Work Hard, Play Hard, Fall Hard

The manic defence and when it fails

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The manic defence is the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings.

A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of her time rushing around from one task to the next and unable to tolerate even short stretches of inactivity. For such a person, even leisure time consists in a series of discrete programmed activities that she must submit to in order to tick off from an actual or mental list. You need only observe the expression on her face as she ploughs through yet another family outing, cultural event, or grueling exercise routine to understand that her aim in life is not so much to live in the moment as to work down her never-ending list, forever readying for an ever-receding future. If you ask her how she is doing, she is most likely to respond with a robotic smile and something along the lines of, “Fine, thank you—very busy of course!” In many cases, she is not at all fine, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy.

Other, more specific, examples of the manic defence include the socialite who attends one event after another, the small and dependent boy who charges around declaiming that he is Superman, and the sexually inadequate adolescent who laughs ‘like a maniac’ at the slightest intimation of sex. In Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning unneeded events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites—in the withering words of Woolf, ‘always giving parties to cover the silence’.

The essence of the manic defence is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. This is no doubt why people feel driven not only to mark but also to celebrate such depressing milestones as entering the workforce (graduation), getting ever older (birthdays, New Year), and even, more recently, death and dying (Halloween). And it is no coincidence that Christmas and New Year happen to have been established in mid-winter.

The manic defence may also take on more subtle forms, such as creating a commotion over something trivial; filling every ‘spare moment’ with reading, study, or on the phone to a friend; spending several months preparing for some civic or sporting event; seeking out status or celebrity so as to be a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’; entering into baseless friendships and relationships; and even, sometimes, getting married and having children.

Everyone uses the manic defence, but some people use it to such an extent that they find it difficult to cope with even short periods of unstructured time, such as holidays, weekends, and long-distance travel, which at least explains why airport shops are so profitable. Since the advent of the smartphone, many people find it trying to go even a few hours, let alone a few days, without WIFI.

In sum, it is not that the manically defended person is happy—not at all, in fact—but that she does not know how to be sad, reflective, or undefended. As Oscar Wilde put it in his essay, The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing, ‘To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’

Because our society values ‘busyness’, it is easy enough to pass off the manic defence as some kind of virtue or personal sacrifice. In a country such as Kenya, most people do not share in the Western idea that it is somehow noble or worthwhile to spend all day rushing around from one task to the next. When Westerners go to Kenya and do as they are in the habit of doing, they are met with peels of laughter and cries of Mzungu, which is Swahili for ‘Westerner’. The literal meaning of the word mzunguis ‘one who moves around’, ‘to go round and round’, or ‘to turn around in circles’.

But sometimes a life situation can become so unfulfilling or untenable that the manic defence is no longer able to block out negative feelings, and the person has no choice but to switch and adopt the depressive position. Put differently, a person adopts the depressive position when the gap between her current life situation and her ideal or expected life condition becomes so large that it can no longer be carpeted over. Her goals seem far out of reach and she can no longer envisage a future. As in Psalm 41, abyssus abyssum invocat—‘hell brings forth hell’, or, in an alternative translation, ‘the deep calls onto the deep’.

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