Why Is It So Hard To Control Our Appetites? A Doctor’s Struggles With Giving Up Sugar

We’ve become convinced that if we can eat more healthily, we will be morally better people. But where does this idea come from? Near the end of the hellish first year of the coronavirus pandemic, I was possessed by the desire to eliminate sugar – all refined sugar – from my diet. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best time to add a new challenge to my life. My wife and I had been struggling to remote-school three young kids with no childcare. My elderly parents lived out of state and seemed to need a surprising number of reminders that pandemic restrictions were not lifted for Diwali parties or new Bollywood movie releases.

Like many people in those early days, we were looking around for masks and trying to make sense of shifting government guidelines about when to wear them. In addition, as a doctor, I was seeing patients in clinic at a time dominated by medical uncertainty, when personal protective equipment was scarce, and my hospital, facing staff shortages, was providing training videos and “how-to” tip sheets to specialists like me who hadn’t practised in an emergency room for years, in case we were needed as backup.

It would have been enough to focus on avoiding the virus and managing all this without putting more on my plate. But cutting processed sugar seemed like an opportunity to reassert some measure of order to the daily scrum, or at least to the body that entered the fray each day.

My former physique was behind me and the stress of clinical practice during the pandemic was taking its toll. Maybe it was all the pandemic death in the air, but I started feeling like I was what the narrator in Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things calls “Not old. Not young. But a viable die-able age.” Maybe doing away with sugar could slow things down? More tantalisingly, maybe it could even take me back to a fresher time, the days in college when I had actually gone sugar-free for a while.

My friends offered condolences on what they called my soon-to-be joyless lifestyle. But I was set, compelled by literature about the deleterious, even toxin-like effects of added sugar. I had my doubts about being able to pull something like this off again, though, so I decided – as doctors often do – to tackle the problem by studying it.

That year, in what was arguably an act of masochism, I began the coursework required to sit for a medical-board exam on dietetics, metabolism and appetite. By earning another qualification, I thought, I would credential my way to realising my goal. After shifts at work, during breaks or once the kids were asleep, I would attend virtual lectures and pore over board-review books in a quest to understand the body’s metabolism.

I immersed myself in the physiology of exercise, the thermodynamics of nutrition, and the neuroendocrine regulation of appetite. But this knowledge didn’t break my pandemic eating habits. Cupcakes and ice cream and cookies didn’t call to me any less. And big food corporations were winning the bet that Lay’s potato chips first made back in the 1960s with its “Betcha can’t just eat one” ad campaign. So, I found myself reaching for Double Stuf Oreos while flipping through my medical textbooks and scarfing chocolate bars even as I correctly answered my practice-exam questions.

My body refused to be disciplined by my intellectual mastery of its operations. I passed the board examination, but my appetite for sugar didn’t change. I was left with more questions than I had when I started. Was sugar really a problem? Or had I internalised hangups about desire from the culture at large? Why did my soul feel so inexplicably sick – so unsatisfied – with the outcome of my first effort to quit that I tried it all again? And what does my “success” – I’ve been sugar-free for a year now – even mean?

I turned to Plato – a man occupied by appetite – for some answers. In his body map of the soul, the stomach was the dwelling place of desire. Reason, of course, resided in the head, while courage rested in the chest. In this tripartite architecture, it was up to reason – with the help of courage – to subjugate appetite and elevate the individual. The thinking went that if we could just rule our stomachs, we might be able to hold our heads up high and our chests out wide. For the Greeks, the right moral posture was key to the good life, or eudaimonia.

Early medical science in the west borrowed heavily from Plato, beginning with Aristotle, who practiced and taught medicine throughout his life. Aristotle agreed that eudaimonia could be realized by moderating the visceral and sensual appetites. He saw the heart as the vessel of intelligence, and arguably the most virtuous of organs. In his hypothesis, the heart occupied – physically and figuratively – a central place in the body, controlling other organs. The brain and lungs played supporting roles, merely cooling and cushioning the heart. The heart was, for Aristotle, where reason flowed.

Five hundred years later, the Greek anatomist and surgeon Galen challenged the centrality of the heart but still adhered closely to Plato’s triadic notion of the soul. Galen’s treatises, foundational to the development of modern medicine, are suffused with Platonic assumptions, and he painstakingly tried to stitch the divided parts of the soul – the rational, the spirited and the appetitive – on to specific organs in the human body.

In a striking display of topographical certitude, Galen writes in On the Doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato: “I do claim to have proofs that the forms of the soul are more than one, that they are located in three different places … and further, that one of these parts [rational] is situated in the brain, one [spirited] in the heart, and one [appetitive] in the liver. These facts can be demonstrated scientifically.”

