to come up with a complete or final explanation of why this is so. As is the case with every phenomenon, especially the aberrations, that concern human life, we put things down to nature and nurture, or what we refer to more commonly nowadays as heredity and the environment. Estimates are that their contributions to the way we behave or what happens to us are about 30 and 70 per cent respectively. Increasingly, there is a tendency to look for one or more genes that is responsible for some behavioural trait — for example, a gene for homosexuality. Or genes for happiness. Or for criminal mindset, such as being a psychopath. This is called ‘genetic determinism’ – that genes determine what we become, including how we behave.

Experience, though, would tell us that this is not necessarily the whole story. Ideology – religious, political for example – can drive us to actions which are utterly irrational and unreasonable, and yet we can be so blinded that our mental faculty shuts down and we become blind followers. Is this also a genetic determinism? That we are genetically prone to be indoctrinated? For all we know, apologists for such perversions may well come up some day with such a hypothesis, that we are helpless to act abnormally and cause harm because our nature is such!

Be that as it may, what we see on the ground is a raw truth that doesn’t seem to frighten away people, who continue to indulge despite so much of information that is made available to them about what is good and what is bad. As a medical doctor, this is the facet that I have seen most throughout my career. Formerly, it was during and following the festive seasons – especially the end of the year – that we used to have to deal with the victims of their ‘own goals’ if I may use this term to indicate such self-inflicted harm. Over the years, though, the consumption society has taken over our lives, and as I have heard many say – astère tous les jours banané! So people do not have to wait for the traditional festive seasons to ‘enjoy’ – any occasion is a good enough pretext!

A pretext to ‘eat, drink and be merry’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, merry means full of fun and gaiety, but colloquially it has a connotation of ‘slightly drunk’. However, on such occasions it would be outlandish to expect that prospective merry-makers would take the trouble of looking up their dictionary. Even if they did, though, and checked up on ‘merry’, they would probably dismiss the ‘slightly drunk’ with a shrug and a merrier laugh as they visualize themselves succumbing to their host’s solicitation, ‘come on man, just one for the road!’ And then one becomes two, and two becomes three, and…

 

Whether on TV or in the papers, it is now a regular round-the-year feature for the media to overflow with colourful and tentalising advertisements that vaunt the apparently reduced prices of a variety of goods, especially those that are prized for consumption for the invented occasion, with an emphasis on alcoholic drinks. And people feel that they are justified in giving in to such temptations because, after all, haven’t they worked so hard and deserve the splash?

No wonder, therefore, that this justification is transposed to the means that are made temptingly available for such enjoyment, beginning with gratification of the taste buds. After all, the very first two words of the saying ‘eat, drink and be merry’ are almost an order to stuff the digestive system with goodies.

While swooning lovers may subscribe to the adage ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’, businesses have innovated, as is their wont, by making it read as ‘the way to a man’s pocket is through his stomach’. And believe you me, ils ne lésinent pas sur les moyens to turn this into a hyper-profitable reality. And believe you me again, there is no dearth of clients who will fall for the dazzle. If P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves were around today, he would no doubt give top marks to businesses for not only knowing but exploiting to the full the ‘psychology of the individual’.

The pity is that most individuals don’t realise how vulnerable their psychology is at such times, leading them to indulge in excesses in a bid to outdo their peers or to impress upon their fellows that they can cross normal limits. This is particularly true when it comes to drinking, and doctors are familiar with the Monday morning syndromes that bring people to their consultations with la langue lapatte lapatte and their tummies feeling like bursting, and so too their heads. And more often than not these days, what with emancipation and the spread of information, sometimes the patients themselves volunteer a diagnosis, mo croire mone gagne ene gastrique docteur.

And invariably, along with drinking there is smoking, all in excess. The emergency services of hospitals are always overburdened and doctors take it in their stride to cope, but this is one time that they really dread – more for the sake of the drunkards than for themselves. The inveterate drinkers present, additionally, with generalized tremors or deleriome as we know it in local parlance. In fact, alcoholism is an even bigger problem than drugs in Mauritius because of the sheer numbers of people that are affected, dragging down with them their families, no doubt because of the easier availability of alcoholic drinks and the fact that being able to afford the so-called better – and therefore more expensive – quality of alcoholic beverage goes along with so-called higher social status.

In fact alcoholism has assumed the proportions of an epidemic. Most of us must have heard about the phenomenon of ‘binge drinking’ which, a term first used in the UK where it affects an increasing proportion of the younger age-groups in the population. Here we do not even have to evoke medical conditions, because it is common knowledge that alcoholic excess can lead people to behave, as the saying goes, like animals – although, personally, I think this is an insult to animals!

Drunken brawls amongst family members and friends, sexual violence, road violence and accidents, domestic aggression – the list is long of dastardly acts that are committed under the influence of alcohol. As we say in medicine, alcohol excites the instincts and removes the inhibitions. This is what leads people to behave purely biologically, in this respect like animals, who are solely under the control of their instincts to ensure their survival – but here the analogy must end. Because animals, once their biological needs are met, put a stop until the need arises again: thus, a lion will kill a prey and eat – and then rest for a few days until hunger gnaws afresh.

Humans, in fact, behave worse than animals: they do not stop at their limits, in other words they are greedy. They eat and drink more than they need, and it is superfluous to point out that festive periods offer them a neat excuse to hog away. Their inhibitions removed, they try to go beyond instead of transcending their limits, and there again they exhibit some of the features which come naturally to animals such as urinating, defecating, copulating, etc., ‘in full view’ as it were. One cannot fault animals for performing these natural functions irrespective of location or time. When it comes to human beings, however, we clearly have to draw a line.

And that is where culture comes in: whereas the pursuit of security and pleasure is common to animals and human beings, the one thing that differentiates the two is that humans have the possibility of making rational choices. We can choose what we want to do (our ends) and how we want to do them (our means) through specific actions. We therefore have a choice of actions, means and ends; ethically, the end should not justify the means. This precept is not followed when it comes to, amongst others, l’amusement with the consequences that we know.

On the other hand, one must not also be hypocritical. To start with, medically speaking there is sufficient evidence that has accumulated to show that alcohol in small amounts can have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system, and wine is credited with having superior properties in this respect – but we will not go into this further at this stage.

It is a moot point whether alcohol adds to the conviviality in a social gathering, I would think it probably does, but not only has alcohol been consumed from the beginning of times, it is also a fact that alcohol is an item of consumption in all societies and civilizations, in some more openly than in others – but in the latter the rulers usually indulge within their closed enclaves while banning the common man from partaking of the stuff. There are people who make a puritan show of not drinking by pouring cola into their drink – in other words, there are various wiles resorted to camouflage one’s drink(ing).

That is why we must not be hypocritical. No object or thing in itself is harmful: it all depends on how we use it, like a knife that can be used in the kitchen or as a murder weapon. When it comes to alcohol, the damage caused to the body and the effect on behaviour is related to the dose, that is to the amount that is consumed. The problem is that it, too, is an addictive chemical, but before this stage is reached most people can still control their amounts by an effort of the will – which lacks. That is the source of the problem, the lack of will to which are then added other pretexts, such as tiredness or the need to forget worries, for which the more realistic and somewhat more difficult solutions are avoided.

A similar reasoning applies to all items of material consumption. Unless we are prepared to look for avenues of fulfilment that are more intellectual or aesthetic (at personal level), or altruistic: that allow us to reach out for the good of others, the risk to ourselves and to others as well will ever be present. It is only by pursuing such higher goals and aspirations that we can avoid getting into that down-going spiral…

 

  • Published in print edition on 7 August 2015

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