Between Stability and Chaos

Sherwin Nuland on Speaking of Faith (Jan. 18, 2007):

"Wonder is something I share with people of deep faith. They wonder at the universe that God has created and I wonder at the universe that nature has created. But this is a sense of awe that motivates the faithful, motivates me. It provides an energy for seeking. Just as the faithful will always say, 'We are seeking,' I am seeking.

"We're seeking different things. I'm seeking an understanding of this integrity of everything, this unity of everything, of the equilibrium of not just the homeostasis as the physiologists say—the staying the sameness—but of the closeness that we are constantly coming to chaos."

[Listen] "Responding to sensory input from the body and its surroundings, delivered over incoming fibers and via chemical messengers, the human brain has, I believe, engaged itself in the instinctual battle between stability and chaos, echoing up from its deepest cellular self. That battle is expressed in the psychological conflict between Eros and Thanatos—the forces of love (and therefore life) against the forces of death instinct. Because the two are irreconcilable, the central nervous system of man has had, since the time it originally came into existence with the birth of the first Homo sapiens, to conjure with itself—to try various combinations of circuitry and chemistry, and to turn to its excess reserve capacity in exploratory ways—until it became what it is today, a vast machine works of intellect, spirituality, and even neurosis.

"It might be pointed out, and properly so, that all of the foregoing presupposes a state of constant improvement, and therefore presents Pollyanna's view of the mind and its potentialities. But my definition of the human spirit is not restricted to the sublime qualities developed within our species. It includes, as well, those other characteristics of which we are far less proud, the baser qualities in all that is subsumed under the rubric of humanness. If there is an antonym for everything we customarily associate with spiritual, it must surely be mean-spirited. The same adaptive use of circuitry and molecular interactions that allows humankind to perform the mental gymnastics leading to our finest accomplishments is also in thrall to our baser instincts. Like all adaptations, some are maladaptive. The maladaptations, the conflict between order and chaos, as well as the imperatives of living in societies in which individualistic drives must be restrained in the interest of community—these are the stuff of antisocial behavior and neurosis. This, too, is part of humanity.

"The very instability of the multitudinous mechanisms that maintain our homeostasis is reflected in the instability and ambivalence with which we view our fellows and the universe, but especially ourselves. Echoing his inner physiology, man is engaged in a constant struggle to maintain the equilibrium that permits daily living. The conflict between constancy and consistency on the one hand and chaos and destruction on the other is mirrored in the mind's equally persistent struggle between the goodness that is in us and the dark drives of anarchic catastrophe. That luminous quality of reason that we value so highly is precariously perched on the unsettled knife edge between good and evil. The human mind being some 200 million years younger than the mammalian body to which it can trace its origin, the quality we might call mental homeostasis is not yet as effective as its physical counterpart. We function not only physically but mentally too, in a crucible of conflicting forces; we continue in stable emotional life only because a degree of balance is achieved by the internalized morality that is sustained by our individual and societal equivalents of enzymes and other regulatory mechanisms. Sometimes we lose the uneasy equilibrium we have attained with so much effort. The result is mental illness, injustice, and the maleficence to which we give daily witness.

"My rabbinic teachers first made me aware of the Talmudic teaching that man lives in eternal conflict between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, his good and evil inclination. Civilization began and persists because the maintenance of what might be called social homeostasis, and therefore a civilized society, demands that the forces of equilibrium—the forces of the good—win out. But the history of the twentieth century and the events of which we read in our daily newspapers tell us that this is an ideal too often unattained. Society's struggle, like ours, never ends."