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Mar/April 2003
Volume 11 Issue 2
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Our Ultimate Choice: To Create or Destroy


by Dr. Renee Fuller


Bobbie, aged seven, watched with fascination as their new dog, Dober, ripped up the couch pillow in an attack of fury. The boy's mother, coming on the scene minutes later was appalled. "Why didn't you try to stop Dober?" It had been one of her favorite pillows.

"It's just... I wanted to see what Dober would do." This was said in a halting, stumbling manner.

"Oh come. He was ripping the pillow apart. What the..." At that point Mrs. Boyle stopped. As she told me later, Bobbie looked not just confused but as though he was watching something more than just the dog ripping apart a pillow. Was he trying to understand something - something which he thought was of consequence? On a hunch she said, "What made it so important to watch Dober ripping up that pillow? Do you know what it was?"
Bobbie nodded, said "Uh huh." But that was it. His mother could see he was having trouble putting into words what had made the scene important to watch and not to interfere. Gradually, with continued encouragement from his mother, the youngster stumbled out an explanation. It was that he frequently felt like Dober, wanting something exciting to happen and somehow that made him get angry and start punching or smashing.

His puzzled mother, trying hard not to show her distaste, gently probed to find out more. What was it that Bobbie felt could be learned from watching Dober rip apart the pillow? Later on the phone with me she summarized what Bobbie had told her: "He described that Dober had been bored; nothing interesting was going on; no one was playing with him. And that when you're bored, then punching and smashing, in other words destroying, puts an end to the boredom. So I asked him 'why not do something constructive instead?

That should be even more exciting. Besides, you're not Dober'."

As the conversation between mother and son continued it became evident that Bobbie, like Dober, had found that smashing and ripping was the easy way.

You didn't have to think about how to create excitement. There was no waiting involved. The immediate gratification made it extra satisfying. And by getting angry you justified the punching, the ripping, the smashing.
Later, when we got together, Mrs. Boyle expressed her concern. "I was really upset. I tried not to show it. But you know Bobbie was telling me that being destructive just comes naturally. You don't have to be taught how to smash things. You don't have to think. And then what really got to me; Bobbie seemed to imply that like Dober he gets a kick out of ripping and smashing things. That it's fun to destroy. And that by getting angry you justify the fun. That strikes me as really serious. What do you think?"

Of course it's serious. But not in the sense that there was anything wrong with Bobbie. To the contrary. That the seven-year-old had realized the similarity with his dog, and that he was trying to figure out what it was that made both of them act destructively demonstrated a perceptive awareness. It showed that Bobbie was trying to understand himself.
He was also fortunate in having a mother sensitive to his thoughts and feelings. It allowed the two of them to share an understanding of the mysteriousness and the implications of our ugly emotions and actions. And it has put Bobbie on the road to being in charge of his own destructive urges – urges that we all have.

Bobbie was becoming aware of something many adults are unwilling to face: It's much easier to destroy than to build. Destroying something requires much less effort than does creating that same something. And destruction is a fast way to alleviate boredom, to create excitement, to deal with anger, even to demolish institutions.

Bobbie was also being helped to understand a surprisingly advanced realization for a seven-year-old. As Mrs. Boyle told me later they discussed, "What are the consequences when you go and smash something? What are you achieving?" Then she nudged him to a concept that had come to mean a great deal to her. "You know Bobbie, being destructive is a sign of failure. It means you either failed in figuring out how to be constructive or that there's something rotten inside you that won't allow you to create, to build something worthwhile. Either way you're a failure as a human being."

The thoughtful conversations between Mrs. Boyle and her son, which continued long after we talked, reminded me of my college days. Often in the common room it was not unusual to hear, "The only way we can deal with our corrupt society is to destroy it and start all over." This was usually said with satisfaction. As though the speaker was looking forward to a wonderful smashing episode, a real destructive binge. At the time I thought that my classmates didn't really mean what they said. That it was just a way of talking. But alas, such wasn't always the case. Some of the privileged youngsters actually became bomb makers. They didn't have Mrs. Boyle's insight.

