Copyright © Stan Goff 2023, All Rights Reserved
an online freebook
NOTE to readers: I’m posting this book on chapter a day, each day adding a new one . . . hopefully. Some days will get dropped, because that’s how things are. My goal is to get the whole thing done in just over a month. Thank you for your patience. Commentary and criticism gladly accepted.
I’ve written a few books, mostly about war and violence and things that make men (adult males, that is) do bad things. Those books were written for people who like to read and people who have a lot of time to read. They were also sometimes written in language that might not be altogether familiar for most people. The average American reads at a seventh- or eighth-grade level; and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Some people look down on others who don’t like to read much, or who don’t have big vocabularies. Some other people feel sorry for them, which is sometimes just a nicer way of looking down on them. I like to read, but I don’t think everyone else has to be like me. My brother (RIP) never read a book in his life, but he had a rich and fulfilling life. He could do plenty of things a lot of big-time readers can’t do — like build a house or salvage a boat or make an old motor run. Some of the people close to me like to read and read well “above” (there’s that word!) an eighth-grade level. A lot of other people close to me are not big readers. In this book, I want to say a few things about desire — a subject I believe we all need to think about a good deal more — but I want this free book to make easy sense to people who don’t have degrees; and I want this book to be divided into bite-sized pieces, because a lot of people’s lives are a rat race and they don’t have big chunks of time for reading.
Just for the record, this book is not about “theories of desire,” if by that one refers to evolution, motivation-hygiene theory, hierarchies of needs, drive reduction theory, arousal theory, incentive theory, the cognitive-achievement approach, temporal theory, or anything else that uses these tinker-toy terms to study people like they’re machines or interesting bugs. This book begins and ends with the belief that every person, including the reader, is a sacred, irreplaceable, and utterly unique child of God, who can’t be captured like a bug and pinned to a board by some theory.
The thoughts on desire in this book are not original. I didn’t come up with them on my own. In fact, most of them came from reading a bunch of university professors, philosophers, social critics, the Bible, and a few Saints. So, I don’t take credit for any of the ideas here.
By the same token, I won’t be making specific references to these people and cluttering the book with footnotes. First of all, while I studied these people, my own thoughts as represented here are a mix of bits from all of them, so it would be like trying to separate the parts of a smoothie; and second of all, this is not an academic paper. If you like lots of footnotes, try my other books. They’re swimming in footnotes.
The reason I wanted to write this book was because these ideas helped me understand myself and others and the world in general a lot better, which can be kind of a relief. Being confused, and sometimes a little afraid, and sometimes more than a little trapped . . . well, this stuff is no fun. These ideas, which can bring a little relief, make one less afraid, and help us feel less trapped, are generally passed around in conversations between university professors and big-readers in language that’s unfamiliar to most people. I wanted to write a book about these ideas on desire for regular people, in language they can understand, because they deserve to be less confused and less afraid and feeling less trapped, too.
My brother didn’t have a big vocabulary and didn’t read books, but he — like most people — was actually pretty smart. Life threw the same question marks at him as it does the rest of us. Spelling out ideas can be like giving people tools. As my brother knew, you can see how a boat is damaged, but before you can fix it and use it, you’ll need some tools. This book is a mental toolbox.
Desire is part of being human. Desire directs our actions toward purposes. On the other hand, nothing in our lives gives us more trouble than desires. I’m not saying all desires are bad. On the contrary, our desire for good things and to be good are big positives. We wouldn’t be what we are without desires. I’m saying — and we’ll look at this more closely inside — desires can mount up, conflict with one another, put us at odds with others, get us in trouble, and sometimes overpower us, if we can’t keep our desires in good relation to each other and in good working order. The ideas I’m translating and blending in this book are just tools for that.
The book has thirty chapters. I’ve tried to keep each chapter down to around ten-to-fifteen minutes of reading. You can read a chapter with your morning coffee, or during a lunch break, or while you sit on the pot. If you read one chapter a day, you’re done in a month. Or you can read it in five hours. Or you can read a chapter a day all the way through, then do it all again to see what you get the next time. Your book — your call.
Each chapter is one reflection on desire — that thing with many (many many many many) faces. Sometimes, in a single chapter, you’ll encounter more than one idea put together in unusual ways. Gardeners know that putting several different kinds of plant together — called companion planting — can improve your garden. Plants can work together. A cilantro plant next to a tomato plant attracts a wasp that attacks tomato hornworms. You see what I mean. Sometimes, ideas are like that. Put two of them together, and you get more tomatoes . . . or a bigger, better set of connections between ideas.
You’ll also notice as you read that the chapters seem to connect, overlap, and to some extent repeat one another; and yet I’m not going overboard spelling out connections. You’ll figure it out. Things you figure out on your own generally stick with you better.
When most people look at the title, Desire, they’re going to instantly think about sex. That’s the world we live in. Sex is all around us. It’s used to get us to the movies. It’s used to sell cars and clothes and booze and cosmetics. It’s used to get clicks on websites. You all know the deal. We’re drowning in sex. We associate the term “desire” with sex — there is a perfume named “Desire” (say it like you’re breathless) — even though “desire” means wanting any damn thing. We’ll talk about sex some in the book, but the book is about why, when, where, and how we want things, all things, as well as when, where, why, and how, or even if, we should act on desires.
At the end of each chapter, there’s a simple thought-exercise for one day as you go about your business. Ideas that float around in the I-world (which we’ll talk about in the first chapter) get away from us more easily than ideas that are related to experiences in the social-world (also in the first chapter).
That’s enough intro. Let’s get started.
Desire and the two worlds
There’s no end to the number or forms of things a person can desire. Think about it. A drug addict told me once, “My drug of choice is more.”
That bottomless well of the ability to want — even of things we know we can’t have, quite possibly will never have, and maybe shouldn’t have — is a like a sharp knife: you can cut things that need cutting, like preparing vegetables for a soup or shortening a rope, but you can also — if you mishandle the knife or use it with bad intent — cut yourself or others.
Pretty much everything we choose to do — as opposed to things that just happen, like your heart beating — is motivated by some form of desire. Even when we’re doing things we don’t particularly like or enjoy, some more important desire than “the desire not to” pushes us through. No one I know is crazy about cleaning toilets, for example, but we may be less crazy about facing a funky toilet; so, we have a desire to see the toilet clean, and that takes priority over the desire not to clean a toilet.
Desire, though, when you really think about it, is kind of mysterious. Where does it come from? We know that the desire to eat comes from a rumbling belly, but we also know that sometimes we eat for other reasons. We know the desire for sex — from a doctor’s point of view — comes from hormones, whatever those are; but we also know that there are a lot of other factors that play into this desire, or sometimes even the desire not to, with regard to sex.
Let’s try thinking about something a little different with regard to desire. Let’s think about desire as coming from two worlds at once. Mostly, we like to think there is one world. From a God’s-eye-view this may be true, but for the rest of us, we operate in two worlds at once. We’ll call those two worlds (1) the I-world and (2) the social-world. The reason we don’t think about these two worlds is you can’t touch or see them like a wall or a tree or a broom. Still, we experience these “worlds” both at once, and we can never escape either. But we can think of them as two things, and separating the I-world and the social-world can give us certain insights into who and what we are.
