Self-relinquishment: intoxication

When intoxication is taken to the point at which you're losing hold of yourself, it becomes another form of self-relinquishment. And yet many seem to be drawn by a strange attraction to that kind of experience. It doesn't always have to be alcoholic intoxication: inebriation, drugs, sexual abandon, a love of driving at high speeds, dangers generally — all these ways of getting you away from yourself, of getting lost in an experience in which you are no longer in charge of what you think and do, are sought and sometimes even cherished by people. Why is that?
The more you think about it, the more difficult it is to understand: the experience we're talking about comes almost necessarily from an excess and is thus (in a sense) unnatural; the trail of its subject is often indecorous (let's not even mention how the subsequent hangovers feel); in the long run its effects will harm them physiologically, potentially also damaging the physiological basis for their mental capacities, and they can harm them socially, if they drunkenly misbehave and annoy people; it supports and increases temptations from all the other vices, prominently anger (it can lead to brutalization), by lowering the inhibition threshold for giving in to them that comes from shame and other social constraints (not that those are always good for you; at times you may even have to break them deliberately — but not out of drunkenness, of course).
It also carries a risk of becoming addictive. (Most addictions in this area are substance addictions that work on a physiological level, but even so, there's a psychological component to it: you wouldn't expose yourself to addictive substances in the first place if there wasn't some attraction to them that's no yet rooted in their physiological aspect — physiological addiction can explain why it is so hard to get rid of the habit once you're in it, but it can't be the whole story of why people get into it to begin with).
In short, that experience of losing yourself in intoxication confuses conscious perception and lowers control over your reactions, and it brings almost exclusively negative effects in the long run. Again, you might expect this to deter people from overstepping the line — whereas in fact it exerts a magnetic appeal. Some can resist that appeal (in which case we call it moderation and count it among the excellences of character), some can't. But almost everyone can feel it.
(There's a fine distinction we have to make here. It's most easily understood from the example of alcohol: up to a point, it sharpens the senses, gives interactions energy and a bit of an edge, increases the fun level. If overdone, of course, it pulls you away from yourself, and that reverses all these small benefits (which are nice, but still just that: nice, something external) into something genuinely harmful. If, in cases of losing control and relinquishing your grip on yourself, you merely haven't been careful or watchful enough and let yourself slip out of good measure, it's rather a kind of lack of skill than an escape from reality. But we're trying to identify the source of attraction behind the idea of getting away from yourself, and nobody is attracted by an expression of their own perceived lack of skill. Therefore, what exerts that pull of attraction must be in the promised escape from reality rather than in the unnoticed slip out of fine control.)
So what's attractive seems to lie not in the long- and mid-term effects, but in the quality of the feeling itself; it must be something that's contained exclusively in the moment. (Which explains also why it needs some excess: because the feeling must be so strong and sweeping that it eradicates most consideration of future consequences; a slight tipsiness wouldn't achieve that, you need to be heavily drunk.)
But then again, that seems not quite to capture it. It's not really so that the state is overwhelmingly pleasant: most of your sense experiences are blacked out; the detail level of perception decreases, at the same time response time increases; clarity of thinking goes down along with the capacity for articulating yourself; feelings get rougher and less discriminate. It's not really an exquisite feast of the senses: we disengage from sensuality just as much as from reasoning when we try to get away from ourselves.
So it seems that the motivation must lie in a kind of escape from reality, where the reality in question is more the reality of your own person than that of your surroundings: what you try to get away from is you, and perhaps your perceptions and views of the world, but not the world itself (nobody thinks that the world really goes away when you can't look straight at it any more). The whole thing is more about losing yourself than about finding yourself in the experience. (When you return to yourself later on, you're typically empty, not inspired, and you also have the matching bodily feelings during the hangover.)
In what sense is it still you if you're successfully got away from yourself? When you 'lost' yourself in an overpowering experience?
Legally, you are still held responsible for what you do; the grounds for this accountability aren't directly in an attributed responsibility for your actions, but in the fact that you got yourself into that state. Responsibility is inherited here, it's indirectly attached to your actions from a wider context which is still something you have to answer for. It's a case where you're responsible for things that you can't control, but rightly so, for that you can't control your actions is something that you are responsible for by bringing yourself into that state, or by allowing yourself to be brought into it. In the limiting case, where the surrounding context is wider than your entire sphere of control, you're no longer considered a full person in the legal sense anymore; you're no longer responsible, but you also lose any entitlements belonging to that status. Even most morality systems would still hold you responsible (although some moralities based on religion or cult actually assign a high moral status to some out-of-mind experiences, if they seem to convey some spiritual truth).
Thus, if there is still a recognizable legal and moral person in your actions and views while you've lost yourself, the sense in which you are 'away' from yourself can only be ethical: you take a vacation from your character as a person, from the project of making the best out of your possibilities, of living a good life, of becoming the best person you can. It's in this way that you give up yourself, and just as in all the other forms of self-relinquishment, it does go (attractive though it may seem for a moment) against your own best interests.
Life is worth living not because of the moments where we get out of it and let ourselves be swept away, or drowned in uncontrollable feeling. It's worth living because of what we do with our time: what we achieve in the world, contributions we make, insights we have; perhaps some value is also in distinct experiences, in variety, subtlety and nuance; certainly it's worthwhile to connect to others and form relationships. It's true that all of these, although they bring value and beauty into our lives, are inseparably bound up with effort, pains and disappointment. Taking charge and accepting responsibility for them means to accept, and to learn to deal with, these undesirable aspects as well. Trying to escape from that is cheap and cowardly, and not just because you would be timidly trying to get a vacation from those negative aspects — it's also because you de-value, at the same time, the positive values that make life worthwhile. Take care.