The Harvard classicist Mark Schiefsky writes that, in Galenic physiology, equilibrium is understood “as a balance of strength between the three parts; the best state is when reason is in charge, the spirited part is strong and obedient, and the appetitive part is weak”.

Should we be sceptical of this aspiration to tame appetite? Sigmund Freud doubted whether desire could ever be so readily controlled. In tossing Plato’s map aside, Freud erased the “soul” and instead sketched a three-part atlas of the “self” and its ratio of desires and repressions – endlessly fractured, negotiating between order (superego), consciousness (ego) and appetite (id). For Freud, appetites could not be overcome but only better managed. Perfect harmony and permanent equilibrium were nowhere in sight. Rather, in Freud’s idea of the self, anxiety for order loomed above the ego, with desire buried beneath it. Appetite was the subterranean tether that consciousness could never escape, but only sublimate.

There was something talismanic about my focus on sugar. So often, liberty is conceived of as the ability to say yes to things. To make affirmative choices: to open this door or that window. But there is also a flipside to that freedom: the power to say no. To refuse. Increasingly during the pandemic, I felt like I was powerless in the face of my cravings. If there was a knock at the door of appetite, a tap on the window of impulse, I had to answer it. And this felt shameful. Why couldn’t I say no? And why was realizing this so painful?

I don’t pretend to anything approaching total understanding of my motivations. But there were a few loosely detected currents worth illuminating here. For one thing, not being able to say no to sugar sometimes felt like a form of bondage to the demands of the body, the very body that I was eager to assert power over, particularly during a global health crisis that was damaging bodies everywhere.

If I couldn’t control this plague, could I not at the very least control myself? I wonder now if this insistence on regulating appetite was my sublimated response to the coronavirus’s immense death toll – a way of denying mortality in the midst of its excess. In this respect, perhaps there was not as much separating me from other kinds of pandemic deniers as I would like to believe. Were we all just coping with the inexorability of our decay – laid painfully bare by Covid-19 – in different ways?

Maybe. But there was something beyond the exigencies of the pandemic on my mind as well. The inability to resist sugar cravings – to break the habit – seemed like a victory of the past over the present. It felt like the triumph of the mere memory of pleasure over real satisfaction in the moment. Saying no to that memory – the neurological underpinning of craving – became important, because it felt like the only way to say yes to imagination. “I am free only to the extent that I can disengage myself,” the philosopher Simone Weil wrote.

Detachment from an indulgence, however small, felt like a way to stop being beholden to an old storehouse of desires (and aversions and beliefs). Developing the ability to refuse to reach for the cookie was also a way to break free from the impulse to reach for patterns of the past, from the compulsion of replicating yesterday at the expense of tomorrow. It’s the trick of habit to convince us that we are reaching forward, even as we are stepping back. Or, as the British scholar of asceticism Gavin Flood elegantly summarizes: “The less we are able to refuse, the more automated we become.”

If Freud dismantled the soul, modern medicine mechanized what he left of the self. But where Freud’s psychoanalytic theory allowed for a pinch of poetry, materialist models hold comparatively dry sway today. A look at the biomedical literature on appetite reveals a tortuous mix of neural circuits and endocrine pathways. What’s clear is that if there was a moral aspect of appetite for ancient philosophers and physicians, it’s not readily discernible in the language of contemporary scientific literature.

There are upsides to this development. In the modern era, medicine’s tradition-bound framing of appetite as a moral problem has been demoralizing for patients, who often felt – and still feel – objectified, policed and discriminated against by institutions that sermonize about it. The stigmatisation of appetite remains pervasive in the culture, in and out of medicine. The loss of at least an explicit moral charge in the scientific literature is a welcome shift.

In the century or so since Freud’s conjectures, appetite has been atomised by medicine into a problem of eating, or more specifically, of fighting the body’s tendency toward “disordered” eating. In the pursuit of better and longer lives, maladies of appetite – of eating too much, too little, or not the right kinds of food – have been studied and treated with varying degrees of success. The empirical study of digestion and appetite in the laboratory moved hunger from the moral arena into a biochemical one. Still, in both experimental physiology and clinical medicine, the ancient impulse to locate the appetite persisted: was it in the body or in the mind? Lines were drawn – and defended – between diseases of the stomach and diseases of the psyche.

What was at stake in the difference? Pinning down the appetite – claiming it belonged to the gut or the brain – was arguably the first in a series of steps leading to its regulation. Understood this way, medicine’s mission to uncover the mechanisms of appetite, despite the erasure of the soul from scientific databases, cannot escape Plato’s legacy. Whether we’re trying to improve or curtail appetite, we seem unable to resist the desire to control it.