We’ll start with the I-world. It’s deeply mysterious, because you and I are so complicated that there will never be an identical person, not even an identical twin. Speaking of those twins, we know they’re physically pretty close to identical. When they come out of the womb, they will be having a nearly identical experience. (In fact, there are tiny variations that already happen in the womb.) On the other hand, one comes out first, so what he or she encounters upon birth — even in the same room with the same people — will be ever so slightly different. A particular person will be in a different part of the room, for example, so the first fuzzy images will be slightly different. Mom may be in a slightly different position. Not big differences, but as time goes one, even if Mom and Dad dress them the same and take them everywhere together, they will have more and more experiences that are more and more different. They’ll respond to different experiences in different ways, and by adulthood, even if they’re very close — as many twins are — they will be two different people. But there’s another difference already at birth. Each of them has an I-world that is only his or her own. If one dies, one I-world dies, too. And the other remains.
You know your I-world — that awareness “inside” where you can keep secrets, where you physically see, hear, taste, touch, feel for yourself. It’s yours and yours alone — and no one can ever really know your I-world completely. Nor can you ever fully know the I-world of someone else. It’s a world you can never escape. It’s there when you’re alone or with others, when you’re awake and thinking or doing, or when you’re asleep and dreaming. It’s there when you’re sick or well. It’s there when you’re happy, sad, bored, tired, worried, obsessed, horny, relaxed, afraid, angry, in love . . . whatever.
It’s also got limits. You can only see so far and in certain directions. You can only taste what’s in your mouth. You can only hear what’s near enough or loud enough to reach your ears. You can only smell what is carried to you through the air. You can only touch what’s within reach. You can only think your own thoughts; and you can never see your own face, except as a reflection or a picture.
Because of the I-world’s limitations, you find yourself thinking past the I-world of direct experience, because you have concerns and desires that aren’t based in the here-and-now and that aren’t only about you. You’re at work, hearing your co-workers or the machines, smelling that burnt office coffee, or hearing your boss scold someone; but you’re thinking beyond that I-world of direct experience about what’s for dinner, or picking up the kids, or an upcoming date, or bringing something to a sick friend.
The I-world is both our most reliable and least reliable source. Nothing more firmly confirms the truth of a matter than witnessing it first-hand. I know for a fact that it’s sprinkling outside, because I hear it and I can look out my window and see it. On the other hand, my I-world is also a dreamy world, a world full of imagining. I’m constantly, here inside this secretive, mysterious I-world, obliged to think beyond that I-world about things I cannot confirm, about which I can only make guesses. And I know that I get it more or less right sometimes, but I get it wrong (or incompletely) a lot more. I know that in this sense the I-world is unreliable — in imagining.
That’s where the social-world comes in. Social means there’s more than one of us. My I-world has that element of unreliability. The old saying is, “Don’t go upstairs alone.” And since I may never have all the information I need to get through the day, the week, the year, my life . . . I take cues from other people. They take cues from me, too. We measure and test and try out our I-world impressions against others impressions, and this confirms or sheds doubt on I-world impressions and beliefs. That relation between many I-worlds, where things are measured or tested, is what we’ll call the social-world.
Desires are both shaped and negotiated between the I-world and the social-world.
Thought exercise: Today, try to notice your I-world, that place where you are always alone even when you are with others. How much of that I-world is imagining how other people think of you? How often are you looking to others to see “How am I doing?” — “How do I appear?” — “Is what I’m thinking right or wrong?”
— — —
Desire in animals and humans
Everybody’s into DNA these days. Very few people actually know what it actally is, but we all have our imagination of what it is — like a secret biological code that can reveal what we “really” are. There is actual DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, a complex structure studied by scientists, then there is this popular DNA, not actual DNA, that exists in our shared imaginations. Pop-DNA sells us a lot of “DNA tests,” for sure, into which we project our desires and imaginations about human “types” and so on. People say all kinds of things about this pop-DNA. One thing I read sometimes is that humans “share” 98.8 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, or that we “share” 84 percent of our DNA with our dogs. These statements might feel clever or thought-provoking, but they’re also misleading and a little bit silly. In the actual presence of a chimpanzee or a dog, the difference is pretty obvious, and it’s not about percentages.
Let’s think about these other animals, but not about how much pop-DNA they “share.” Yes, I know we’re animals, too; but, as we’ll see, we are unique animals, especially when it comes to how we desire. For our purposes, we’ll use a fish, a dog, and a human for comparison. We’ve all seen fish, and most of us have lived with dogs.
We know that a fish, a dog, and a human each has an I-world — a world of direct experience, of being a fish or a dog or a human. We don’t know what it’s like to be a fish, or even a dog, but we can indirectly know something about them from what we see them do. We know fish aren’t very calculating. They respond to cues in their environment in a nearly machine-like fashion. As a fisherman, I can tell you that you can provoke a fish to make a feeding strike using color, motion, and scent. I take advantage of the fish’s very predictable machine-like qualities to catch the fish. A dog, of course, has a number of automatic doggie behaviors, too; but we also know that dogs can be trained, that they establish relationships, and that they can, to a limited extent, calculate. We’ve all left food on the table that Fido wouldn’t dare touch while we are there, then come home and seen that desire got the best of that “bad dog.” The evidence of the crime is scattered across the floor, and Fido skulks guiltily in the corner.
A fish “remembers” for about ten minutes. A dog will remember you — even after a long absence — for most of its life. Our human memory works differently though; and our memory is supplemented by something that neither fish nor dogs have: imagination and projection into an imaginary realm called the future (a time and place that never actually arrives except as the present). Fido is pretty smart in some ways, but there are two things he doesn’t do. He doesn’t worry about what might happen next week, and he doesn’t construct fantasies or worries in his head. Sometimes we envy that about dogs. They can “be in the moment” in a way that we can’t. Their heads aren’t cluttered with regrets from “the past” or anxieties about imagined “futures.”
We can see how a dog’s I-world desires are negotiated with the dog’s social-world. He or she pays close attention to us, seeks our approval, and responds intelligently to social cues. Not a fish. A largemouth bass will ferociously protect its nests when certain environmental cues tell it to, then eat its own young two weeks later when the cues change.
So, what makes the way humans and other animals desire different?
Let’s back up a bit and give “desire” a definition. We know it is “wanting,” but we need a little more than that. Let’s think of it as mental reaching and grasping, like a ghostly hand that stretches out toward something with a ghostly voice that says, “Mine!” So far, we are still in fish and dog territory where this can be experienced as raw attraction, almost like a magnet “reaching” for iron.
Humans have two particular and powerful ways to share between the I-world and the social-world: language and beauty.
Language is a super-power. It gives us history, a way of communicating the past, and the ability to store the things we learned in the past so we don’t have to learn them all over again. It gives us a way to describe things to one another that aren’t there in front of us. It gives us a means to plan into that mystery-realm of the future. It gives us the capacity to coordinate very complex actions together. In the Bible story of the Tower of Babel is about this super-power combined with people’s pride and ambition to be “like gods”; and the way God disrupted this pride and power was to divide them by language.
Beauty — something your dog responds to with a yawn — is a special form of mental satisfaction, almost a physical pleasure in response to things that exhibit a transcendent harmony, a harmony that reaches beyond the ordinary, which is what transcendent means. We experience beauty in certain landscapes, in music, in the appearance of others. In poetry or songs, we experience beauty in the language-form.
