Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Love, Loss, and Heroic Rescue

Bliss, terror, and the creaturely conflicts that define us

Posted Apr 05, 2016

Everyone wants to be rescued. It could be Tarzan plucking you out of the croc’s jaws. Or someone loaning you $5. Praise for some virtue or talent can rescue your self-esteem from self-doubt or depression. A new lover may save you from loneliness or the terror of rejection and self-disgust. Romance promises to rescue you from the tedium of yourself or the monotonous people around you.

You get the picture.

The idea of rescue seems to be built into us.  We are among the most social animals on earth, and after all, what are friends for? They’re folks you’d rescue and count on to rescue you. In politics, progressives believe people come together to save each other. Conservatives imagine that you save yourself.

In the big bad world, “warriors” save you. In psychosis and some religions, messiahs play a leading role. A St Bernard with a cask of hootch under his chin answers if you phone in an avalanche. If you’re over troubled waters, you can count on “God” or belief in God. If you're rescuing a needy and hung-up lover, heroic rescue can make you feel ten feet tall till you hit your head on a door lintel one time too many.

 As unusually helpless infants, unable to get up and stroll two minutes after birth as junior giraffes do, we appreciate parental care as a form of rescue. As babies, we suffer distress signals of hunger and abandonment and wet diapers without having a reassuring explanation for them. In effect, babies are anxious about their own unfamiliar sensations, not yet at home in themselves.  So Mum’s touch, voice, smell, and nipple rescue you from yourself. You’re absorbed into that safe bond the way hero-worshipers share in the magical aura of heroes and gods.

Infants may not have the idea of death, but all bodies are equipped with an alarm system tripped by the danger of annihilation. One reason rescue takes so many forms is that death has so many associations for each of us. Hunger, unfairness, rejection, weariness—they can all terrify us and beg for rescue. Depression is a kind of suffocating death. Failure or defeat can nail you into a pine box.  

In this sense, all rescue is ultimately rescue from death. This is why lovers, heroes, saints, and charlatans fascinate us. Rescue promises more life, whether in a kiss or a chariot ride across the River Jordan.  So the behavior is morale management, a practice for stimulating hope. No wonder romance is so popular. At last, a new person who can bring our ghostly fantasies to life! And it’s only partly a delusion. A lover really can rescue us into convictions of more life. Brain chemistry and bonding uplift self-esteem and lead to new babies and the thrilling conviction that we can tap into the superhuman source of life.

Once you appreciate rescue, you begin to recognize how profoundly it’s encoded in the culture. Almost all industrial entertainment and advertising is fueled by fantasies of rescue. Medics and warriors rescue us into thrilling hero-worship. ER dramas touch the core of dread. Whether we notice or not, rescue is manipulated by writers, producers, sponsors, and other regulatory agents of culture. When macho gunslingers save maidens and nations from the Reaper, it's obnoxious propaganda.  Yet audiences watch transfixed, stung into acquiescence by rescue prompts. The film may be  a poisonous sting of aggression and panic, but something in us makes it hard to resist. But which spider in the web actually stung you into submission?  

I’m moved by cable reality TV shows about suburban women who have made the rescue of orphan animals their heroic purpose. These are not necessarily endangered animals, but squirrels, pigeons, geese, fawns, and raccoons—critters that can become pests. We are instinctively disposed to feel cuddly warm and protective toward the young of many species and our own babies. You know the facial cues: small jaw, big eyes, and the like. The animal rescuers act as surrogate Mums, for themselves and for an audience of Americans who tolerate one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the comfy world.

Something doesn't make sense here.

The power of the TV rescue fantasy emerges when you watch a handsome Aussie who could have been a Marlboro cowboy rescue kangaroos. According to the script he even buys the cute joeys food out of his own pocket and teaches them survival skills before releasing them.

Compare that marsupial love note to an item from the BBC that reports wallabies and roos overrunning pastures reserved for hamburger and milk cattle.  On Australia’s King Island, 83,000 wallabies were “culled” last year.

The “Wallaby Management Program” paid one sharpshooter about $3 a head for whacking 30,000 of them. In 2014, New South Wales (Australia) “allowed a commercial kangaroo kill quota of 2,388,424 from five species with an estimated population of 15,330,399.”  That’s 15 with six zeroes, plus that delicately estimated “399.”

On King Island, “about 8,000 of the 83,000 wallabies were processed on the island for either human consumption or lobster bait.”  I wonder what happened to the lobsters (?) The rest of the wallabies “were left to rot, helped by a thriving crow population.”  And contributing to the island’s fertilizer inventory.

The wallabies’ mating success tells us that Ma Nature has not signed on to Sustainability. We thrive on earth by eating each other. Life fights so hard for self-preservation that its reflex procreation actually endangers it. The same painful paradox applies to humans on Saturday night too. It’s one of the basic conflicts in humankind: we can’t resist the tease of more life. We crave it. Seven billion of us love Porky Pig, the Little Red Hen, and Ken Garoo, but in order to stay alive, we kill them, chew their bodies, and expel them as shameful waste.

This is the conflict presented in a deliciously ironic way by Mark Lewis’s documentary “The Natural History of the Chicken,” one of the more challenging arguments ever screened on TV.

We're radically conflicted creatures: thinking meat. We're animals like our friends the kangaroos, but also philosophers like Plato. We create cultures to try to harmonize the conflicts. Nature is friendly to cancer and tapeworms, whereas medical culture works to eliminate them. We devise cultural tales that harmonize the intolerable conflicts we’re born into. Sometimes the stories are painfully or hilariously inadequate.

Try to imagine a cable TV show in which suburban white women rescuers organize in order to snatch up, breastfeed, and teach survival skills to a black infant from a big city family in trouble. Unlike lions, say, humans do adopt other people's babies.  And symbolically the kid does become your child, part of you.  Symbolism: don't leave home without it.

You can see how stories of heroic rescue can be tweaked to flatter local prejudices and dubious heroes. Most such stories are harmlessly gratifying. But they all have implications that can be disturbing when you flash some critical light on them. When rescue becomes a glorious obsession, usually it disguises the selfish payoff. During the recent financial catastrophe, “taxpayers” were supposed to be rescuing “the banks.” Islamic terrorists fancy that they’re rescuing Allah and the prophet by murdering strangers. [1]

We don’t publish many stories that recognize the creaturely conflicts that define us. Most of the time we’d rather not know. But as Plato joked after watching “The Natural History of the Chicken,” man is the featherless biped that worries about what’s true. [2] You could say we're working on it.

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1. In The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller’s Press, 2015) I analyze rampage mentality and find unexpected connections between different ways of throwing off self-control.

2. If you’re curious, the film and a featherless talk about its insights are on youtube, brought to you by the Ernest Becker Foundation: