There is a scene in the movie The Matrix in which the protagonist Neo just got done going through a virtual training simulator and is conversing with his teammate Mouse. Mouse reminds Neo of the good-looking female in a red dress who was a character in the simulator; he then mentions that, since he developed the simulator, he would be able to develop another simulator with the same lady, and it would allow Neo to meet her for the prospect of virtual sexual intercourse. The other teammates in the room scoff at Mouse, insinuating that his inclination towards sexual activities are beneath them. Mouse retorts with the following rationale:
“To deny our own impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human.”
Mouse argues that our impulses (sexual, among other ones) are part of our human nature. I disagree.
Let me clarify what I mean by impulses. Definr.com defines impulse as “a sudden desire.” When a man sees a hot woman and suddenly desires to have sex with her, that is an impulse. When a motorist gets cut off in traffic, gets angry and suddenly desires to hunt the other motorist down and beat him to death with a tire iron, that is an impulse. When someone goes through a haunted house at Halloween, gets frightened by a costumed zombie and suddenly desires to run away screaming, that is an impulse.
We as humans all have impulses, but they are left over from our evolutionary upbringing. I believe that we evolved from animals; our animal ancestors, especially the reptiles, were only smart enough to act on their impulses alone. When they were hungry, they hunted. When they felt like they were in danger, they fought. When they got scared, they ran away.
impulses ≠ human
impulses ≈ animal
When we evolved into our current human form, which took several millions of years, we grew a larger and more complicated brain that gave us the ability to reason and argue. In other words, we became smarter than to attack anything that frightened us; we developed the ability to think about why we feel the way we do. We can examine what exactly it is that scares us and whether or not things that anger us are worth getting into a fight. Sometimes, based on that examination, we determine that things are not that scary after all, that fighting over certain events is unproductive and that it would be frowned upon to pursue sexual intercourse with a hot woman right there and then. Hence, it is my opinion that the very thing that makes us human is our ability to control our impulses.
Where I do agree with Mouse is that we should not deny our impulses. As discussed earlier, our impulses are part of our biology; they are never going to go away. To deny them is unnatural. One of the main things that the Stoics preach is that one should act according to Nature. What exactly they mean by “Nature” at a given time can be interpreted in different ways; they make it sound like nature as in plants and animals at one moment, a mystical governing force at another and a surrogate deity at yet another.
Anyway, the Stoics’ point was that one’s true nature is the be-all-end-all of how one should behave. Our impulses are part of our true nature as living beings, so they should not be denied. However, the other part of our nature is our aforementioned ability to control our impulses.
control ≠ deny
Think of our impulses and our ability to control them as a system of checks and balances: our animal brain is first to speak out at any given moment through our impulses, and our human brain steps in to analyze the impulses to make sure that everything is productive and not harmful.
Here’s the other thing about impulses – they are not inherently bad (the Stoics argue that NOTHING is inherently bad or good; they things that things just…are, and we label them good or bad based on judgments, but this is a topic for a different blog post). In fact, I think impulses deserve merit. What our impulses mean to me is that we have a desire to change things. To quote Hugh McLeod from his book Ignore Everybody:
“Wanting to change the world…is a primal calling.”
When we get scared, we desire to change this situation so that we feel comfortable. When we want to fight, we want to change the situation so that we retain pride in ourselves and our beliefs. When we get horny, we want to change the situation so that the person we find so sexy knows how we feel about them. These are all examples of positive changes that we want to make.
Our impulses struggle to accomplish these changes all by themselves, so they work in conjunction with our human brain. While controlling impulses, this part of our brain is able to turn the desires for change into solutions that are nonviolent, productive and creative. For example, the human brain enables us to face our fears and overcome them. It helps us think through our primal, often irrational, urge to fight and saves us undue injuries. It focuses the primal affection we feel for the sexy member of the opposite sex and helps us express it in creative ways such as love letters, songs and poems.
In summary, I reiterate that I believe it is not natural or healthy to deny our impulses, but what makes us human is our ability to control them and produce something greater.
Let me hear from you
What are your thoughts on this topic? Please leave a reply and let me know. Thank you for reading.