Several weeks after our get together Mrs. Boyle called again. "Bobbie, and for that matter I, have been trying to figure out how we can teach Dober not to be so destructive. We tried punishment. Our vet told us that in order for the punishment to be effective we would have to be consistent. We were consistent, but it still didn't work. We didn't hit Dober. I didn't want Bobbie to get the idea that hitting was the way. Instead we locked the dog up in a large closet for a time out. But that only got him madder. If anything he became more destructive and he seemed to get a real kick out of it. Have you found something that works with your dogs, or for that matter with destructive kids?"

I had to laugh. "It took me years of trial and error with my rescue dogs trying various punishments none of which worked. They merely produced resentment and frequently a repetition of the behavior that needed changing. However, when I put on a big show of disappointment with my beloved doggie, that really reached. You could see the body sag and the eyes become concerned and mournful. After a while I would give the doggie a consoling hug. Some of our reinforcement theorists would say I was rewarding bad behavior with the hug. But in effect the reward was for feeling bad about bad behavior. And that really worked for my rescue dogs who had had a history of destructive behavior before they had ended up in the pound. I've also seen it work with problem children. I guess that's because we humans, like our dogs, are social creatures - so the opinion of others is important to us. It carries a great deal of weight and seems essential in developing a conscience, a super ego according to some of our clinicians. Effective as I have found this approach for dogs and children, it hasn't always worked as well with adult humans."

Some weeks later Mrs. Boyle called back. "You know what? It worked! We put on a big show of disappointment with Dober for one of his misdeeds and waited until he looked unhappy and his body slumped, then we'd give him a big hug. It was amazingly effective. Bobbie called it 'powerful medicine'. He shared this new-found knowledge with all his friends. But then one of his friends, Alex told him that it didn't work on their dog, Tupper. No one likes Tupper; more accurately everyone hates the dog, including Alex. Bobbie wants me to ask you 'what went wrong? Why didn't the 'powerful medicine' work on Tupper?'"

My answer was the obvious "You and I know why the powerful medicine couldn't work on Tupper. Unless a dog or a child is cherished or respected, a show of disappointment is meaningless. Only when you care about the opinion of the other, because you want them to love you and/or respect you, will their opinion of you matter. In a way it's another example of the importance, the power of love."

Unfortunately the suggestion came too late. But then it might not have been taken. As it was, Alex's parents had had it with Tupper whom they called a mean dog. They took him to the local pound with the full expectation that he would be euthanized. Mrs. Boyle said sadly, "Alas, the story of Tupper came to an unhappy end." She didn't mention to Bobbie the implications of a mean dog being taken to the pound - that Tupper was going to be "put to sleep."

Several years passed. Mrs. Boyle would periodically bring me up to date about Bobbie's philosophical development. The most recent was his concern about how to convert terrorists into builders instead of destroyers. "He wanted to know if the technique that had worked so well with Dober would also work with the terrorists. I was surprised that he remembered how our sweet Dober had once been a difficult, destructive dog. But there it was. What do you think? At the time you said you hadn't found the disappointment approach all that effective with adults."

Curiously, the now 12-year-old Bobbie and I had been wondering the same thing; although I had my doubts whether expressions of disappointment would be effective with the unlovable terrorists. But I had thought that perhaps the old Samoan technique of "kapu" or taboo might work. Someone who had transgressed a "kapu" was shunned. They were considered too disgusting for further human contact. Rather than expressing some kind of understanding or an explanation for the why of the breaking of the taboo, the taboo breaker was met with revulsion; a revulsion so great that no one would have any further contact with the pariah. Even the perpetrator's name was shunned. He/she had ceased to exist for his community, for his world.

In my fairy tale, THE PURPLE WITCH of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading series, the witch is punished for her pleasure in destruction not by imprisonment or execution. Instead her punishment is revulsion so great that every mirror which sees her shatters in dismay. And every mirror shard screams out in horror. The effect overwhelms the Purple Witch, forcing her to flee deep into the forest so she won't have to face the ugliness of her own face, the ugliness of the pleasure she gained by creating unhappiness. The implied hope is that eventually this curious punishment will open her up to the possibility of redemption, a release from her destructive addiction.

However: In our modern world the Littleton, Colorado boys, the trade tower bombers, and the various suicide "martyrs" instead of having even their names shunned became media celebrities. For many of us theirs is negative celebrity status – but it is celebrity status nonetheless.

