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Seeking Oblivion

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Why do we like to drink? Or get high?

This question typically evokes highly personal answers: to numb pain, to be more social, to appreciate the taste, or fuck off, I just like it.

I think the root behind any of those answers is to get closer to oblivion.


/əˈblivēən/, noun: a. the fact or condition of not remembering : a state marked by lack of awareness or consciousness.

When I drink (using that as shorthand for any kind of state-altering consumption), there is a distinct sense of my Self drifting away. It isn’t replaced by ånything. If sober, there is 100% Mike, then drinking brings me closer to 0% Mike. 

When I say ‘Mike’ and ‘Self’, I’m referring to the self-aware collection of ideas, identities, anxieties, and goals that make up my inner being. Everything that makes me distinctly human. Drinking reduces the consciousness of this collection, bringing me closer to an animal state.

Animals can feel emotion, react to situations, and enjoy themselves, but they don’t have self awareness of their own identity the way we do. Being in this state affects how I process the world around me and how I behave.

So why is that attractive? Why would I (and many others) want to spend my free time actively reducing that which makes me human?

The easy answer is: just say no. Drinking, especially to an extent that reduces your sense of self, is a destructive activity that should never be indulged in, let alone reflected upon.

There is a lot of research to back that up. The most compelling to me is the Grant Study, one of the few “telescopic” studies of human wellness, meaning it tracked its subjects over the course of their entire adult lives. Their number one conclusion about human wellness is that alcoholism is a highly destructive force superseding every other factor in a successful life (love, health, wealth, family, etc). Despite the study’s funding by anti-alcohol groups, I buy that.

But it’s also well-accepted that alcoholism is a disease, and some people are much more genetically disposed to it than others. There is also a clear association between depression and alcoholism.

So, for those with alcoholism or in a depressive state, drinking is not an attractive activity and can be highly ruinous. Fine, Nancy, they should just say no. 

But what about the rest of us? I’ve had phases of life when I’ve been genuinely in a dark place and genuinely happy, and in both phases, I’ve been interested in drinking. And although my family has some history of alcoholism, I don’t seem to carry the disposition. So what about the millions of people like myself who regularly drink and seem, for the most part, to enjoy it? Why do we like it, and what does that mean?

Well, being distinctly human is complicated. All those multitudes we contain – ideas, identities, anxieties, goals – they can be exhausting. Even more, they can be contradictory. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald said:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

I would reduce it further: 

The test of a human is the compulsion to hold opposed ideas in mind at the same time. 

Humans have no choice but to deal with their own contradictory thoughts, all the time. Cognitive dissonance is an unavoidable blessing and curse.

It’s not hard to find examples of this in everyday life. In my own life, I constantly struggle (like everyone else) to find the balance between my goals: being healthy, being social, working hard, finding downtime – these all contradict each other. On a deeper level, I have to balance my anxieties about being alone with anxieties about intimacy and connection, then balance my personal image of myself with the way I am projected into the world. 

I think this tender, terrifying balancing act is core to being human, so I’m not complaining. But there is a lot going on in the brain up there, and drinking reduces that activity. 

In Freudian terms, drinking reduces the ego and the superego, leaving only our basest instincts and desires, the id.

So drinking is attractive because it obliviates our sense of Self, freeing us from the daily contradictions that the Self has to process in our brains. 

I actually don’t think this is a bad thing. If you’re in a good place, seeking oblivion can be a welcome vacation from humanness. Recently when drinking, I’ve been reflecting on this whole process, and whenever I’ve thought to myself, “I am obliviated right now”, it’s usually with a crooked smile on my face.

Of course, drinking does have its drawbacks. The hangover, health effects, and potential loss of self-control all come to mind. So it’s worth thinking about other, healthier ways to seek oblivion as well.

What else offers opportunities to reduce the contradictions in the mind, peel back the sense of Self? The only thing that comes to mind is Zen meditation practice. It seems a lot harder to achieve that state through zen, but healthier too. 

It seems to me that drinking and meditating are on opposite sides of a spectrum, but connected, as they point to the same end goal. Kind of like the “horseshoe theory” people use to describe how political extremes actually share more in common than their centred counterparts:

Political Horseshoe Theory
Mike’s Oblivion Horseshoe Theory

If you know someone who really enjoys drinking, they’ll probably love meditation. So I’m going to follow my own advice here and recapture my interest in Zen practice as well. After I have a nice cold beer.

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