Self-relinquishment: softness

The softness which I have in mind, and which is yet another kind of self-relinquishment, is what you can observe in people who get used too much to warm and sunny, pleasant weather: they grow hesitant, after a while, to do things that would expose them to a harsh and cold wind, rain and darkness. (Obviously, not everybody who lives in favorable climates gets soft in this sense, there's no necessary causal connection between weather conditions and strength of character. But you know the kind of personal development, or rather personal decline, I'm here referring to, don't you?)
Just as an aversion to bad weather can be what makes you soft, it could be any other sort of disagreeable external as well: if you have a fear of conflict, a dread of poverty, a secret thirst of social standing with a corresponding need for recognition — each of these might lure you gradually into a habit of avoiding things. You're getting used to the pain-free zone so much that you become unable to thrive elsewhere, you shy away from anything outside the range of comfort, and finally wind up avoiding everything else just for your convenience, delaying initiatives towards goals that once were important in your live, finding yourself taking actions against your better judgment, developing self-deceptive views and self-defeating feelings.
Why is softness a form of self-relinquishment? Because it is dependence: it makes you dependent on externals, makes you rate externals higher than they should be rated, and so any accidental lack in externals could lead you away from what you should be doing to doing something to deal with that lack. Only if you gain independence from externals can you fully be yourself. (And in consequence, be free.) If inconvenience or unpleasantness, conflict or bad luck, unfortunate material or social circumstances can keep you from doing the right thing, then you aren't making progress on your path (that is: your path); and you don't live your own life quite as fully as you could. Softness is a way of losing sight of this, a form of giving up the focus on what matters most: how you live your life, and who you are — you, as a person.
There is nothing wrong with being sensitive to other people's feelings, and caring — that's not necessarily softness of the kind we're looking at. Softness means to be untrue to yourself, and you're not untrue to yourself if you care about other people. On the contrary, being kind and comforting can be the exactly right thing to do in a given situation; you're rather giving in to softness the moment you put on a cold face because a bully has just entered the room and you don't want to risk looking weak. That's softness. (However, being nice and smooth also can be a form of softness, if your main motivation for it is to avoid a conflict that you should be rather facing head-on.) The rule that tells if something's softness can't be simply found in descriptions of overt behavior; the fundamental indicator that you're getting soft is that you sacrifice your personal integrity for something that's external: you're relinquishing courage, kindness, honesty, or any sensible behavior in tune with good character in exchange for gains in money or in reputation, pleasure or convenience. Softness is an expression of valuing something external higher than the integral qualities of your person.
It is also self-perpetuating: you are getting soft and softer progressively, and you're gradually putting more and more priority on comfort or convenience, thus tacitly valuing them higher than doing the right thing, working on your character, living a good life (which all bring with them hardship, inconvenience, roughness, disappointment, danger, maybe even death). You'll get more likely to give in to resistance; you'll grow incapable of changing what goes on around you; fears and foolish hopes will get the better of you more and more. All that softness gains you will be more of it. But the flip-side of that process is a loss of what makes you into yourself. No convenience in the world is worth that. Take care.