It was no accident that the Littleton boys left videotapes in which they described what a movie about them should be like. Post mortem celebrity was an important component that added to the thrill of the bombings and murders that included their own deaths.

If their pleasure in hurting others had resulted in revulsion so great that it included an ostracizing of even the memory of their identity, might that have functioned as an effective deterrent? If the suicide bombers in Ireland, Spain, Israel, or the trade towers, had been met with silent revulsion and instead their victims' identity and stories had been given extensive TV and radio coverage, would these terrorists still have indulged their destructive cravings? Inadvertently our media, by giving extensive coverage to horrendous crimes can function as unintentional accessories.

If the response to terrorists by their compatriots and their families were revulsion while commiseration extended to victim families, would terrorism still seem so rewarding? Could silent disgust by the media, instead of discussions as to the reasons for the terrorism with its implied justifications, function as "powerful medicine." Might that lead to the possibilities of redemption by reducing addictive pleasure gained through destruction? We have seen that this addiction has even used religion as the cover story to justify and proselytize for Armageddon cults that gain their gratification by destroying.

That we humans can enjoy destructiveness, that we can get a thrill out of killing or maiming our fellows is something many of us vehemently try to deny – or ignore. Freud did so for much of his life, maintaining that Eros, the force of life, love and lust is our prime mover. But then reality caught up with him late in life. And so in his old age Freud was haunted by the realization that destructiveness can be pleasurable, that it is a powerful emotional and motivational force. He gave the name of Thanatos, the old Greek god of death and destruction to this force. It was his way of saying that our ultimate choice in life is whether to create or to destroy.

Much of psychology has shied away from such a bleak picture of our emotional life. Freud's later Eros versus Thanatos theory is usually ignored. Nevertheless the neurophysiological data indicate that both the thrill of building and of destroying are linked into the pleasure centers of the brain. Hence their potential for addiction. In his recent book, WAR IS THE FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING, The New York Times reporter Chris Hedges describes his own addiction to the thrill of war. Like Dober, destruction (even just seeing it) counteracted the boredom of everyday life for him. It created excitement. After more than a decade of following wars from Latin America to Africa to Eastern Europe, Chris Hedges finally concluded that love, Eros, was the antidote for his addiction. But I personally have come to agree with Mrs. Boyle's counsel that building is the enduring antidote. Its exhilaration and joy lasts long term and therefore is the truly powerful countermeasure &–; even if building does require so much more work than destroying. Besides, by building we can create an eventual happy ending.

But in our real world we haven't seen many happy endings for those who gain their pleasure through destruction. However, contrary to expectations, the real-life story of Tupper did have a happy ending. Mrs. Boyle called again a few weeks ago her joyful voice expressing excitement. "I've got great news! Bobbie and I were packing up our groceries in the supermarket parking lot when he spotted a dog a few cars down. 'It's Tupper!' he shouted again and again. I told him it couldn't be because . . 'Yeah, I know they took him to the pound to be executed.' So Bobbie had known.

"'But I know it's Tupper.' At that point the owner came out with her groceries and started unloading them. Bobbie raced up to her certain that the dog was Tupper. I tried to explain to the woman what this was about. But Bobbie interrupted. 'You got the dog from the pound. Didn't you?'

'Yes,' she said. 'They were going to put him to sleep. He looked so frightened, like he knew what was going to happen. I couldn't stand it, so I talked to him and he didn't seem like the mean dog they said he was. They let me take him home on a trial basis. Prince turned out to be a wonderful dog. We love him dearly.' Bobbie considered that proof that the dog was Tupper. And it turned out he was right. For after a while the woman said, 'You know; now I remember. The sign on the cage did give his name as Tupper. It's been so many years - I'd forgotten. Of course we renamed him. He's our Prince.'

"As they drove off we could see Prince snuggling up against his rescuer. Her arm came around him for just a moment as she drove off. Bobbie said happily, 'I bet she used the powerful medicine.' I was surprised that he remembered. He hadn't used the expression in years."

About the author: Dr. Fuller is a developmental psychologist and author of the Ball-Stick-Bird reading series. Visit her web site: http://www.ballstickbird.com

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