It would have been different – I wouldn’t have felt the need to go all-or-nothing with sugar – if I could have simply walked away after a few bites. But increasingly during the pandemic, I wouldn’t stop even after I was full. What started off as pleasure would morph into painful excess. Sure, there’s pleasure in abundance, in overdoing a thing. But I found myself barrelling past that threshold.

While studying for the board exam in my first, failed attempt at going sugar-free, I was also using various apps and devices to keep track of my body. I had long used a smart watch to log my steps and workouts. I was also using a calorie-tracking app, studiously punching in numbers for every meal and scheming how much I could eat and still remain under the calorie limit. But all that logging and calculating felt joyless and anxiety-ridden. Sometimes, at a meal, in the middle of tallying up numbers like an accountant, I’d explain to impatient friends and family that “I’m just entering my data”. It was a lot of data.

I grew weary of all the inputting, and so I switched to an app with more of a behavioural focus. This app still had me tracking calories, but also came with recipes, a personal coach and “psychology-based” courses, as part of what the company calls your “journey”. The courses were a welcome shift from the myopic focus of calorie counting, and chatting with a coach added an opportunity to get some clarity about my goals.

The coach would share chipper motivational advice and provide tips to overcome obstacles. I diligently went through the app’s courses, answered its behavioural questions and followed its nudges. There were a few weeks where I was able to go sugar-free, but after a couple of months, the coaching advice seemed more and more generic, and the courses too simplistic when I was already spending so much time studying for my upcoming exam. I lost interest and reverted to simply recording calories.

I eventually passed that exam without much to show for it in terms of changes to my nutritional habits. I needed something different, a way to hold myself accountable and mean it. I stumbled upon another app that described itself as being “on a mission to disrupt diet culture and make our relationship with food, nutrition – and ourselves – healthier for good”. It promised live coaching calls with a certified nutritionist, shared recipes, and even offered to tailor my coaching with a vegetarian dietician. It did not ask you to track calories or enter food items from a database. All it wanted was for you to send pictures … of your food. It felt radically different than tapping numbers into a screen: someone else would see this.

The app’s slogan was “100% accountability and “0% judgment”. But, to be clear, it was the judgment that I came for. The simple fact that my nutritionist wouldn’t just know but also actually see what I was eating was the killer feature. I answered a questionnaire about my dietary habits and goals. I made it clear that I wanted to go sugar-free, and repeated as much to my nutritionist during a preliminary call.

She didn’t exactly endorse this goal, but rather acknowledged it as something that was important to me and gently marked it as a topic we would come back to, adding that she hoped I would get to the point where a more balanced approach would suffice. I told her we’d see. I made a promise to take a photo of every meal, good or bad. She kindly reminded me there are not “good” and “bad” foods, and we were on our way.

It’s been a year since I downloaded the app. Every day since then, I have taken a photo of every morsel of food I’ve eaten, whether it’s a handful of pistachios, a salad or a veggie burger. In every one of those pics, every day, I have been sugar-free. I’ve eaten more vegetables and greens and fruits than I’ve probably ever eaten in my life. My plates look balanced (I make sure of it). I take care to snap pictures that look nice for my nutritionist. Though she never judges me negatively, I look forward to the raising-hands emoji and approving words she sends if she sees a salad with asparagus and garlic balsamic drizzle and avocado up front.

Like an influencer on Instagram, I’ll take another shot if the lighting isn’t quite right, or if the framing is off. It’s been satisfying to upload a cache of sugar-free images, all beautifully arranged on the app’s user interface. Even more satisfying has been avoiding feeling like the guy who said he’d go sugar-free only to end up sending in pictures of donuts and cookies. Compared to calorie logs and food diaries, the prospect of someone else seeing photos of what I’m eating has made the potential pain of falling short feel more proximate than the pleasure of eating sweets. So I just stopped eating sugar. And it’s still working. Was this all it took?

Perhaps the persistent effort to control appetite, replicated across many cultures and times, reveals just how vigorously it resists that very control. The seemingly endless proliferation of constraints on appetite – from the disciplinary to the pharmacological – underscores its untamable quality. And yet the training of appetite – both as physiological fact and, more abstractly, as desire – can function as an ascetic practice. In this paradigm, as religion scholars such as Flood argue, the negation of desire amplifies the subjectivity of the individual.

Depriving the body paradoxically accentuates the conscious subject, because hunger unsatiated allows the pangs of the self to be felt more acutely, and renders being more vivid. In other words, appetite unfulfilled creates the conditions for expanding self-awareness. This is seen in the Bhagavad Gita in the figure of the ascetic, one who has renounced the pull of appetite and “attains extinction in the absolute” – in seeming contradiction, gaining infinity through loss.

