There is something to be said about impulsivity being a particularly contemporary problem. The more control we appear to gain over so many technical aspects of modern life, the less control we seem to have over ourselves. An “I-want-what-I-want-when-I-want-it” disposition towards life governs not only the actions and reactions of infants, but also the behavior of the developmentally more mature. Today’s marketing campaigns certainly encourage such thinking and modern technology provides ample space for practice in acting on impulse to such a degree that it can become the default mode for engaging with the world. Obesity, gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, marital turmoil, and even murder are often just differing manifestations of impulsivity dangerously out of control, manifestations that have been the spur for much research into assuaging these sources of turmoil. This research is certainly necessary, for the problems caused by impulsivity are legion.
At the same time, we can also be assured that impulsivity has been around for a very, very long time. In the Scriptures, reading about Eve and the forbidden fruit, Cain and his brother Abel, David and Uriah’s Bath-sheba, we can see that impulsivity has not only been a cause of havoc, but also an important component of sin, especially sins of desire and aggression. For the Fathers of the Church, impulsivity is a passion (πάθος) in the literal sense of the word, something that we undergo or suffer from in which our agency is compromised. Of course, there is no one passion of impulsivity, but rather the presence of impulsivity in many (but not all of the) passions, parallel to the presence of impulsivity in the many addictive disorders (but not all mental illness). The Fathers whose writings are included in the Philokalia, the desert Abbas, ascetics such as Saint John Climacus, Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, Saint Maximus the Confessor, and Saint John Cassian, the Cappadocian Fathers, and many other luminaries in the firmament of the Church have written extensively on the passions and their healing. In so doing, they have much to say about the problem of impulsivity and ways to deal with it.
As for the scientific community’s understanding of impulsivity, behaviorists define it as “a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions to the impulsive individual or others.” For instance, someone with a weight problem thinks about a donut, sees a donut, and quickly consumes that donut, with little or no thought about tight clothing or high-blood sugar until the deed has been done. In its most banal manifestation, impulsivity can be considered as a first response to the “fight or flight” instinct basic to all of us. Yet, when this becomes our modus operandi for interaction with the world, it can be harmful to ourselves and others around us. “Pathological impulsivity can be conceptualized as a failure to regulate, monitor, or control behavior and emotional expression” (Impulsivity in Neurobehavioral Disorders, Holmes, Johnson, Roedel). Although we all have a capacity to regulate, monitor, and control our actions and reactions, that capacity can be weakened to such an extent that one can become, as Gordon AllPort once observed “extremely destructive of property, insistent and demanding that every desire be instantly gratified, helpless, and almost totally dependent on others, unable to share his possessions, impatient and prone to tantrums, violent and uninhibited in the display of all his feelings.” He further noted that, “such behavior, normal to a two-year old, would be monstrous in a man. Unless these qualities are markedly altered in the process of becoming we have on our hands an infantile and potentially evil personality.”
The fathers have also been acute observers of human behavior and impulsivity that almost takes over human action. For instance, Saint John Cassian’s description of listlessness could also be considered a portrait of the many forms that impulsivity takes. The Saint writes, that the demon of listlessness “suggests to the monk that he should go elsewhere and that, if he does not, all his effort and time will be wasted. In addition to all this, time produces in him at around the sixth hour a hunger such as he would not normally have after fasting for three days, or after a long journey or the heaviest labor. Then he makes him think that he will not be able to rid himself of this grievous sickness, except by sallying forth frequently to visit his brethren, ostensibly to help them and to tend them if they are unwell. When he cannot lead him astray in this manner, he puts him into the deepest sleep. In short, his attacks become stronger and more violent, and he cannot be beaten off except through prayer, through avoiding useless speech, through the study of the Holy Scriptures and through patience in the face of temptation. If he finds a monk unprotected by these weapons, he strikes him down with his arrows, making him a wayward and lazy wanderer, who roams idly from monastery to monastery, thinking only of where he can get something to eat and drink. The mind of someone affected by listlessness is filled with nothing but vain distraction. Finally he is ensnared in worldly things and gradually becomes so grievously caught up in them that he abandons the monastic life altogether” (Cassian, On the Eight Vices). Isn’t this listless monk also an impulsive monk, reacting to this provocation and then to that? And doesn’t the patristic description capture something important beyond stimulus and response in noting a swirling mind, the inattentive spirit, and the complaining flesh? Doesn’t the observation that impulsivity eschews reflection, prayer, and stillness, also point to a potential remedy for impulsivity, occupying the mind with the Word of God and patiently enduring, which means waiting for the impulse to eventually die down? Perhaps, as a “householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13:52), we can make use of contemporary research on the subject of impulsivity as well as the wise insights of the Church Fathers, in order to provide some guidance for a way of life that is serene, peaceful, and not dominated by impulses that are out of control. This is what we’ll be attempting to do in the posts to come.