Desire provoked by language and beauty is a very human experience. This is true when a particularly sexy love song provokes one kind of desire. It’s true when a painting provokes a sense of wonder and longing. It’s likewise true when a dangerous thought-leader is provoking a crowd to hatred and violence.
Here’s something to think about. You don’t have to teach children to lie. When they desire to avoid consequences, they will use language to deflect and deceive. Likewise, beauty can be employed for deception. Dogs don’t do that. (We will talk about moral questions — the ought-to and ought-not questions — later in the book. For now, it’s enough that we recognize that humans desire differently than other animals.)
Focusing on language for a moment, let’s look at four aspects of human language. First is grammar, or syntax. Language is a kind of game with flexible rules. The rules allow us to make meanings and ideas. Nouns name things, verbs make nouns do things, modifiers specify nouns and verbs, conjunctions connect things and actions, prepositions relate things, and so forth.
We had hunting dogs when I was a kid. When the dog communicated with me by barking, it said, “Squirrel, squirrel, squirrel,” as it looked up the tree. That’s the second aspect of human language; it transmits very complex information, a lot more than squirrel, squirrel, squirrel. Thirdly, as we pointed out earlier, language can escape the here and now by communicating beyond time and place. “Tomorrow, I’m flying to Cleveland.” Finally, language gives us the capacity to tell stories, true or fictional. We’ll discuss that a good deal more later in the book.
Language is versatile; it can accomplish a wide variety of things. We use language to express desires, send emails, give directions, tell jokes, manipulate people, explain a process, issue orders, request help, deceive others, read to a child, negotiate, solve problems, write books, introduce people, soothe someone, scold someone, hurt someone, praise, ridicule, encourage, humiliate, teach, coordinate, etc. etc. etc.
Language is how we communicate desires. “I want . . . pizza . . . a vacation . . . communion . . . to make love . . . a back rub . . . a child . . . a day away from the kids . . . to get drunk . . . a girlfriend or boyfriend . . . to kill you . . . a new house . . . friendship . . . a Corvette . . . a hit of meth . . . a good night’s sleep . . . a miracle.”
Animals keep it simple. Not us. These I-worlds and social-worlds can get their wires crossed, intentionally and unintentionally. The conniving person with bad intent will use language to manipulate, mislead, and lay traps. His or her desires involve either using others or taking pleasure in the pain and distress of others. Those wires between I-worlds are intentionally crossed. That’s the easy one, in a way; once we’re aware that we’re being used, misled, or abused, we can avoid the perpetrator. The hard one — especially emotionally — is when the misunderstandings are between people who want to be together as friends, spouses, parents, and children, etc.
Because language is versatile and flexible, and because I-worlds are never identical, we run into problems with interpretations. Especially as it concerns desires. When two I-worlds, two people, come together for the first time, neither knows much about the other. At first, we form an impression based on what we see, comparing it to our experience. Then we speak, which refines that first impression. Something about the speech might be inconsistent with the first impression, so we have to tear up the first impression and start again. As a conversation progresses, we discover specific things about that other person, and we go through this process of tearing up the last impression and “re-writing” another one. With each re-writing, we become more closely attuned to the other; our two I-worlds get closer to becoming a we-world.
Good friends, lovers, siblings, spouses, and such are very well-attuned to one another; but because every person is both unique and changing, this process of attunement, or adjustment, is never complete. There will still be misunderstandings. We will still project our own thoughts — sometimes accurate, sometimes not — into our own I-world’s interpretation of the other one’s I-world. We will still get it wrong because a particular word means something else to him or her than it does to you or me. We will still transfer what we know about the other from a different situation into the situation we encounter now. We will still be confused when and if the other changes.
In addition to mis-interpretations, we sometimes just have desires — well understood by each — that conflict with one another. What I want gets in the way of what you want, or vice-versa. This is why even good friends, lovers, siblings, spouses, and such have to have safety switches for both misunderstandings and disagreements — do-overs so misunderstandings and disagreements don’t tear us apart. Three of those safety switches are (1) giving the benefit of the doubt, (2) agreeing to disagree agreeably and (3) giving and accepting forgiveness.
One point we’re emphasizing here is that conflict is always somehow about desire. Here we have one of those differences between us and our dogs. We had a pug — one we miss still — named Ace. And we had to babysit our son’s boxer, Benson. Most of the time, Ace and Benson got along very well, playing together, nosing around things together, and sleeping alongside one another. Sometimes, though, Ace could get pretty territorial about his food. Benson would head for Ace’s bowl, and Ace would go nuts, yapping and growling and charging Benson. It was kind of funny, because Benson could have eaten Ace, but for whatever doggie reasons, Benson backed off and he would step away with his head down, looking contrite. Fifteen minutes later, they were best buds again, sniffing each other’s behinds and playing “catch me.”
Humans not only have more vivid memories than dogs, we have pride. Not like “I’m proud of doing something excellent,” but pride — the kind we sometimes call a sin. “It’s-all-about-me” pride. We hold grudges, nurse our hurts and humiliations, amplify criticisms about ourselves into “attacks,” and pollute our own imaginations with resentments and dreams of revenge. And yes, our dogs — especially dogs that have been attacked or abused — can hate. But unless they’ve been severely abused, their hatred will only be triggered by the presence of the object of their hatred. With the help of language and memory, we can carry resentments around like a suit of armor we can’t take off. That’s one way we can not only have desires motivated by ill-will, but be possessed by those desires.
Desires in human beings are shaped and influenced by language, by beauty, by memory, and by fantasies of the future; and they can turn to harsh conflict without our safety switches: giving others the benefit of the doubt, agreeing to disagree agreeably, and forgiveness.
Thought exercise: Today, take notice of “attunement” in your contacts with others — in your back and forth during conversations, where you each tear-up and re-write your impressions and judgements until you harmonize with one another.
— — —
Subject, object, subject-object
We are not quite done with the I-world yet. It’s important, because it’s where the deep-I resides, and sometimes the deep-I and its desires are the toughest ones to figure out . . . or face. Remember, desire is like a knife. You can cut an object like a rope or an onion, or you can cut yourself . . . or other people. This chapter’s reflection is on the subject . . . ahem! . . . of subjects and objects.
I’m not a grammar nut, and I don’t want to dwell on grammar like an unpleasant middle school teacher. But some really basic grammar will get us through the door on this one. We all remember that basic sentence structure — subject, verb, object. I carry the bucket. I-subject. Carry-verb. The bucket-object. The subject is who or what, the verb is what’s getting done, and the object is what it’s getting done at or to. Melinda is eating an orange. Filipe needs ten dollars. Wanda killed a mosquito. Tyrone wants a girlfriend.
For our purposes today, and from a position inside the I-world, we will call the “I” the subject. Motivated by various desires, the subject does things at or to objects outside the I-world. I, subject, am inside a house, which is an object I use to satisfy my desires for shelter, privacy, security, comfort, food preparation, work, rest, and hygiene. That house is filled with other objects, like the computer I’m using right now, and the bed, the chairs and table, the refrigerator, and so on. In the garage, we have a car and a truck, a lot of tools, my fishing tackle, and storage racks for our travel luggage. Our desire for beauty is satisfied to some extent by artwork on the walls, attractive potted plants, statues, and the like — sometimes by music or a great film.
Ah, but I’ve shifted, mid-paragraph, from “I” to “we.” My wife, Sherry, shares this house; and though she is outside of my I-world, she is no mere object. She has an I-world, too, so in this house, there are two subjects. Now here is where things get complicated from the I-world point of view. We need to back up, though, and take a run at this complication in order to jump over it.
There are certain kinds of psychological, political, and philosophical notions that treat the I-world — that inescapable inside-ness — as if that’s all there is to being a person, or — in more sterile language — an “individual.” The word, individual, means un-divide-able. You can divide groups, but if you divide a physical person (with what, a saw?), then there is no longer a living person at all. You don’t go from one person to one-half when you saw someone in two. You go from one to zero. The indivisible One.
So far, so good. A person is indivisible and — as we said in an earlier chapter — un-repeatable, or unique — one of a kind. A person, or individual, can remove themselves or be removed from various social situations; but no person can be removed from his or her own I-world, or direct and internal experience and awareness, except by severe injury, anesthesia, or death. And here is where some psychologists, political theorists, and philosophers take a wrong turn, based on using their imaginations instead of looking around at the real world . . . or getting that social-world feedback and correction we talked about in chapter 1. That mis-step of the imagination is to connect another I-N-D-word to “individual.” That word is “independent.” The independent individual. Meaning, one who does not depend upon others.
In fact, we all know very well that we cannot survive without other people, much less thrive. We are born in such a state of dependence that we would die within hours or days without constant attention and care. The same applies when we are sick, injured, disabled, and very old. Even healthy adult human beings rely on social inter-dependence — I need you and you need me — to survive and thrive. This is not just physical. People in prison who are put in solitary confinement become mentally ill, self-harming, and even suicidal. There is no “independent individual” anywhere. It’s just not in our nature as human beings.
These false theories of “independent individuals” assume something about subjects and objects, too. They assume that the I-world subject is perfectly entitled to treat another person as an object, with a few legal limitations that hinge on something called consent (we’ll talk about that much later). Some even suggest that all subjects regard all other persons as objects, “trapped” as they are in the I-world. But we are not trapped in the I-world; in fact, as we’ve already seen, the I-world needs and co-exists with the social-world. One of the I-world’s most constant concerns is with the social-world. Don’t you check the mirror before you enter into a social situation? It’s a way of seeing yourself as others do. Your I-world and social-world are synchronized, like two gears. They work together, and only together.
The psychologists and theorists who assume we consider all others as objects have it partly right and terribly wrong. What is partly right is we do initially encounter one another as objects, not necessarily to be done to or at, but as yet-unknown things “on the outside” of the I-world. When we drive down the freeway, we pass hundreds, even thousands of people for whom we haven’t a second thought. We pay attention to them and their cars like we do the stripes on the pavement or the signs — objects to be interpreted and dealt with in a more or less mechanical fashion so we can operate our own automobiles safely and efficiently. But if we stop and face one another, for even a moment, something changes.
People who don’t want to be bothered avoid eye-contact. You and I avoid eye contact in public places if we want to get done with whatever business we’re at and retreat to our homes. We know that eye contact does something mysterious to us and that other person. Because humans are very visual animals, and we know other humans as likewise visual animals (the exceptions are the blind and sight-impaired, of course), that this locking of the eyes puts us into a subject-subject, not a subject-object, space. I can see my own reflection in your eyes. This other person is looking at me as I look at him or her.
This triggers a reaction one can feel, a special kind of awareness that we are in the world together, if even for a moment. Based on a person’s experience and state of mind, how we respond to our own response might be different. Some will feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Some will be inclined to smile. Some will get defensive and angry (What are you looking at?). But the fundamental fact is that this eye contact changes something. You or I and that other person are “seen” in a way that is more than merely being seen as objects we pass one another in car traffic.
That other person is outside of you. That’s what “other” means. So, in the sense of grammar, if “I see you,” I am the subject, and you are the object. But when eye-contact “puts our I-worlds together,” you become a subject, too. A subject-object. A person-other. Another person — a soul.
When two people — as subjects — establish a relationship, there are two competing desires that each subject has in relation to the other. One desire is for self-assertion — of putting oneself forward, one’s own opinions, priorities, personality, wishes, or rights. The second desire is for acceptance. These two desires pull against one another, like the anchor points for a tightrope, and the relationship becomes like the tightrope walker. As long as neither desire (for self-assertion or acceptance) becomes so strong it breaks one of anchor points or so weak that the tightrope goes slack, the relationship can keep its balance. There is a tension between the desire for self-assertion and the desire for acceptance, and that tension is good for the relationship as well as the tightrope walker. In that tension, the relationship is mutual, shared, balanced.
If that tension is lost in relationships, a peculiar thing can happen. One person’s self-assertion takes over, and the other loses (loving) acceptance. The relationship is no longer mutual. It becomes about domination and control. The dominant person begins to relate to the non-dominant person as a possessed object.
Unfortunately, leaving these relationships where the desire for self-assertion and the desire for acceptance have lost that necessary tension is not always as easy as it might seem. The person “on the bottom” often feels even more keenly a desire for the (loving) acceptance which has been withdrawn. He or she tries even harder to win the approval of the dominant person, who refuses because accepting the other would surrender his or her domination.
On the other hand, the dominator suffers a kind of loss of acceptance, too, because in viewing the other as an object of domination, he or she has denied the status of full subject to the dominated other; and only a full subject can grant the genuine acceptance that even the dominator still desires. There is always the knowledge in the back of the dominator’s mind that the acceptance of the dominated partner is not authentic — it is motivated by fear, not care. Because neither partner realizes how this subject/object/subject-object thing works, both partners fall into a recycling pattern, one that creates greater fear in the dominated and a frustrated anger in the dominator. Obviously, this has great potential for abuse.
It may seem odd to say that some people who are called “door mats,” people who put up with a lot of disrespect and abuse from others, are motivated by desire. After all, why would anyone desire to be disrespected and abused? But, as we can see, many people will endure all sorts of meanness in the hope of receiving that acceptance which they desire above all.
Desire is not, in itself, rational. But the desire for acceptance (for love?) is extremely powerful. Likewise, the desire for self-assertion can be irrationally powerful. Just as the un-checked and un-regulated desire for acceptance will frustrate the subject’s satisfaction of that desire, the un-checked and un-regulated desire for self-assertion — expressed through domination — frustrate the subject’s satisfaction of that desire.
Think of desire here like a big, powerful, and willful horse. In order to control the horse, you have to begin by understanding the horse. Then you need to train the horse and use certain tools, like the bit, bridle, saddle, and reins. You don’t want to kill desire, and you don’t want to kill the horse. You want to bring them under some form of control. We’ll talk about tools for controlling desire later in the book, but for now, it’s important to understand this particular horse — subject/object/subject-object . . . and the tightrope of self-assertion and acceptance.
(1) Only another subject can grant genuine acceptance.
(2) Fear is not respect; it’s fake respect — a defensive gesture.
(3) You know another is a subject as soon as you look into his or her eyes.
(4) Neither you nor I are independent individuals; we need (and desire) one another.
(5) To truly be with one another and for one another, we need the tightrope between us.
(6) Desire is a horse.
Thought exercise: Today, observe conversations for the give-and-take of self-assertion and acceptance. Notice how it’s not automatic, how each participant in a conversation says something (assertion), then watches and listens to another to see how what was said was received. Notice how people begin with half-steps and mis-steps — testing the water with the other — then they gradually find their common ground, or a kind of mutual understanding. Think of it as a musical group trying to get harmonized.
— — —
Infants are little animals, with what appear to be very simple responses at first. Does she latch onto the nipple? Do her hands grasp randomly like she’s just testing them out? Does she cry out from discomfort or inattention? Is she sleeping?
In a short time, though, she starts to “light up,” to become ever more aware and responsive; and her responses are shaped through contact with others, especially her mom if she’s nursing and Mom is doing most of the infant care. In any case, her responses and the development of new responses and actions have to “go through” other people and specific things in her environment as they are being formed. She doesn’t live in a bubble.
The word for this going-between is “mediate.” Inter-mediate means between. Between beginner swimmers and advanced swimmers, there are intermediate swimmers. This text you are reading is mediating the writer’s thoughts to the reader. If you’ve ever been through a divorce, lawyers do a process of going-between the divorcees called mediation. Desires are mediated through other people.
Desire is socially-mediated.
The development of desires doesn’t start from the inside, go through some object of desire, then return to the one who desires. We learn through social relations what and how to desire.
In the last chapter, we looked at one fairly complicated form of socially-mediated desire, involving subjects, objects, and how relationships can either harmonize on the tightrope between self-assertion and acceptance or go really wrong from one partner’s desire to dominate. In this chapter, we’ll look at how desires are formed through two forms of social mediation: imitation and rules.
On imitation, we all know that kids imitate the actions of adults and other kids. But kids also learn what is desirable by watching what others desire. Have you ever had a tool or device out that is age-inappropriate for a child and tried to distract the child from reaching for it by giving them a more age-appropriate toy? They don’t often fall for it. They return to that thing they see you want, because they are learning what to desire from you. In a more troublesome situation, have you ever watched one kid set aside a toy, then another child picks it up? The same kid who put the toy aside will have a meltdown to get the toy back. Desire, as we all know, can lead to conflict; because in learning the same desires socially, we can easily be put into situations where we desire the same thing as someone else. Jealousy, for example, is a form — often a dangerous form — of desire.
Children desire your attention and care, but they also learn what is desirable to you because they want to be like you. They understand instinctively that what and how you desire is a hugely important part of what and who you are.
If I give a three-year-old Korean child kimchee — a spicy-hot, garlicky, fermented cabbage side — the child will eat it with relish. If I give most American children kimchee, they’ll reject it. Each child has learned from his or her family and culture — through a process of watching and imitating — what is desirable. I myself might have rejected kimchee as a child, but through contact with Koreans and Korean food, as an adult, I learned to like kimchee. But I had to un-learn and re-learn to acquire that desire. Heterosexual European adult males 250 years ago found fat women to be quite sexually desirable; whereas nowadays, males have been trained, through imitation, to desire women who appear to have no time for anything but gyms. We learn how to desire from others. It doesn’t emerge from the inside to the outside without going through that third point of other people. A small child already knows without being taught to “follow” the eyes of adults to see what they are looking at — not a one-two (1) person to (2) desired-object, but a one-two-three of (1) person to (2) person to (3) desired-object. A triangle.
Of course, our lives are more complicated than just person-to-person relations. One parent will likely have more than one child, as well as a partner, and the child’s teachers, and the partners friends, and a boss at work, and her own friends, and she finds herself having to balance and choose and prioritize different parts of each relationship against all the others. One of her desires, in this situation, is to harmonize those relations as much as possible, with a priority given to the kids, then the partner, then the friends, etc. We all know how the desire to maintain each relationship and follow those priorities can lead to tough decisions at times. Every desire can’t be fully satisfied. At the same time, the complications of any given situation can lead to other desires. One might desire a newer car or soccer lessons for the kids or more money or a more understanding partner.
As well as having a complicated social-world in this sense, that social-world generates new desires in your I-world through imitation. Kids learn to desire what their friends desire. Adult cliques are the same way. If all your friends are doing something, you’ll feel the urge to want to do the same thing, sometimes even if your I-world is telling you it may not be a great idea. Peer pressure is a real thing. Sometimes is has good effects, but sometimes it leads us astray. The desire to “fit in” can overwhelm the sense you may have that what you are about to do, or what you are doing, is not good for you, not good for others, or just plain wrong. It can also be positive. It depends on what you’re fitting in with.
In some situations, desire can affect a lot of people at once. An audience watching a play together is being led through many desires. We’ve also all seen the newsreels of thousands of people worshipping Adolph Hitler like zombies. (More on these “crowd desires” in Chapter 24)
In addition to imitation, our desires are directed and formed by rules. Some rules are formal or written. When you play a game of checkers or dominos or shuffleboard or basketball, you have to follow the formal rules of the game, which make the game what it is. Other rules may not be formal or written, but unwritten and informal. When someone says “thank you,” you may respond automatically with, “You’re welcome.” When someone offers you his or her hand, you return the handshake. Before you speak to a stranger, you might say, “Excuse me . . .” Language itself is kind of a game with a lot of unwritten rules. I don’t mean grammar rules, which are formal rules. I mean everyday speech, where two friends, for example, chat away, almost on rapid-fire, and their conversation “flows.” Not only does that tell us the two people (or more!) have achieved that subject-to-subject harmony, but that they share some unwritten speech rules that allow them to play the “game” of conversation, which involves oral language, body language, facial expressions, and all sorts of shared cultural shortcuts and slang.
Many people think of rules (some rules are called “norms”) as restrictions, like “no dogs allowed.” But rules can actually give us more freedom and equality in various practices. Whether your practice at the moment is getting groceries or playing volleyball or planning a wedding or changing a diaper, the rules and procedures — formal and informal — keep us on track. These rules and procedures have been refined through thousands upon thousands of replays to make things easier. They prevent distractions, conflict, bullying, and false starts. I’ve been to meetings without rules and meetings that strictly followed Robert’s Rules of Order. I’m here to tell you, at meeting without rules, the most obnoxious bullies or the mouthiest idiots quickly take up all the space; and at meetings with Robert’s Rules, everyone who wants to be recognized will be, the meeting is kept on point, and things get done.
We “learn” desire through imitation and rules. Imitation forms our desires, and rules shape them. There are two downsides here to watch out for.
First, imitation — that three-way process — can go sour when we interpret something wrongly. Your I-world has its own beliefs, prejudices, and filters, which may not be the same as that other person. Communication is a three-way process, too.
Person A says I want x (points at it) to Person B.
Person A is “signaling” a desire for x to Person B, who has to interpret the signal of “wanting” x.
Two different I-worlds with one external factor (x).
But Person B may look at x and have her own already formed reactions and opinions about x, which Person A doesn’t share (and never meant).
Person B will “project” her own reactions and opinions about x onto Person A . . . and presto-change-o — mis-interpretation!