If philosophy is after theoretical victories, science aims more concretely to hack, or at least short-circuit, a physiological truth. Take, for example, gastric bypass surgery, an operation that cuts the stomach into two parts (leaving one functional thumb-size pouch alongside a larger remnant) and radically reconstructs separate intestinal systems for each segment to restrict the amount of food that can be eaten. By shrinking the stomach to fool the mind into feeling satisfied with less, this surgery builds on growing recognition that the long-embraced brain-gut divide is far more porous than previously thought.

Recipients of the surgery generally do well in the short term, with reduced appetite, marked weight loss, better control of diabetes and improved health markers. But the percentage of patients who “fail” in the long-term after bariatric surgery (ie achieve less than half of excess weight loss) is reportedly as high as 35%. During that first post-op year, studies suggest, an influx of appetite-reducing intestinal hormones decreases patients’ urge to eat. Crucially, however, there are questions about the duration of those salutary hormonal changes and their effectiveness in controlling appetite as post-surgical days add up.

For a significant proportion of patients, even surgically shrinking the stomach – the historical seat of hunger – doesn’t offer complete freedom from unchecked appetite. This fact is not entirely surprising, given what is now known about the multiple neuroendocrine nodes that govern appetite, but it poses a conundrum for medical science: can appetite, as Freud asked in his own way, ever be fully controlled? And if not, is it a wonder that patients turn back to more personal strategies to pursue the work that prescriptions and sutures leave undone?

I can’t say I fully understand why teaming up with a nutritionist on an app worked so well, so fast. Would sharing pics of my food with friends and family in a group chat or a Facebook page have been as effective? Probably not. The issue seemed to be one of epistemology. My friends and family wouldn’t have been as suitable an audience, since they don’t just know me as I am, but also as I was. That knowledge of what’s bygone necessarily shapes the stories we can tell and believe about one another.

But with my nutritionist reviewing pictures of my meals from god knows what timezone, the app created an epistemological gap into which both of us could step. It was within this gap that my future self – the self I aspired to be, still unrealised and therefore unknown – could intercede in the present with slightly less inertia from the past. The app provided an illusion that daily life could not, offering a space for the dormant commitments of the future to come to fruition in the present. A space for imagination to overcome memory.

As my sugar-free streak extended, I began to wonder about the future of this illusion. Was it a rare example of tech living up to its glitteringly naive promise of liberation? Or was this an instance of the digital panopticon yet again determining our ability to imagine ourselves, revealing just how far-reaching its gaze is? And, more practically, I began thinking about how long I needed to keep eating this way. The cravings that had knocked so loudly at my door at the start of the pandemic now softly shuffled from leg to leg right outside it. I could still hear their shoes creaking at the threshold, but they couldn’t force their way in anymore. Things seemed quiet, maybe a little too quiet.

Whereas the Greeks soughtto regulate appetite in pursuit of the good life, perhaps what is sought after today is a facsimile of it: a corporatised eudaimonia-lite, where the goal isn’t virtue but efficiency; not equanimity, but productivity. In this view, it’s not a better way to live we’re seeking, just a less painful way to work and die – all while “looking good”. A more charitable and poetic possibility is that the constraint of appetite continues to appeal because it provides the same sense of structure to selfhood that metre does to a poem: a limit against which to construct narrative unity of the psyche.

As fascinating as it is to think about this question, even more essential ones – about the links between appetite, scarcity and loss – loom in the writings of Toni Morrison, a writer who provides a necessary counterbalance to the obsession with appetite restriction in societies glutted with luxury. In particular, I’m thinking of Beloved, which tells the story of human beings struggling for survival and wholeness in the face of slavery’s horrors. In portraying this struggle, Morrison uses the language of food and appetite to unfurl narratives saturated with the metaphysics of hunger: the difficulty of sating the self; the confusion between hunger, history and hurt.

I was struck by this unexpected resonance while rereading the book in the middle of my bid to quit sugar. Morrison’s characters think about what it would mean to satisfy what the narrator calls their “original hunger” – and whether doing so is even possible. They imagine getting to a place “beyond appetite”, but are also compelled by history to contemplate the price of doing so.

