Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Urge To Destroy



The nineteenth century anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin famously asserted "The urge for destruction is also a creative urge." This concept came to mind recently when I came across a tree trunk that had clearly been vandalized. I suppose it could have been an animal or some other natural phenomenon that created the hole in the trunk, but it sure looked to me like the work of human hands, and it did not strike me as the result of any sort of creative urge.


I live in a densely populated urban area where I am regularly confronted by the human urge to destroy. Graffiti I can understand as the result of a creative urge, but branches ripped from saplings, litter, and over-turned city bikes? Not so much. I imagine that someone could argue that destruction is a precursor to creativity, like slums that must be bulldozed to make way for palaces, but it's a stretch. The most one can say for random human destruction is that it can, maybe sometimes, like in the case of graffiti, be considered in the benevolent light of creativity.

Every day in every preschool classroom, the urge to destroy is nevertheless evident. Even if it isn't part of the creative urge, it is, apparently something deeply human. Paper is torn into tiny bits and scattered on the floor, carefully constructed block towers are joyfully toppled, pages are ripped from books, toys are dismantled in ways that they can never be put back together. Some of it is accidental, of course, but as a boy once replied when I asked him why he had intentionally broken something, "I wanted to see if I could break it."

When I passed around to the other side of the tree with the vandalized trunk, I saw that it was notable in the sense that it's trunk was bizarrely deformed, looking something like one of those candles in a Chiati bottle stereotypically found in an Italian restaurant. It was strikingly different from the trees around it and because of that it roused my curiosity. It occurred to me that perhaps it had been curiosity, the primal scientific urge, that had caused someone to begin picking a hole in the trunk. If the trunk was so different on the outside, one could wonder if the interior was equally deformed.

I think it's safe to say that much of the "destruction" we see around the classroom can be marked up to curiosity, even if misguided, but that still leaves the question of broken bottles, wantonly discarded fast food wrappers, and knocked over bicycles. I suppose some of it could simply be chalked up to laziness, although psychologists tell us that there is no such thing. Feelings of depression, alienation, disenfranchisement, or just plain old anger at the world seem more likely causes of this sort of destructive behavior.

A psychologist friend told me that he was once engaged to treat an eight-year-old who had been referred by his parents for his "destructive behavior." The boy slumped into a chair and started the conversation by declaring, "I'm bad because I'm sad." If only we all could be as insightful as this kid.

Humans destroy to create, we destroy to explore, we destroy to express despair, and perhaps we are sometimes unconsciously driven to join the universe's unstoppable quest for ever-increasing entropy. As teachers and parents, we are too often poised to punish, to scold the child for something that he's broken, but it's never that simple with us human beings.

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