Desire, Hope, Status

Desire, part 2


What do you want?

The question reminds me of the scene in the 1989 film, “Field of Dreams,” where Kevin Costner asks James Earl Jones, "what do you want?"

Costner has gone to see the reclusive writer played by Jones. Jones tries to chase him away, but Costner prevails upon him to go to a baseball game. They’re at the game, standing in front of the concession stand when:
Costner: “So what do you want?”
Jones: “I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.”
Costner (pointing to the concession stand menu): “No, I mean, what do you WANT?”
Jones: “Oh. Dog and a beer.”
It’s wonderful to see Jones’ character relax into the present. There he was getting into his familiar wind-up about people, with the unreasonable things they do and want – these people this and those people that. What a relief it always is to set that aside -- to come back to: what’s right here. Why, it’s a baseball game, with concessions in the offing. There is nothing to want more complicated than, “dog and a beer.”

Desire seems to take us down the tracks that it wants, without our choosing. Can we ever get off of the streetcar named "desire" -- or do we only switch from one line to another? Desires pop into our heads, seemingly out of nowhere. We don’t choose our desires, we discover them.

Through our long evolutionary history, desires that enhance reproductive success spread and grew -- and those are the desires we inherit, built into us. Thus we desire, for instance, status – because status gives access to healthier mates, more food, more protection, more assurance of healthy children to carry on our genes. Here's our problem: restless, unsatisfied anxiety to always get more, to never be satisfied, facilitates reproduction better than being happy, content, and satisfied does. What a predicament! Where’s the hope for us?

Oddly, hope might lie in the fact that desires are usually competing with each other. Does the organism go looking for food, or seek safety from some danger, or seek a mate? Once there are multiple options, then there are desires. Something has to determine whether the organism will seek food, safety, or a mate, and we name that something “desire.” Desires are there to compete with each other to determine what you will do. So if the food desire is shouting louder than the safety desire – because it’s been a while since the animal ate, and there are no signs of danger – then the animal will usually go about trying to rustle up some grub. Your desire for another piece of pie competes with your desire to be trim and svelte. Your desire for job success – and the things that go with that – competes with your desire to sleep in on Monday morning.

Because desires compete, there’s hope for us for a kind of liberation. It’s true we don’t choose our desires, we discover them. But with those desires in competition, we can choose which one to follow. The desire that happens to be yelling the loudest doesn’t have to win. We can, if we work on it, bring thoughtful intentionality to our desires, and thereby reduce the attraction of the desire that happens to be loudest at a particular moment, and increase the influence of quieter desires.

Let's say a desire intrudes itself on me. "Pizza!" I can ask myself, "Where did that come from?" Or, somewhat more expensively, suppose I discover this desire: “I think I’d like to own an original Van Gogh.” I can turn the light of attention on the desire. I can explore where it might have come from.

The young Thomas Merton was, in his college years, a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. He was, in his own words,
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. I was a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, he felt a desire to convert to Catholicism. He took instruction, got baptized, and became a Catholic. Shortly thereafter, he got another spontaneous desire: to become a priest. He tried the Franciscans for a while. And then a third desire: to be a Trappist monk. He didn’t know where the desire came from, but there it was: powerful, irresistible, clear.

As William Irvine suggests, there is something very disturbing about Thomas Merton’s story.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
This could be you. When it comes to making our peace with ourselves, making our peace with being creatures filled with desires imposed upon us and out of our control, the first step is noticing. Just step back and say: "Ah, there’s that desire."

And bring a curiosity to it: "Where did you come from, desire? You are legitimate. I will not deny your presence or try to repress you. But maybe you need not be indulged, either."

Let me talk about one particularly significant desire – one which we aren’t generally proud of, but which is very powerful: social position, status. In order to move toward bringing more consciousness and awareness to our own desires, we’ll need to confront just how much our social position is a big part of what we want.

To illustrate the power of our concern over social position, let me ask you to imagine this scenario:

You work in an office, and one day you
“receive an anonymous letter listing the salaries of the people in the office in which you work. Your salary listing is correct, but you notice that you are way down on the pay scale. In fact, people who have been there a shorter time and have less experience than you nevertheless draw a bigger salary. You are angry and depressed. You consider quitting. Then you notice that your co-workers are massed around a memo your boss has posted on the office bulletin board. According to the memo, someone, in order to stir up resentment at the workplace, has been sending people false salary listings. The person in question has apparently obtained the actual list of salaries to work from, since he always correctly gives the salary of the letter’s recipient, thereby adding an element of authenticity to his letter. To restore office harmony, the boss adds, he is posting this one time only a listing of everyone’s salaries. Your eyes turn to the listing in question. You find your own salary. And when you look at the salaries of your co-workers, you realize that compared to them, you are very highly paid. Your self-esteem soars. In fact, you take on a mildly condescending attitude toward your co-workers.” (William Irvine, On Desire)
It’s the same salary either way – but that same salary that was first made unsatisfying was then made very satisfying.

When we shine the light of consciousness on this desire for social rank, only then can we, maybe, begin to see through it. We have to notice how much we cared about it in order to begin moving toward, maybe, caring about it a little less.

That little thought experiment might help you say to yourself, "Hey, it’s silly for me to care as much about my relative position in the office as I have. I will still care about it some, but not as much. I think I’ll pay more attention to just being glad I have enough."

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Desire"
See also:
Part 1: Streetcars Named Desire
Part 3: What If You Owned Everything

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