This can lead to direct conflict, in some cases, when people start to talk past each other or take each other the wrong way. Or in the case of children watching adults, it can turn into the child desiring what he or she thinks the adult wants for all the wrong reasons. One generation of a family works hard and accumulates nice things. They give their children nice things, and their children enjoy the nice things. But the children may learn the desire for nice things without learning that they must be accumulated through honesty and hard work. The same children then might go after nice things, but take shortcuts through dishonesty and trickery, even crime.
The second way things can go sour is through our relation to the rules. Rules exist to make things fairer or easier, or at least we hope. Some rules obviously are designed to exclude people or protect their privileges and so forth; but we’ll stay with well-intentioned rules on this account.
The thing about rules is that people are often faced with unforeseen situations that are more complicated than the rules anticipated. This doesn’t apply as much to formal rules for formal practices, like a baseball game or line-dancing. In other situations, though, we can be faced with the un-anticipated. Then we have to rely on people’s character — their developed sense of fairness, decency, selflessness, and common sense.
Character, however, is not well-developed for some, and then we might see three different and equally problematic reactions to rules.
One is the strictly-rules person who makes following and enforcing the rules, no matter what, his obsession. This person can be a both a busy-body and a scold.
Another is the rule-manipulator, who cleverly applies and interprets the rules to his or her own advantage. This person is often an overly-ambitious one, looking out for number one — a rule-manipulator is also a person-manipulator.
Finally, we can get the rule-breaker who justifies his or her actions so long as they get the “right result.” This is the “ends-justifies-the-means” person.
Think of your own childhood and who were the adults you most imitated. What did they desire? What were the practices in which you observed them? Did they cook, play sports, build things, fish, play cards, plan outings? Did they lie or steal? Did they have lots of friends or not? How did they relate to rules?
In how many of these ways do you see yourself as being like them?
Now think of your adolescence and your circle of friends. What did they desire? What were the practices in which you observed them? Did they lie or steal? Did they have lots of friends or few? How did they relate to rules?
In how many of these ways do you see yourself as being like them?
Thought exercise: Today, pay attention to those things you desire in common with others that are not some common good. Everyone in your family would want good food — a common good. But consider those desires which you share with others, but which contribute nothing to the overall good of a group. As soon as you think, “I want . . .,” ask yourself do others want it, and why. Even if it’s not “good for you.”
— — —
Needs and appetites
There are many different kinds of desire. That’s why we’re taking thirty chapters to discuss desire. We’ve been reflecting quite a lot on I-worlds and social-worlds, mostly as a way of clearing the room of a lot of old clutter and making space for a fresh standpoint. One doesn’t pick up some book on desire just to read about something they already understand in a particular way. We want to get a fresh look at things. Now we’ll move to the next room. In this chapter, as you may have guessed from the chapter title, we’ll look into needs and appetites.
By needs, we mean things without which we might be injured, sickened, or left to die. If you fail to consume enough calories in food, you can waste away and eventually starve to death. If you fail to consume water, you can die within a week. If you find yourself without oxygen, you’ve only got a few minutes. If you lack shelter or clothing, the environment can break you down with “exposure,” or hypothermia, or heat stroke. If you — forgive me — are terribly constipated, that failure to eliminate (elimination is a need) will get you into some pretty serious physical trouble, too.
By appetites, we mean something slightly different than raw physical needs. Appetites are signals — sometimes powerful signals — related to needs, but not the needs themselves. The need for food is signaled well before the threat of starvation by one’s appetite for food. And as we all know — we can have the appetite for food even when we’re not very hungry. Yes, it’s related to the physical need for food, but appetites also appear in the form of wishes and imagination, in response to boredom, in response to “triggers,” or as habits . . . even addictions.
Think of the appetite — the urge — for comfort. One can live moment to moment without comfort, but the urge remains. There is a complex physical need at work here, of course. Comfort is nature’s way of preparing us for healthful rest. Remember when we looked at desire in animals and us (the talking, meaning-making, beauty-loving animals)? Think about a dog, getting ready to lay down for a snooze. She sniffs the place she’s checking to make sure it’s clean enough, walks a couple of circles to make sure its flat and relatively soft, then drops down and shifts about a bit to “get it just right.” You have your own version of that when you settle into your favorite chair, or get ready for bed. It may not be a direct survival need, but the appetite for comfort is related to the need for rest — without which you can become first irritable, then ineffective, then psychotic, then dead.
Now let’s turn for a moment to that most problematic of appetites, sex. There is no life-or-death need for sexual union with others. One can remain celibate for a lifetime and remain as healthy as anyone else. I’ve known lifelong celibates who were perfectly happy, well-adjusted people. Sometimes more well-adjusted than many sexually-active folks (and with a lot less drama!).
Most of us, even the celibate, experience or have experienced that physical urge known as being horny. There’s certainly no danger to the individual person in not having sex, or at least some form of sexual release (which can be accomplished alone if necessary); but without this appetite, we wouldn’t make babies, So, there’s a species-need that’s been planted in us as a personal appetite. Some people have described sexual desire as a kind of possession, which is, in a way, true. The species-need has possessed us with this particular desire, though we don’t experience sexual desire as a need for procreation. In fact, this desire is sometimes directed at members of the same sex, which has never, to my knowledge, produced any babies.
Once again, as we noted in the last chapter, desire has come to us, as individual persons, from the outside — this time, from our species-world, though it is very heavily mediated and given particular forms by the social-world.
Another appetite that is not associated with direct physical need is the appetite for “something to do.” In our next chapter, we’ll talk about aversions — things we avoid — but we’ll get a slight jump on thing here with boredom. People with nothing to do might say they are bored, and they might not think of “something to do” as an appetite, but as an aversion — a thing we avoid — which is boredom. “I need something to do so I don’t get bored.” I’m going to challenge that a bit, and say it’s an appetite for “something to do,” not an aversion to boredom; but we’ve been fooled about this by technology.
I’ll start by saying I’ve never seen a child get bored when he or she is poking around in the woods. The thing is, few children are even allowed to poke around in the woods now. In fact, for about the last six or seven decades, we’ve become so dependent upon machines, technology, and man-made structures, that many children, as well as many adults, have little experience of such things, and in fact, a lot of the woods I had to poke around in as a child, back when dinosaurs roamed, have been cut down and turned into tract housing, strip malls, and freeways.
What I’m getting at is this: machines, technology, and our near-constant isolation inside buildings are not natural, but something that — in the scope of history — is fairly recent. The price we pay for our dependence on this built, technical environment is boredom.
We have this army of machine-and-energy slaves that does many things for us that we used to do ourselves using out own energy and creativity. But we still have this appetite to do something — to use our own energy, our own bodies, and our own creativity. But we’re left with time on our hands that turns into boredom. The appetite for “something to do” has been redirected into an appetite for something else — something that makes certain people a hell of a lot of money: entertainment. We think we are “avoiding boredom,” because technology has made boredom — to use a technological term — our default. In real life during times past, direct creative activity was our default. And the desire for — or appetite for — “something to do” was, like sex, a species-need planted in individual persons as the appetite for creative activity. Human persons, unlike other animals, aren’t guided by a set of machine-like instincts. We survive and flourish through rational, creative activity. And in some sense, we enjoy rational, creative activity, therefore we have an appetite for “something to do.” Entertainment is too often just a crappy, passive substitute.