In my reading of the book, the denial of hunger risks becoming a costly exercise in self-abnegation – a severing of self from history, of self from self – whose consequences Plato doesn’t seem to fully consider, but which Morrison is deeply wary of. I think Morrison is, like Freud, skeptical of the metaphysicians who would have us render hunger subordinate. But where Freud is an anti-idealist, Morrison appears willing to reach for hunger, perilous though it may be. Straddling both the risk of self-destruction posed by contact with the original hunger, and the anguish of self-denial created by leaving it unrecognised, Morrison casts her faith in the human ability to embrace the beautiful, blood-hued predicament of incarnation.

About 10 months into my sugar-free life, a scent from the pantry hit me like it hadn’t for a while. My wife had just baked chocolate-chip cookies for our kids as a treat. By then, I was unfazed by sweets around the house. They might as well have been made of stone. But, at the end of a long day, I found myself unexpectedly at the pantry door. Minutes passed. After a while, I opened the plastic container and inhaled. My mouth began to water. I could almost taste the cookies.

I remembered the delightful way the chocolate melted at the back of the tongue. I remembered the satisfaction of soaking a warm cookie in milk. A part of my brain was humming, eager to replicate the memory of sugar, butter and dough on the cortex. Another part was already dreading the pain of not being able to stop. I picked up the cookie and, having built nearly a year’s worth of muscle memory, simultaneously opened the app on my phone. I centred the cookie in the glowing frame and was about to press send when, looking at the screen, it hit me: what would my nutritionist think?

As of this writing, my streak remains unbroken, despite a few close calls. In many ways the story seems to be going the way I intended: I am eating well balanced, sugar-free meals and haven’t counted a calorie in more than a year. The cravings that were troubling me aren’t gone, but the future version of me – the unsweetened aspirant – grows closer with each picture I snap. I feel the spiritual and physical acuity that comes with ascetic practice.

But I also feel some qualms about neglecting Morrison’s original hunger, with all its attendant risks and possibilities. I think about how I have sacrificed memory at the altar of imagination, recognising the chance that imagination ends up being overrated and memory proves to be the last storehouse of joy. But then I remind myself that visions like Morrison’s may be too large, too untimely for us to inhabit. They come from a place we haven’t arrived at. At least not yet.


Source: Why is it so hard to control our appetites? A doctor’s struggles with giving up sugar | Health & wellbeing | The Guardian

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Life After Death: How The Pandemic Has Transformed Our Psychic Landscape

Modern society has largely exiled death to the outskirts of existence, but Covid-19 has forced us all to confront it. Our relationship to the planet, each other and time itself can never be the same again

We have been asked to write about the future, the afterlife of the pandemic, but the future can never be told. This at least was the view of the economist John Maynard Keynes, who was commissioned to edit a series of essays for the Guardian in 1921, as the world was rebuilding after the first world war.

The future is “fluctuating, vague and uncertain”, he wrote later, at a time when the mass unemployment of the 1930s had upended all confidence, the first stage on a road to international disaster that could, and could not, be foreseen. “The senses in which I am using the term [uncertain],” he said, “is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest 20 years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth-owners in the social system in 1970.

About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.” This may always be the case, but the pandemic has brought this truth so brutally into our lives that it threatens to crush the best hopes of the heart, which always look beyond the present. We are being robbed of the illusion that we can predict what will happen in the space of a second, a minute, an hour or a day.

From one moment to the next, the pandemic seems to turn and point its finger at anyone, even at those who believed they were safely immune. The distribution of the virus and vaccination programme in different countries has been cruelly unequal, but as long as Covid remains a global presence, waves of increasing severity will be possible anywhere and at any moment in time.

The most deadly pandemic of the 20th century, the Spanish flu at the end of the first world war, went through wave after wave and lasted for nearly four years. Across the world, people are desperate to feel they have turned a corner, that an end is in sight, only to be faced with a future that seems to be retreating like a vanishing horizon, a shadow, a blur. Nobody knows, with any degree of confidence, what will happen next. Anyone claiming to do so is a fraud.

At such a time, only so much faith can be placed even in the governments who have shown the surest touch in dealing with the pandemic. Anyone living under regimes whose acts have felt measured and thoughtful has watched with dismay the death-dealing denials of national leaders from India to Brazil. No country is exempt, which is just one reason why the monopoly of vaccinations by the privileged countries is so manifestly self-defeating.

If the wretched of the earth are not protected, then no one is. An ethical principle – one that, in an ideal world, should always apply – is pushing to the fore, taking on an unmistakable if ghostly shape. Nobody can save themselves, certainly not for ever, at the cost of anybody else.

In the UK, we legitimately rail against an incompetent government whose repeated refusal to take measures called for by its scientific advisers has given us one of the highest Covid death tolls of the western world. It is guilty of negligence, but of also violating the unspoken contract between government and governed, by leaving the people alone with their fear. Though officially denied, the policy at the outset of the pandemic and reviewed this summer, seems to have been “herd immunity”.

