What Do You Want to Want?

Part 1.

So. Desire. But WHICH desires?

Have you noticed how many of the seven deadly sins are desires? Lust, gluttony, greed. Envy is a comparative desire: comparing myself to others, I desire as good or better than what they have. Vanity is a sort of reversal of envy: it’s conviction that others must envy me -- rooted in the desire that they do so. And anger – that’s what you feel when a desire is thwarted. That’s six of the seven deadly sins that are malfunctions or excesses of desire.

Pope Gregory I in the 6th century delineated these seven deadly sins. Calling them sins probably only encourages judgment, self-judgment, and repression -- which millennia of Christendom’s experience show don’t work all that well. “The Return of the Repressed” might be the title of a very fat history of Western Civilization. Still, Pope Gregory was right that greed, lust, gluttony – and envy, vanity, and anger – can be problems for us and those around us.

On the other hand, desirelessness is also problematic. The one deadly sin not yet mentioned is sloth – which is the sin of desirelessness.
Without any desires, we have no motivation and are sunk in sloth.

Desire can take us to soaring heights of passionate intensity that makes life delicious and glorious. Desire for inner peace and equanimity can take us to contemplative practices that cultivate compassion, gentleness, and wise insight. So it’s not a question of desire or don’t desire – it’s a question of which desires are worth throwing yourself into with abandon – and which ones warrant a little disciplined, well, if not self-denial, then re-direction of the energies.

There's a passage from Walden in which Henry David Thoreau said:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.”
As I bob along on the current of Thoreau’s paean to the glory of giving yourself over to desire, I find I abruptly run aground at the word, “Spartan-like.” The famously austere and disciplined Spartans represent pretty much the exact opposite of hedonist indulgence. Clearly, Thoreau did not equate a life of desire with a life of gratifying every impulse.

The thing is, we are, each of us, a hodge-podge of conflicting desires. Some of them are the joy of life. Some of them make us miserable. So what do we do? First, notice what these things are, desires, how they come to us, how they arise without our having chosen them. The main desires that drive your life, for better or for worse, weren’t ones you picked. If we were to personify Desire, we’d say our desires picked us, we didn’t pick them.

Part 2. (Part 2 duplicates the first part of "Creature Comforts" -- HERE. Readers who have already read "Creature Comforts" may wish to skip to part 3.)

I was intrigued to learn that the word desire comes from the Latin de sidere. “Sidere” is the root of “sidereal,” meaning “of or relating to the stars.” The suggestion is that our desires are “written in the stars.” We are fated to desire what we desire. Desire is the name of something we don’t choose, that isn’t rationally determined, and that it’s our fate to have.

We call it “freedom” when you can do what you like, but we overlook that you haven’t decided what you like. Brian Magee writes:
“If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. But I am not free to choose what I like shall be. I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going to like it.' What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command.”
Philosopher William Irvine was struck by the case of Thomas Merton. In his college years, Merton was a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. Merton would later describe his young adult self as
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. . . . a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, Merton 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.

William Irvine recounts Merton’s story, and finds it very disturbing.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
That’s disturbing to Irvine because he hasn’t had those desires. It startles him to realize that he could. We don’t control what desires come: Merton becoming a monk; Siddhartha Gautama leaving behind the palace of pleasure for practices of severe austerity, and eventually leaving those behind for the Middle Way.

Less famous cases of shifting the direction of one’s life are common. Every year, 18-year-olds show up on college campuses intent on a Business degree – and somewhere in the next year or two some of them decide that what they really desire is to study 18th-century French poetry.
Or maybe they show up intending to major in art history and discover that what they really love are the complexities and challenges of the finance industry. Our calling comes to us as a desire to be a certain sort of person, follow a certain path. It’s called “calling” because we don’t choose it. We are called to it, as if by a voice, as if written in the stars in writing that, suddenly or slowly, becomes clear.
Desire emerged in animals because the ones that desired certain things that made surviving and reproducing more likely were naturally selected for.

Evolution made certain things feel good, which is to say, desired. William James pondered the case of chickens who build nests and tend the eggs in them despite never having done so before, never having seen other chickens do that. Squirrels gather and bury nuts, even in their first year when they have no experience of winter and don’t realize food will become scarce. James says the hen tends her eggs because she finds them “utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much sat upon.” It feels good to her to sit on her eggs. It feels bad not to – if she is prevented from sitting on her eggs, she feels anxious. She tends her eggs because she wants to – she has a desire to. She wants to because it feels good to do that and feels bad not do it.

Once we have organisms with the emotions, memory, and cognition required to have pursuable desires – then chains of desire form.
That is, some things feel good just because they are instrumental for getting something else that feels good. I want A for no reason other than that it leads to B, which I want for no reason other than that it leads to C. And then we begin to be organisms who enjoy doing some things where the chain of connection back to something that increased our odds of surviving and reproducing is so long the links become invisible.

Mountain-climber George Mallory, asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied, “because it’s there.”
For Mallory, mountains are to be climbed.

When John Kennedy in 1962 declared that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard” he was appealing to this desire for accomplishment even when disconnected from any purpose for accomplishing it. (As an aside, I have to mention that, in fact, the space program wasn’t so disconnected from perceived threats to survival. It was driven by cold war military objectives of impressing upon the Soviet Union that we had the capacity to deliver Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to the other side of the globe. It was an intimidation display such as is common throughout the animal kingdom. Still, the idea of doing something just because it’s hard felt good and was inspiring for a lot of Americans.)