Enough on that for now — we’ll return to it in Chapter 21.
Needs are not themselves desires. Appetites are urges that require objects to become desires. We often feel desires as appetites with little thought of the need behind it. And just as with any desire, it doesn’t become a “thing” until we actively follow that desire, until we aim our will at an object. I may feel a desire to be the King of Sweden, but I’m not going to actually do anything about it. And I may feel like eating my weight in pizza, but I’m not going to do that either; though in the case of the pizza, that’s a desire I can (partially) satisfy, unlike becoming a Scandinavian monarch. I choose not to eat all that pizza because it would make me feel terrible afterward, and because I’m a heart patient. Which is all to say, before an appetite — like food, drink, or sex — becomes an act, I have to direct my will and my actions toward the satisfaction of that desire. As soon as I do direct my will and my actions toward the satisfaction of that appetite, it has to be . . . mediated. Yep, that again.
Think about satisfying hunger with a meal. It’s not a simple (1) food goes into (2) tummy. It may mean (1) going to the market and getting the raw food, (2) cleaning, cutting, marinating, etc., (3) cooking and combining the food, (4) setting the table, (5) setting out the completed food, then (6) saying a blessing and passing the food around. Appetites are satisfied, but so are a bunch of other desires. You enjoy the esteem of others, satisfaction at them enjoying the food, fellowship, and so on. The process itself is contained and guided (mediated) by socially-formed habits, customs, rules, and rituals. The shared appreciation of the food is determined by the imitative appreciation for a particular kind of food. And the whole process has to pass through layers of practical mediation, like shopping and cooking There’s never a direct line from desire to satisfaction. Appetites are never simple physical things.
You may have that itch of being horny — going back to sex now — but something you’ve learned triggered it. Guys who were attractive to heterosexual women were of a different type — using different standards — for my grandmother’s generation before the Great Depression, my mother’s generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, my wife and sister’s generation after the war, for those who became adults in the nineties like our daughters, and for young women now like our oldest granddaughter. My own observations have been that the cultural habits, rules, and rituals have changed with changes in technology. My grandmother didn’t encounter television until she was an old woman, but they had male heart-throbs — types largely formed by the film industry. My mother was in her thirties when TV made its first appearance, and her ideal man was still based on film propaganda. Women of my generation grew up in front of TVs, and there was where they received propaganda about ideal mates. TV also gave rise to “youth culture,” which eventually led to our obsession with “generation gaps.” Nowadays, heterosexual women, raised on Disney-Pixar propaganda, are getting most of their cultural signals from computers and various apps.
In any case, no one is getting their sexual signals (or preferences) purely from inside themselves. These desires are still formed through imitation, and mediated by a menu of rules and expectations that we might call social conventions — social-world rules, methods, and procedures that we learn until they are shared habits, like etiquette. It is through and with these conventions that we approach one another and get to know one another, how two I-worlds through trial and error, as we described in the subject-object chapter, form a we-world. The first convention is language, but then we have various forms of courtesy, acceptable ways of “testing the water for the other’s interest,” and so forth.
Some people like to debate whether appetites and desires come from inside our animal selves or from the culture in which we have to live. I think it’s a silly debate. The nature of human beings is animal and social at the same time, and we can’t escape from either. We’re social . . . animals. Whether it’s food, sex, shelter, elimination, rest, or comfort, these appetites or desires are always mediated by the culture in which we live.
Thought exercise: Today, we’ll think about something that might give us a little eewww reaction. Pooping. You don’t need to tell anyone, but just consider how many different customs there are around the world and across time on the “proper” methods for elimination. Some sit. Some squat. Some go indoors. Some go outdoors. Some clean up with paper, some with mechanical water jets (Bidets), some with their non-dominant hand and some water before washing the hands afterward. Different cultures equal different ways of satisfying the same need.
— — —
Desire has its opposite. Desire is what our mind, will, and body reaches out for; but some things make our minds and our physical bodies pull back. The opposite of desire is aversion — intense dislike, something we want to avoid. In a real sense, aversion is not the opposite of desire, but the strong desire to avoid. We could get wrapped around this for a week, but the main point is that any serious discussion of desire requires a discussion of dislikes as well as likes. We make many of our choices by navigating between likes and dislikes.
Using an extreme example, we can think of a mafia movie where the gangster tells some poor bastard, “Do as I say, and I’ll give you ten thousand dollars; refuse, and I’ll kill you and your family.” The old carrot-and-stick formula. For those unfamiliar with what carrot-and-stick means, back when people used horses or mules to pull ploughs or carts or carriages, they might dangle a carrot in front of the draft animal to entice it forward, but when it hesitated, they’d smack its behind with a long stick. We navigate our lives sometimes between the carrots of desire and the sticks of aversion.
Aversion is just a form of the word avoid. We avoid pain, rejection, exclusion, loss, grief, even boredom (sometimes, especially boredom!); but before we unpack these aversions, we need to talk about the last chapter’s thought exercise involving . . . well . . . shit. When we recommended a thought exercise about other cultures’ shitting rituals, you may have had a moment of disgust.
We need to discuss disgust.
Just as we learned about desire, disgust is also something we learn from others, something imported into the I-world from the social-world. A baby will play with feces or reach for a spider or try to put a dead fly in his or her mouth. By the time that baby is ten, he or she will say eewww at the feces and the dead fly and run from the spider. Fun fact: even though different cultures have different things that provoke a feeling of disgust, everyone across all the cultures makes a similar face when disgusted. It’s that face you make when you say eewww — with the brows down, nose wrinkled, and upper lip drawn back. You know that look.
Disgust is a form of aversion that can serve as a kind of bodyguard. Messing around with feces or rotten food or unfamiliar spiders can make you sick or get you injured. But just like desire, disgust is like a knife. You can cut things that need cutting, or you can cut yourself or others.
One point that keeps sneaking up on us is the question of character. When we think of a person of good character, we imagine someone who has good sense, who tries to do the right thing even if it’s hard, who is fair with others, who takes the time to exercise good judgement, who is selfless, trustworthy, understanding, patient, and humble. We also recognize, when we think about it, that no one is born this way. He or she has acquired his or her self-discipline and thoughtfulness through guidance and practice until being “that way,” a person of good character, becomes their personal habit. Later in the book, we’ll talk about desire and character in more depth, but it’s enough now to say that the sound judgement of someone with good character is necessary to exercise certain necessary controls over both desires and aversions.
While we may have aversions (negative desires) to pain, rejection, exclusion, loss, grief, boredom, and objects of disgust, there are situations where and when we need to endure each of them in order to do the right thing. An athlete will readily endure certain kinds of pain to improve her proficiency at her sport. A teenager will risk rejection to approach someone he wants to ask out on a date. A brave person will risk exclusion by challenging her own crowd when they are engaged in something illegal, immoral, or hurtful to others. A person might risk the loss of his own life to rescue a drowning person. We all risk grief by loving others, because all of us eventually die. I can say from personal experience that it’s better to endure occasional boredom than to “cure” the boredom by using addictive substances.
All this being true, the subject of disgust requires a little extra reflection. Disgust is particularly powerful because it is learned inside our very bodies, so to speak. We react to disgust physically and immediately. In some cases, it can actually cause people to get dizzy or vomit. And because it is such a powerful a form of aversion, it can bypass our ability (or even desire) to reason.
