Habits are what give our lives structure. They are patterns of behavior that are repeated over certain time intervals. Some of them, like when men shave, occur usually once a day, unless a man wants to look nice for a dinner in the evening or unless he has an unusually heavy growth for his beard. Others, like putting up a sukkah or a Christmas tree occur once a year. Others still, like cracking one’s knuckles can occur several times during the day. The first two relate to behaviors that have reasonable end goals in mind, and the person exercising these behaviors stops performing them, once the end goal of these habits is reached. These habits have a specific focused goal in mind. Now the cracking of knuckles can be a normal habit, if the person who engages in it is not doing it all the time. Particularly, when done in the presence of other people, it can be unpleasant with the cracking sound and with the knuckle-cracker doing something to himself that looks like torture. When the knuckle-cracker can’t stop cracking his knuckles, then we can say that the habit has morphed into a compulsion. A compulsion is a habit that a person can’t stop performing because there is no reasonable goal available for the person that could lead him to stop it.
A compulsion is a habit gone astray. It is an action or a series of actions of which the agent has apparently lost control. And one of the most important reasons for the emergence of compulsions lies in the nature of modern living environments. In modern technological environments, humans are immersed in experiential vacuums, situations where there simply aren’t enough organic stimuli to help a person feel alive. So, one way to counteract this is by generating one’s own stimuli. A compulsion is sort of like rubbing two sticks together in order to build a fire. By repeating an action or series of actions over and over, one can generate enough friction in order to temporarily feel more alive.
Of course, although it is a human that is performing the compulsive action or actions, they are closer in structure to the repetitive actions of a machine rather than the organic actions of a human. This is because a compulsion is composed of the defined discrete actions associated with a machine rather than the flowing blendable continual actions of an animal. So, machines are acting both as a model and a mirror for humans who are surrounded by machines and who unconsciously are seduced into trying to emulate their behavior. Machines have become the most powerful and pervasive entities in the lives of humans today.
Because the stimuli generated by compulsions are closer to the stimuli generated by machines rather than those generated by other organisms, because these stimuli are really abrasive friction rather than organic stimuli, they are more like explosive overstimulating tension-pockets than more easily absorbable organic stimuli. So, people perform their compulsions until the overstimulation leads to intolerable pain or discomfort, at which point, they stop. After a while, cracking one’s knuckles can hurt. And biting one’s nails can get really painful when one is biting one’s nails right down to the nail bed. A nailbiter will take a rest when this happens. He will let his nails grow out a little again, until he feels comfortably able to start biting them again.
We can now add compulsions to the list that has been developed in this column of pathological behaviors that are designed to pull people out of the numbness from the experiential vacuum that has become the environmental foundation within modern technological society. The list includes drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders, out-of-control gambling, out-of-control serial sex, cutting and other self-destructive behaviors, suicidal behavior, random violence and mass murder. All of them give a kind of a kick that temporarily snaps a person out of his numbness. But because every day compulsions aren’t quite as dramatic as these other defenses against numbness, other people don’t normally notice them as much as pathological manifestations that should be causes for concern. Although it is true that though some mass murderers leave warning signals that they are losing control of their anger, many don’t. There is that image of the person who is quiet and easy-going who, all of a sudden, blows up both figuratively and/or literally.
At any rate, many of these pathological behaviors just listed are really also compulsions - drug addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders, out-of-control gambling, out-of-control serial sex – are all activities designed to pull a person out of numbness through the generation of abrasive friction. But many people are engaged in compulsions that are more invisible in terms of the public eye. And although they are mostly less acutely harmful to the people who engage in them, it is precisely because of that that a person can engage in them for a longer period of time and suffer burnout.