If the idea has been so disturbing, it is not just because it runs the risk of a virus run rampant and mutating into vaccine-resistant variants, or because of the sinister undercover calculations of the acceptable level of the dead that it entails. Perhaps even more distressing, the avalanche of deaths that it appeared to sanction reminds us of the reality that death can happen at any time and eventually comes for us all.

“Let the bodies pile high,” words allegedly spoken (though officially denied) by Boris Johnson, have lingered in the atmosphere and leave any vestiges of safety in shreds. A stalled economy, whose serious consequences must indeed be recognised, is – or so we were officially told – more alarming than mass deaths.

Sigmund Freud once stated that no one believes in their own death. In the unconscious, there is a blank space where knowledge of this one sure thing about our futures should be. If the pandemic has changed life for ever, it might therefore be because that inability to countenance death – which may seem to be the condition of daily sanity – has been revealed for the delusion it always is.

To be human, in modern western cultures at least, is to push the knowledge of death away for as long as we can. “There used to be no house,” the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1936 essay The Storyteller, “hardly a room, in which someone had not once died.” In modern life, on the other hand, he argued, dying had been pushed beyond the perceptual realm of the living, although his diagnosis did not of course include the destitute nations or anticipate the impending war.

In the midst of a pandemic, death cannot be exiled to the outskirts of existence. Instead, it is an unremitting presence that seems to trail from room to room. One of the as yet unanswered questions of the present moment is how soon the vaccine rollout, among the privileged nations, will allow hospitals to return once and for all to curing and caring for life rather than preparing for death, so that doctors and nurses will no longer be faced with the inhuman choice between cancer and Covid.

“Not today,” one palliative care nurse found herself saying in the midst of the first wave, to patients cut off from their loved ones, the terror visible in their eyes, when they asked her if they were going to die. “Not today” – she did not even pretend to know more. What on earth, we might then ask, does the future consist of once the awareness of death passes a certain threshold and breaks into our waking dreams?

What, then, is the psychic time we are living? How can we prepare – can we prepare – for what is to come? If the uncertainty strikes at the core of inner life, it also has a political dimension. Every claim for justice relies on belief in a possible future, even when – or rather especially when – we feel the planet might be facing its demise. This is all the more visibly the case since the pandemic has allowed the bruises of racial, sexual and economic inequality in the modern world to rise mercilessly to the surface of our social arrangements for everyone, unavoidably, to see.

The misery of impoverished peoples, black men gunned down by police on the streets, women trapped in their homes during lockdown, assaulted and murdered by their partners – all these realities, each with its history of racial and sexual violence, are pressing harder on public consciousness, as they move from the sidelines on to the front page. The psychological terrain is starting to shift.

Alongside the terror, and at least partly in response, a renewed form of boldness, itself relying on longstanding traditions of protest, has entered the stage – a new claim on the future, we might say. One by one, people are calling out the systemic forms of discrimination that are so often passed off as the norm.

People will no longer accept denials that the problem exists, such as the UK government-commissioned Sewell report, published in March, which rejected the fact of institutional racism; or tolerate the more deeply entrenched hatreds, as expressed in the visceral rage and threats against the marchers of Black Lives Matter; or leave unchallenged the studied indifference towards injustice that makes people turn aside and casually assume that this is just how the world is and always will be.

Meanwhile, it becomes more and more obvious that endless growth and accumulation of wealth involves an exploitation of humans and resources that is destroying the planet. First, in the pandemic, caused by the virus crossing the barrier between humans and other animals, which many scientists believe was caused by interference in the food chain.

This in itself is a consequence of large-scale industrial farming and the wildlife trade, which are boosting the production of deadly pathogens. Second, in the bodies of people in flight from war zones, washing up on the shores of the so-called “developed” nations. Then, in the droughts, floods, wildfires, superstorms, heatwaves, earthquakes and hurricanes, under pressure of climate disaster, as if life on the planet had already reached the end of days.

“We were terrified of this new disease,” said Maheshi Ramasami, senior clinical researcher on the Oxford AstraZeneca team, who recently described their slow realisation of what they were facing. “There was one moment when somebody said to me, ‘Is this what the end of the world feels like?’”

Today, everything is telling us that we cannot go on making all the bad decisions that have been made in the name of progress. Being driven – working harder and harder, making more and more money – is not a virtue or some kind of ethical principle to adhere to, but a sure sign of greed, panic and decay.

Shooting yourself into outer space, as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have raced against each other to do, is a narcissistic sideshow put on by obscenely wealthy men. That they are men is surely key (the last gasp of the phallus and all that). The sky is no limit. “Expansion is everything,” wrote Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate and prime minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896, “I would annex the planets if I could.”

