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…
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.