On Killer Instincts

You’re a Dream, mixed media collage, 2021

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés discusses the “life-death-life” aspects of our nature—the idea that life, in its fullest form (and woman, in her fullest form) is a series of deaths and rebirths. It is this concept of “life-death-life” that got me thinking about the importance of my own “death” nature, in particular my “killer instincts.” It’s not only the inner experience of these darker, decidedly primal urges that interests me, but also the ways in which we might use them in order to help, rather than hurt. Create rather than destroy. Become unafraid of ourselves. (Please note that I have not finished the book; so, I will reserve substantive commentary until I do. It is wonderful so far, though.)

Here are some thoughts:

Killer instincts aren’t right or wrong. They just are.

When I first got into birding about a year ago, I thought it was interesting that some birders vehemently dislike and even malign certain species. Indeed, there are some birds they don’t want visiting their backyards or eating at their feeders, not because the birds themselves are harmful, but because they’re thought to have unpleasant personalities. Blue jays are a terrific example. They’re beautiful, intelligent, and they have a habit of rather boldly asserting themselves around smaller birds. When a blue jay arrives at the feeder calling loudly (sometimes even mimicking hawk calls to ward off other birds, which is fascinating to watch), the little birds scatter. For that reason, some birdwatchers think of blue jays as “bullies.” That is, they think they’re mean. Blue jays have negative character traits, and they’re not welcome backyard visitors. 

Crows have a similar bad reputation. They’re known to raid smaller birds’ nests during breeding season. And even though studies have demonstrated this behavior has an overall positive impact on all species involved—and even though crows are among the most intelligent and interesting birds around—many people still think they’re “bad,” see them as harbingers of death. 

Those who think this way fail to accept that there is a hierarchy among birds. Anyone who has a bird feeder knows that there are dominance fights, even among the smallest, cutest songbirds, all the time. They have their way of doing things. And it’s my experience that the first step in learning to really enjoy birdwatching is to accept that. To allow ourselves to be fascinated by other creatures without passing undue judgement—that is, without imposing on them our sense of right and wrong or how things should be

As Thoreau says, out there a “different kind of right” prevails. And that includes a natural killer instinct. Out there, death is part of the rhythms of life. It is, of course, the same within. What makes me different from the birds: I can direct my killer instincts in whichever way I choose. Unlike other wild creatures, I don’t need to kill in order to eat. But, in some sense, I do need to kill in order to live, which leads me to my next point…

Darling, You’re Much Too Pretty, mixed media collage, 2021

We must kill in order to create.

The killing I’m talking about is obviously symbolic. It’s the kind of killing that’s required by creativity. It’s the killing of old forms, old selves, old ways of being, old ways of seeing. It is our killer instinct used in order to create new life. 

Indeed, I cannot, no matter how hard I try, untether my killer instinct from my creative instinct. They are two sides of the same coin. This is a lesson I continue to learn through my collage practice, generally, and through my work with the female form, in particular, as discussed in As If for the First Time

It is my experience that there is something very powerful psychologically about destroying the image of a woman with whom I identify—an image with which I have, in some sense, fallen in love—and then abandoning myself in the process of remaking her. To destroy her is not enough. To kill her and then give her new life—that is where the magic resides. That is how I fashion myself. How I let go of that which is outworn and open myself to the possibility of what might be.

Your enemy can be your friend.

This is another lesson my collage practice has taught me: creativity is the noblest use of my killer instincts. It is actually the destructive aspect of collage that I find the most gratifying. It’s not the reassembling of new images. It’s the cutting, tearing, and burning. 

When I first came to that realization, I thought, is that weird? It was obvious to me that a darker, primal urge was being satisfied in those moments of abandon and destruction. It felt good. It felt freeing. It made me feel a bit more animal than human.

And I realized something else: a woman who doesn’t recognize her own killer instincts will be used by them in the form of destructive habits or relationships. She’ll lack self-control. She will remain afraid of herself until she realizes that her enemy can also be her friend.

It is, after all, that dark, primal instinct which gives a woman’s sexuality an unmistakable vibrance, an edge. It is that which makes us exude passion, appear full of life, and comfortable in our own skin. It is the “death” element which ties us to the rhythms of our bodies, to our seasons of life, and enables us to love most fully.

I think about this often when I’m in nature, observing quietly: all of the creatures I love kill each other. And the wisest thing I can do is continue loving them anyway. 

14 responses to “On Killer Instincts”

  1. I am on round 2 of editing my first book. There is catharsis in “killing my darlings”…the places where ego overrides the story. Learning to love my darkness has come with age.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great :)..and I need to reread “Women Who Run With the Wolves” 🙂 It was such a fantastic book..your thoughts on our “killer instincts” and creativity is so on point. Over the years, I have found a way to make friends with my inner enemies..it’s been such a freeing process and as you have perfectly stated, if you don’t find a way to meet these killer instincts head on, they end up controlling you and using you which leads to running away from an opportunity that could create such glorious beauty..such exceptional art.. And I agree that it is our “dark, primal instinct which gives a woman’s sexuality an unmistakable vibrance, an edge.” I experience this every month with my cycle. The rise, the fall…the need and desire that comes with ovulation, as well as the inevitable shedding of the possibility of one creation to the possibility of another creation as our body begins the cycle all over again..it is truly such a extraordinary process..our bodies instinctively knowing how to rise and pursue the possibility of creating another life, another gloriously unique piece of art to be a part of this world..and then shedding, with literal blood, that possibility and moving with joy, with peace, with passion toward the art that bursts from that shedding..well done, my friend..I am really enjoying all of your insights with these posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you my friend! Your comment is exquisite, and there is so much I could say in response. First, I experience my monthly cycle similarly. I do not have children, but once I hit 35 (maybe even a bit earlier), I started feeling my cycles were somehow sacred. That is, I started embracing the high energy days, as well as the low, the inevitable “death” and beginning again with acceptance, rather than feelings of nuisance or inconvenience. It is extraordinary how our bodies tie us to the rhythms of creation and destruction. Although, I think, as women, we experience the “killer” instinct differently than men do. It occurred to me as I was contemplating the concept of “life-death-life” just how intimately my killer instinct was tied to my creativity. That if I use my darker impulses to help myself rather than hurt myself I might do miraculous things. And that it’s not much in my nature to destroy for its own sake—but to be destroyed (figuratively) and begin again. That is something different.


  3. I am compelled by your narrative and theme of ideas! I love your line on how a killer instinct is simply something that exists neutral between the line dividing right from wrong, and how the act of killing makes room to create.

    In my view, it is a dance and it is motion that fascinates me. Everything is constantly moving so perhaps the real end is in stopping the dance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I like what you say about the “dance,” and I think killer instincts (or managing them) are certainly a part of that. Learning when and how to express our impulses and when to practice restraint, or channel our urges to achieve a higher purpose (as in creativity) is integral to the art of living.

      Liked by 1 person

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