Indeed, birds evidently feel some satisfaction in a nest well built even independent of their desire to have a place to sit on eggs. We gather this because some species build multiple nests and end up using only one. Some ornithologists will hazard one of several guesses about why birds do this, but most will just say “we don’t know.” Whatever the reason, it’s evident that those birds desire to build nests. They build them because nests are to be built. They do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.

We are made of desires. We don’t choose them. Advertisers and grifters can easily manipulate them. Even something as fundamental as the desire to live is astonishingly easy to change if you have access to a brain and know where to place the electrodes, as in the case of the woman receiving treatment for Parkinson’s when the electrodes were slightly misplaced. Or, as Leo Tolstoy experienced, we might find the desire for life itself going away for no evident cause.

Part 3.

But if desires can be manipulated – by accident or by design – can we manipulate our own? Can you choose that you’re going to like spinach if you have always detested it? Not on the spur of the moment, no. Over time, though, yes, tastes and desires can be cultivated. There’s a sometimes-delicate-sometimes-rough dance between our fixed biology and what can be cultivated. Some people have more taste receptors on their tongue particularly sensitive to the bitterness in spinach and others don’t. It’ll be harder, but not impossible, for them to train themselves to like it. And why should they?

More significant desires might be worth the effort to cultivate. This requires intentionality and most of the time most of us don’t bring much intentionality to the development of desires – we just let them develop as they will.

So. What do you want? And ultimately more important: What do you want to want?

As we set about to cultivate and weed the garden of our desires, I think we’d get rid of most of the desires for things that we have no control over. Yes, some times it can be fun to desire things we have no control over – cheering for your sports team on TV when you have no way to have any affect on the game’s outcome, for instance. Gambling can be enjoyable – in fact it can be so enjoyable that it becomes a life-ruining addiction. We are wired to enjoy – to crave -- that hit of dopamine that comes will a lucky roll. It can be a fun indulgence if reserved for rare occasions and affordable amounts.

Generally, though, desiring what we have no control over leads to miserable and pointless worry and anxiety. If you think you don’t have this problem, let me remind you that once you have cast your ballot in an election, you have no further control over the outcome. So how late were you up on the night of Tuesday November 8, 2016, and how upset were you about an outcome you couldn’t do anything more about? Pretty late – and pretty upset? Yeah, me, too.

Some desires may be impossible to achieve, and we make ourselves miserable pursuing them, and ashamed of ourselves for not attaining them.
The image of the body we think we ought to have may be unrealistic, for example.

If we are choosing what to want, I think we’d probably make sure not to have any addictions. Addiction can happen not only with drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, or sex but also with shopping, TV shows, or the news – or work (hence the word “workaholic.”) Any activity can take on addictive quality if it gives us a temporary pleasure but hijacks our better judgment so that we find ourselves indulging even when we know the activity is contributing neither to our productivity nor to our overall well-being and happiness.

Which desires would we keep?

There are universal and recurrent needs: food, air, rest and sleep, fun and laughter, meaningful work to do, aesthetic experience, sexual expression, empathy and understanding, affirmation of trust, of respect. These are universal in that everyone wants these, and recurrent in that our desire for them is roughly proportional to how long it’s been since we had some.

We’d probably also like to be the sort of person who is at peace with themselves, compassionate, gentle, and wise. If we aren’t sociopaths or severely narcissistic, we want to love well and have relationships of depth and meaning. We want to be the sort of person who has caring connection to other people, other beings, nature, our neighborhood, town, or city. We want to be the sort of person who can experience joy in our circumstances, whatever they may be. Those are nearly universal – pretty much everybody wants those things, and wants to want them.

What about desires that are unique to you? Your calling or passion – whether it’s creative writing or stock brokering – is something you want and want to want. You didn’t choose your passion, but if you’ve got one, you probably want to it – maybe even amplify it.

I’m not going to talk about how to cultivate desire. You can google “how to cultivate desire” and get lots of good ideas and strategies. But the first step is deciding to bring intentionality to it – deciding to seriously ask yourself, not “what do I want?” but “what do I want to want?”

Most people never undertake to revise the desires written in their stars. The degree to which we can re-write our stars is limited, but we can do some editing. So, before cranking up the google to search for "how to cultivate desire," I suggest making a list of what you want to want. Take a few days to reflect on and add to your list. That’s the essential first step.

This first step is a discernment, not a decision. It's about self-discovery; about taking a deep-dive into interpreting what you can make out of what's written in your stars, teasing out the most important themes of that muddled and often contradictory text.

Second step, hit google for some ideas.

Third step: talk to other people in your life about the changes you’re trying to make. We really need to create networks of accountability for ourselves if we trying to make a change – friends who we promise to regularly report to, and who will ask us about it if we don’t. Without forming this support structure for yourself, your intentions will go the way of the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions.

What do you want to want? If you don’t get clear about that now, you, too, might end up in a Trappist monastery. Or maybe, if you DO get clear about that then you’ll head to a monastery. May it be your best, most thoughtful self that makes that choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment