KRING-LRO: ‘Restlessness’ and – surprisingly – ‘in defense of an immoderate life’: this title requires clarification. It seems to suggest that you disagree with the contemporary discourse that has infiltrated healthcare: relax, slow down, avoid burn-out, finding the ideal balance between work and family, etc., while at the same time there is an increasing regulation of this well-being by the government, science and administration.
IDV: To put it in a radical way: I think that governments and public health services have to distance themselves from themes like wellbeing and happiness. Nevertheless, they do it more and more often. A logical consequence of this is that the regulations and frameworks they generate, tend to define an ideal life path. This implies that a certain norm slips in, a norm determined by what one thinks the average man should do. This process of normalization will only become stronger. I think you should leave wellbeing and happiness to society and not to the government. The government should work on giving us the facilities to support us in the questions we cannot answer ourselves or in situations in which it’s impossible for us to organize health care on our own. At present however we can see more and more interventions, on all these levels: how we should eat, walk,…
KRING-LRO: So it leads to a definition and a prescription of what is good and bad behavior, or right and wrong behavior. The norm becomes an imperative?
IDV: ‘E-health’ for instance illustrates this very clearly. It’s fantastic that a smartwatch can keep track of all your parameters, but these data are stored in a database, that shows whether you are above or under a certain mean. You don’t have to be a genius to predict that in 20 years, we will have a government that will give instructions or incentives on how to live appropriately, based on what these data have shown us. This is a process that progresses silently, step by step. I insist on investigating this process: what is going on here and do we want this? Is this how the government should meddle in our lives? Concerning who we are or what clothes we want to wear, we don’t want any interference. Then it is our own life, then we want to be individuals. But concerning our lifestyle and health, government simply enters our living rooms. That’s not an evolution you want to encourage. The difficulty is: how can we oppose this evolution?
KRING-LRO: That is precisely our next question…
IDV: An appropriate question! Most of the time it starts like a gift and it ends like a punishment. At the end of last year there was an insurance company that gave away smartwatches. But there was one condition: you would have to share the data. And there was something extra: if it turned out that you had a healthy lifestyle, your insurance premium decreased. What they obviously didn’t say, is what’s going to happen to the data, because these are going to be sold. And what’s going to happen to you if you don’t feel like doing physical activities anymore, for example after an accident that makes you temporarily immobile? Then, of course, the premium increases. So, it starts as an invitation and it ends as: ‘when you don’t do what we expect you to do, then there are consequences and that’s what we call responsibility’. So at first there was freedom, and all of a sudden… responsibility! The consequences on the long term aren’t innocent. We are given the illusion of ‘control over our lives’ (data, parameters), while in fact we are giving away a lot – the data are sold, our privacy disappears – and what we get in return are instructions: if you had done this, we would have rewarded you, but as you didn’t do it, we have to do something else. We must resist at the level of the analysis, quote the evolution and the examples that illustrate that ‘a right’ changes into ‘an obligation’.
This is a task that can be done by the government, for example, by making the difference between reliable apps that are medically relevant, and the ones that belong to the free market.
KRING-LRO: You say that wellbeing and happiness are always extremely personal. They can and should not be established by means of a discourse that constitutes an average for everyone, and that quickly starts to function as an imposed norm.
IDV: That is indeed a good summary. When you start to apply this at the level of the collective, you inevitably end up in practices of regulation that strongly limit individual freedom and are very prescriptive at the level of everyday life.
KRING-LRO: ‘Restlessness’, ‘immoderateness’, with all the impasses, all the suffering, all the symptoms that go hand in hand with it… That’s what it’s all about in the daily practice of psychoanalysis! The word ‘immoderateness’ strikes us in your title. At first sight it fits in with the imperative that we all need to enjoy as much as possible.
IDV: There is some irony in the title, because immoderateness is ingrained in our culture. Like the paradoxical slogans in the alcohol advertisements: ‘Enjoy, but drink modestly!’ On the one hand you hear the imperative ‘You must enjoy!’, on the other hand ‘when you overindulge it’s your own fault, because this is not what we meant.’ Our culture struggles with this. Where are the limits and what exactly is expected? On the one hand a desire is stimulated, and at the same time we cannot handle it. These collisions in our immoderate lives make us invent categories like burnout, bore out. The more categories we invent, the less we see of the actual problem.
This is why I went back to Freud among others, in my book, to emphasize this point: that human beings are driven by something that – if it comes to the worst – even destroys them. This is a very important anthropological observation, because it makes you realize that whatever we do to restrict this in society, we will always break out of it. If we don’t have an i-pad to waste our time on, we’ll look for something else.
Look at the opposite side – we complain that we can’t manage to do things in a calmer way: imagine that we succeeded, that everything was nicely regulated, that we no longer overindulged. Where would that lead us? Perfect serenity is death. Then there is no desire anymore. Many debates about slowing down and living more quietly go as follows: either you work and live too hard, or you have to sit back and do nothing, do yoga and mindfulness, and retreat so that you can control it again. Where does this idea come from, that everything has to be in the correct proportions!? This is a contradiction with the human desire: to exaggerate, to lose ourselves in something, to bump into things, to struggle, to try to keep things under control, but to realize that it doesn’t work. You definitely shouldn’t think that you can get rid of these struggles. It is not: either boredom or activity. It is not: to repose or immoderateness. It’s a field of tension. We must focus on this field of tension.