NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Desire” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome.
Desire: Empowering “yes” and “no”
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
The poet Stanley Kunitz asks the question, “What makes the engine go?” and his response is “Desire, desire, desire.”
Desire is what motivates us to find food when we are hungry, drink when we are thirsty, warmth when we are cold, sleep when we are tired, companionship when we are lonely. Once basic survival needs are satisfied, we seek things further up what psychologist Abraham Maslow called the “hierarchy of needs,” such as safety, security, love, belonging, and self-esteem. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization – the desire to become the fullest versions of ourselves.
Movement up the hierarchy of needs is often interrupted. For people living in great poverty, even the basic desires for survival cannot be satisfied. For others, desires higher up the hierarchy are often thwarted.
Many of us have great difficulty saying “yes” to what we truly desire and “no” to what we don’t, not only because we have had assertiveness schooled out of us, but because contact with our own desires has been schooled out, as well. When asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, what child answers, “I’d like to sell insurance,” or “I’d like to work in a factory,” or “I’d like to sit in a cubicle all day,” or “I’d like to kill or be killed in a war half a world away”? We do these things and many others not because of innate desire, but because, as Rodgers and Hammerstein so eloquently put it, we’ve been “carefully taught.”
Instead of our cultural surroundings watering the seeds of our genuine desires and letting them blossom, we learn first to suppress then to replace them with cravings for approval, success, power, and for goods and services provided by others primarily for their profit.
Our early programming begins with our families and schools, not because they are ill-intentioned, but because that is the program they are also following. We learn the right words, such as responsibility and respect, but sometimes the wrong definitions: responsibility becomes regulation and respect, obedience. We are led to desire what those in positions of power want us to desire, whether they are our elders, our teachers, our political leaders, or the manufacturers of the products we consume, rather than what we need. Conditional love is one of our most insidious teachers: “We will love you if you obey. We will love you if we find you beautiful. We will love you if you achieve what we want you to achieve. We will love you if you give your lives to fulfilling our desires.”
Instead of fully actualizing, we find ourselves stuck in the sand trap of feeding our unexpressed and unfulfilled desires with products and distraction, always craving more, with a hunger that can’t be satisfied because it is driven by false desire. Our pseudo-desires are akin to addictions, and like addiction they throws us off track, onto the sidelines, away from who we are meant to be and what we are meant to do. Our cultural programming is never explicitly articulated and so cannot easily be challenged. The result is a systemic confusion.
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” illustrates the extreme case of leveling out our desires. In his dystopian future, all people are explicitly made “equal” by handicapping those who are in some way superior to the least of its citizens. The Handicapper General enforces this “equality” by legislating “handicaps” – masks for those who are too beautiful, earphones that emit deafening sounds for those who are too smart, and heavy weights for anyone faster or stronger than the slowest and weakest citizen. The protagonist, Harrison Bergeron, is a 14-year-old boy who wears the most severe handicaps made. As the story progresses, he meets a similarly encumbered young female dancer. They cast off their handicaps and dance, rising thirty feet into the air, where they kiss. It is a spellbinding moment – and it ends suddenly when the Handicapper General herself shoots them down.
In Vonnegut’s futuristic nightmare, it is blunt, visible handicaps that society imposes, but his story, like most science fiction, is an allegory for today, where desire itself is subtly and invisibly handicapped by suppression and misdirection. We have no Handicapper General, but many of us go through our lives saying “yes” when our desires beg us to say “no,” and “no” when they cry for our “yes.”
When our desires become muted or confused, we cannot grow into our full selves. So how do we get out of this mess? To enact desire in a life-affirming way, we must distinguish an empowered “yes” and “no” from their disempowered counterparts.
Our immune systems automatically determine, quickly and with surprising accuracy, what is harmful to us and what is not. Is this microorganism friend or foe? If the latter, use it. If the former, send forth the macrophages! To reorient our emotional immune systems we must ask, moment to moment, Is this for me, or not for me? Do I want this, or do I not? Like plucking the petals off a flower and saying softly to ourselves, She loves me, she loves me not, in this way, one discernment at a time, we retrain ourselves to connect with the source of our desires.
An exercise: Imagine that inside you is little child you care for very much. As you go through your day, imagine asking him or her, Do you like that? Or would you really have or do something else? Don’t answer with your conscious mind. Instead, wait for a sensation within you to signal “yes,” “no,” or “something else.”
The place that answers your queries is where your desires live, and it is essential to pay attention to it. Sensing the answers to these questions encourages making empowered decisions that reflect our true desires. When we do that, cravings, envy, and even shame, guilt, and confusion vanish. We can move ahead with confidence and inner security, rather than being bounced from one pseudo-desire’s urgings to another.
What would our human world be like if we were all empowered to follow our true desires? Would some of us still work unsatisfying jobs, be in unsatisfying relationships, act out of guilt or obligation, hatred or fear? Would we continue to trade the dreams of our youth, the things we are passionate about, for trinkets? Or would we do only what satisfies the essential needs of ourselves and others, freeing the rest of our time, energy, and resources for fulfilling our higher desires?
Perhaps one day we shall all get a chance to find out.