Rhodes advised the British government that the export of instruments of violence to Africa in order to secure their investments was a holy duty. He also passed laws to drive black people off their land, limiting the areas where they could then settle. The laws he put in place are considered by many historians to have provided a foundation for what later became apartheid.

Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town was brought down by student protests in one of the most resonant political actions of the times, but the one outside Oriel College in Oxford is still standing. Either way, the organising principle and fantasy – colonising the universe to infinity – endures. “We know there is life on Mars,” the associate administrator of Nasa’s Science Mission stated in 2015, “because we put it there.”

The process is known as “forward contamination” – you destroy at exactly the same moment that you make something grow. Last March, one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX ships crashed back to earth in Texas. “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, so if it blows up, it’s cool,” he is reported to have observed a few years previously. The explosion scattered debris over the fragile ecosystem of state and federally protected lands in the Lower Rio Grande valley, a national wildlife refuge that is home to vulnerable species.

It is surely no coincidence that such Faustian pacts are being struck when the fragility of life on earth has never been more glaring. These intrepid space explorers remind me of the stinking rich individuals who try to barter with the boatman on their way to the island of the dead in Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass.

Bezos is said to be pouring millions into Altos Labs, a Silicon Valley gene reprogramming company searching for the secrets of eternal life. They think their money will save them, while the bodies of the less privileged crumble and fail (the sums already spent on these space extravaganzas would pay for vaccines across the world for everyone). This much seems clear. If we want to prepare for a better, fairer, life – if we want to prepare for any kind of future at all – we must slow the pace and change our relationship to time.

So what happens if we enter the realm of psychic time, the inner world of the unconscious where the mind, which we can never fully know or master, constantly flickers back and forth between the different moments of a partly remembered, partly repressed life?

This is a vision of human subjectivity that completely scuppers any idea of progress as a forward march through time. The British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, writing in 1949, described a patient who had to go looking for a piece of their past in the future, something they could barely envisage in the present, and which, when it first happened, had been too painful for them to fully live or even contemplate.

Seen in this light, the relentless drive to push ourselves on and on, as if our lives depended on it – killing us, more likely – reveals itself as a doomed effort to bypass inner pain. The first hysterical patient in the history of psychoanalysis – analysed by Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer – fell ill as she sat nursing her dying father, overwhelmed by an inadmissible combination of resentment and sorrow.

Her anger at the suffocating restrictions of her life was a feeling that, as a young Viennese daughter, she could not allow herself, at least consciously, to entertain. Even without a pandemic, it is rare for such agonising ambivalence towards those we love and lose to be spoken. There is a limit to how much we can psychically tolerate. This remains the fundamental insight of psychoanalysis, never more needed than today.

When Boris Johnson slipped under cover of night to visit the memorial wall along the Thames, avoiding daytime mourners, an act generally seen as an insult to all those whom the wall is designed to commemorate; or when he blustered and refused for 18 months to meet the bereaved families of people who have died of Covid-19, he was refusing public accountability, while at the same time making a statement, no doubt unintentionally, about what he could not bear to countenance.

(He has now met and assured them that there will be a public inquiry, for which, somewhat unpromisingly, he will take personal charge himself.) He was also revealing the gulf between official life and the inward life of the mind. Grief brings time shuddering to a halt. As beautifully rendered by poet Denise Riley after the death of her son, it is time lived without its flow. When you are grieving, there is nothing else to do but grieve, as the mind battles against a knowledge that no one ever wishes to own.

Even the term “the bereaved” is misleading, as it suggests a group apart, and something over and done with, as if you can neatly place to one side and sign off on something that feels, for the one afflicted, like an interminable process (which must feel interminable, at least to begin with, if it is ever to be processed at all).

Seen in this light, Johnson’s “boosterism”, his boyish insouciance, appears as a psychological project in itself. What must be avoided at all cost is any glimmer of anguish. Anything can and must be managed. Everything is going to be all right – a mantra of which the irreality has never been more glaring.

All that matters is the endlessly deferred promise of good times ahead. Hence too, I would suggest, the evasions and obfuscations on everything from climate breakdown, to “levelling up”, to social care – for none of which there appears to be anything sufficiently ambitious or well-resourced to be dignified with the word “plan”.

The same goes for the fiasco of “freedom day” on 19 July this year, when most remaining pandemic restrictions were lifted in the UK, a day people in England were exhorted to celebrate. For many in the UK and across a tensely watching world, it felt instead like an occasion for dread. “Needless suffering”, “disastrous myopia” is how observers from New York to the capitals of Europe have described UK government recklessness as case numbers have steadily risen close to their highest levels since then.

Each time, the same pattern. The political reality of the moment is ignored by subduing the difficult forms of mental life that would be needed in order to face it. In one of his most famous statements, Freud described the hysterical patient as suffering “mainly from reminiscences”. From that moment on, psychoanalytic thought has committed itself to understanding how flight from the past freezes people in endlessly repeating time, robbing them of any chance for a life that might be lived with a modicum of freedom.

You have to look back, however agonising, even if it goes against all your deepest impulses, if you are to have the slightest hope of getting to a new stage. This, too, has become more obviously true as people are crossing over from the space of intimacy and privately stored memories to tell their stories in the public domain. When women step up – and it is mainly if not exclusively women – to recount harrowing tales of sexual abuse from bygone years, it is part of a bid to claim the past as the only way of allowing a future to emerge no longer blocked by violent memory.

During lockdown, psychoanalysts reported a flood of untold memories from their patients, as if the physical distance and reduced intimacy of the virtual session, combined with the sheer urgency of the moment, were finally giving them the courage to speak.One glance at today’s culture wars will confirm how central this type of reckoning is to our ability to understand the political urgencies of the present.

What is causing the most trouble, and provoking the strongest rebuttals and hatred, is the fearlessness with which the damaged, disadvantaged and dispossessed are calling up the legacy of the past as their passage to a viable future. Their resolve to combat historic and entrenched injustice is surely exemplary. Most vocal of all has been the anger unleashed by the project to bring down the statues of imperial magnates – beginning with Rhodes – or to acknowledge that colonial Britain was involved in the slave trade at all.

At the time of abolition, British slavers were bought off by the government with compensation worth $17bn. Those funds have massively increased over hundreds of years, leaving the next generations to enjoy levels of prosperity that – not surprisingly and even in the face of incontrovertible scholarship and evidence – they have been reluctant to accept was sourced in ill-gotten gains.

When The Legacies of British Slavery, the University College London database charting this history, first opened in 2016, within days it was flooded in almost equal measure by those wishing to know the truth of the past and those wishing no less fervently to deny it.

One place to begin would be to make room for the complex legacies of the human mind, without the need to push reckoning aside. Past wrongs would not be subject to denial, as if our personal or national identities depended on a pseudo-innocence that absolves us of all crimes. Let the insights of the analytic couch percolate into our public and political lives and, no less crucially, the other way round (we need to acknowledge the weight of historical affliction on our dreams).

In my ideal scenario, social trauma and injustice would not be seen as belonging to another universe from our most wayward fears and desires. Instead, they would both find their place at the negotiating table, as we tentatively begin to draw the outlines of a better world. Meanwhile, taking responsibility for failure in relation to the pandemic would help:

The cry for redress, for official investigations, or simply for public acknowledgment of the avoidable disaster that millions have been living, from the UK to India to Brazil. Though none of this will bring back the thousands who should not have died.

In psychoanalytic thought, failure and fragility are a crucial part of who we are (only by knowing this can we make the best of our lives). Failure, too, has the strongest political resonance today, as many of us now anxiously wait to see if the idea will be allowed, in any meaningful or lasting way, to enter the collective political mind.

Will the collapse of the western powers in Afghanistan be a gamechanger? Or, despite widespread agreement that we have been witnessing a catastrophic failure of policy, will any such recognition turn out to be a fleeting gesture, no more than a pause in the preparations for endless war? Squabbling over whether the US is a “big” or “super” power – according to the UK defence minister, only a country willing to exert global force has a right to the second epithet – is hardly reassuring.

So, how will the pandemic be lived when it is no longer – as we can only hope – at the forefront of people’s consciously lived lives? How will it be remembered? Will it be a tale of vaccine triumph, with no mention of the murderous injustice of unequal global distribution; a story of government negligence and accountability; or an acceptance of the ongoing grief for the dead?

Responding to a suggestion to make the memorial wall permanent, the artist Rachel Whiteread suggested it should be “left just to be and then gradually disappear. To have its quietness.” You cannot, she stated, memorialise something that is still going on; a more permanent memorial will need distance and time.

When we reach that point, the challenge will be to resist the temptation to brush everything under the carpet, as if the best hope for the future were to go back to normal and blithely continue with matters as they were before: push death aside, treat swaths of the Earth’s inhabitants as dispensable, drive the planet to its end. On the other hand, a world that makes room for memory and justice would be something else. There is still everything to play for.


Source: Life after death: how the pandemic has transformed our psychic landscape | Death and dying | The Guardian


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