Self-relinquishment: trust and overreliance

Let us now look at one form of self-relinquishment, of giving up our sense of our own self, and trading it for some sort of dependence: let's look at overreliance. What I mean by this is an attitude of relying on someone because we've done something for them and expect some reciprocation: waiting for others to repay favors, keep their promises, or merely treat us well as a consequence of some good judgment they've passed on us sometime past.
I call the excessive form I have in mind overreliance because naturally there is some reliance we must put into such situations: the game of give-and-take in social and business contexts that is based on this behavior pervades our lives, and there is nothing wrong with it, as long as everybody involved understands what happens, and where the limits are. Overreliance begins where we make it a habit to depend on others for central goals of our lives, for things that we take as important, things that have a personal significance for us — and where we consciously build on others' providing them for us. Then we start giving not for the sake of giving, but for the sake of receiving something in exchange: we start giving with an agenda in the background. And the badness of that sort of behavior again lies in that we weaken our own sense of self in the course of that change; by locating the source of success and happiness in the actions of others (however cleverly we think we've manipulated their motives for those actions, and however much we tell ourselves that this manipulation would be justified by the consequences, which are after all of supreme importance to us), we locate them somewhere else than where they should be located: in ourselves.
Overreliance does not just imply that you are constantly calculating what people owe you, you're on the flip side also checking with everything they do whether it counts as having paid you back already. This habit, however, prevents you from being grateful. Ungratefulness is a character fault; and as always, the reason why you should avoid character faults comes from your own best interest. It's better for you to be a grateful person than not being it, because being ungrateful weakens your character and thus puts you at a disadvantage in the long run. All badness of character damages the subject (the person who acts badly, thinks or feels badly) more than it damages its target. The target may suffer, but it suffers from something external, something it cannot control. The integral part, the character of the person who is the target, can never be damaged by suffering caused by externals. If that part is strong enough, it will be capable to deal with the suffering and display strength of character even within that suffering. (If it's not strong enough, then the problem lies with neglect of shaping a strong character rather than with the external influence. The external suffering thus would be at best an indicator for a weakness on the target's behalf, but not the real cause of it.)
Overreliance, then, is different from the normal reliance we trade in everyday life in that it goes further and deeper; it is also significantly different from trust. Trusting someone always means to take a risk. If it wasn't risky, there would be no value in trust. Let's look at this more carefully: what makes trust valuable, as compared to the overreliance I've defined above?
Taking a risk means to accept a possibility of loss (what you lose would be an external, such as money or convenience, property or reputation, even health or, in extreme cases, your life) and projecting into the other person the qualities of skillfulness, resourcefulness and courage, honesty and reliability needed to make sure, to the best of their ability, that you don't suffer that loss. (There is a sort of trust, a blind trust, which simply unthinkingly assumes trustworthiness and thus doesn't calculate the risk, but merely ignores it. That's not the sort of trust I'm talking about here.)
Trusting means that you still keep the responsibility. If something goes wrong, you cannot blame them, for it was you who trusted them, and whether they just failed or even betrayed you, there's something for you to at least take responsibility for, and learn from. You decide to trust, and you retain responsibility for that decision.
So in summary, one difference between trust and overreliance is that in trusting you remain responsible, and so you're in charge of your actions yourself; another one is in that you assume, or project, qualities of character in others whom you trust, instead of expecting a debt structure to work for you (which in general boils down to expecting social pressure to do the job for you, and in effect that's a mere manipulation of others); furthermore, when trusting someone you put an emphasis, in your actions and views, on the right sort of thing: on people's character instead of a fictional value calculation about externals (such as money or reputation). Not just do you highlight the right sort of value in others, you also express the right choice in your own behavior: you know what to treat as valuable and what as indifferent. This way you exhibit valuable behavior yourself. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.