I read a book recently where the author used a study of men and women and their “threshold of disgust,” that is, how easily did they become disgusted by certain things. This study determined that women have lower “thresholds of disgust,” generally speaking, than men. The author then jumped to the conclusion that this study proved some biological difference between men and women. While we know that there are quite obvious biological differences between men and women, I’m suspicious of this conclusion, because I’ve traveled a good deal among other cultures and because I’ve observed contradictions to this other author’s conclusions in this culture. I’ve seen women in other cultures who routinely do things — like slaughter and clean animals for food — that most women and many men in this culture would avoid out of disgust. Disgust, we emphasize again, is learned, not born into us. I’ve seen men in this culture balk at changing diapers, almost faint at witnessing childbirth, and be ridiculously repelled by menstrual blood; whereas women encounter these things without batting an eye.
An important point here. In the I-world, when a thing is experienced as disgusting, we feel like we know, “That is disgusting.” But the I-world can trick us into thinking that this thing, in itself, is disgusting, when in reality the disgust is an experience of the I-world, not a feature of the object of disgust itself. More accurate than saying, “That slug is disgusting,” is to say, “I am disgusted by that slug.” Others may not share your disgust. It’s yours; own it, don’t project it onto the object of disgust.
Because disgust is learned, there are a lot of manipulative people who will use disgust to do things that are questionable, sometimes even downright evil. Because our disgust can be used by others of very bad character to manipulate us, we need some rational control over our disgust responses. We may not be able to stop the physical response, but we are obliged to think about why we respond this way, and in some cases work on changing it. And yes, one can overcome disgust. (And we are not saying we need to overcome all forms of disgust.)
Disgust is so powerful it leads to hatred. Not dislike, the way someone says, “I hate broccoli.” Dislike of broccoli (I’m actually fond of broccoli) doesn’t lead the broccoli-averse person to head out to a farm and kill all the broccoli plants. By actual hatred here, we mean an active desire to kill something or someone. Someone who hates spiders will kill them on sight. I’ve known people who killed cats for the same reason (I actually like cats, too). And I’ve known people who actively wanted to kill other human beings because they were of a particular ethnicity and nationality, or because they were attracted to the same sex.
In every case, the verbal expression of that hatred was always accompanied by associations with disgust. When the German Nazis led by Hitler wanted to turn Germans against their Jewish neighbors, they used propaganda campaigns that associated Jews with rat infestations. Within a few years, most of those Germans stood by while the government murdered almost six million Jews. In 1994, when the Rwandan Hutus massacred more than half a million of their Tutsi neighbors, the Hutus prepared their campaign of genocide by referring to Tutsis as “cockroaches.”
I remember a horrible woman-hating joke I heard in the military: “You can’t trust anything that bleeds five days a month and doesn’t die.” Do you feel the hatred of women in this association of women with disgust?
There is a peculiar way in which this process works in reverse, too. When someone takes a job on the kill-floor at a slaughterhouse, or when a soldier is about to go to war, the worker and the soldier will try to find something disgusting about the animals or the potential enemies to make it easier to kill them.
Disgust is psychological. More to the point, it’s a boundary psychology. That ick-face we make, that disgust-expression, imitates vomiting. Vomiting is a way — real and symbolic — of expelling some enemy substance back outside the boundary of the body, out of the I-world. When we love someone, we let them inside the symbolic boundary of our self. In an intense act of erotic love, we experience the radical destruction of psychological and physical boundaries in the merger of two persons and their bodies, and even the enthusiastic mixing of bodily fluids and interpenetrations of one another’s bodily boundaries. In the case of extreme disgust, or extreme hatred, we have the absolute opposite, up to and including the destruction of bodies themselves.
Consider the Dixie cup experiment. Take a Dixie cup and spit into it. Now, drink the spit. Ick! No!
You felt it! That disgust reaction!
But consider that prior to expelling the saliva, you were drinking it anyway. It’s the same substance. But once it passed out beyond the physical boundary of the body, it also passed beyond a symbolic, or psychological boundary, where it became a foreign substance.
In the next chapter, we’ll dive a bit more deeply into how desire fits into this boundary business, but for now, the main takeaways are: (1) desire and aversion are often part of the same experience, (2) aversion, like desire, is learned, not inborn, (3) aversion, like desire, requires strong character development to ensure that you are in charge of desire and aversion, not them in charge of you, and (4) that disgust is a sometimes even dangerously powerful form of aversion.
Thought exercise: Today, pay attention to conversations, television shows, ads, anything . . . and listen to how people express dislikes, aversions, and hatreds. In particular, pay attention to expressions of disgust.
— — —
Desire, delight, and will
A thing that seems to be contradictory or illogical, but which is nonetheless true in some way, is a paradox. “Youth is wasted on the young.” “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.” “Deep down, he’s really a shallow person.” “All generalizations are false, including this one.” We’ve all heard statements or made observations that are paradoxical.
We’ve discussed the paradox of inside-outside, of the I-world/social-world. The inside, or I-world, is always dwelling in the outside, or social-world; and the outside, or social-world, is always dwelling in the inside, or I-world. Even when you are alone, you can’t stop thinking of your relation to others. On the other hand, there is no person, or individual, who can in real life stand apart from his or her pre-existing relations with others.
As you read this, we don’t see one another; we probably don’t even know each other. But we are united in this reading by a shared (and therefore learned) language and culture — two aspects of social relations. As a poet once said, “No man is an island,” man here meaning human being.
We’ve noted that desire sometimes begins on the inside as a physical appetite, but that appetites are socially formed into particular kinds of desire by imitation, learning, rules, and unexpected things arising in our situations. We’ve also described how many desires begin on the outside in the form of imitation, when we watch some role model — like a child watching a parent or another adult — to learn what we should desire. Finally, we’ve begun to notice how desire is directed at an object or subject/object. Desire is like a mental hand reaching out for something, and a mental voice that says, “Mine.”
There is, however, one thing your I-world cannot do. It can’t surprise you. You can’t sneak up on yourself and yell, “Boo!” Surprise comes from the outside. This is important, because we can experience delight as a surprise. A sudden encounter with great beauty — a great view, a painting, a piece of music, a very likeable stranger — can delight you or me, without our having desired it.
Most of us spend most of our time doing things that are part of a repeating cycle of routines and habits. Today, I got up and made my coffee in the usual way, got cleaned up and dressed in the usual way, and tonight, I’ll get ready for bed in the usual way. You may go to work, take the kids to school or appointments or lessons, prepare food, etc., in ways that are well-practiced, predictable, and completely unsurprising. Routines and habits are good things, generally speaking, because they do make things work smoothly and more or less efficiently. That’s why they’ve become routines and habits. But surprises — good and bad — come crashing into those routines and habits from the outside. We are focusing here on good surprises — on delightful surprises — because we want to emphasize that every good thing doesn’t come to us through pre-existing desire, through our mental and physical grasping for something. Delight can arrive, as a surprise crashing in . . . as a gift.
Unfortunately, we live lives nowadays that are on fast forward, feeling like we are always catching up. We’ve also come to depend on money to live, which is seldom easy to get (for most of us). Depending on this scarce thing — a thing not abundantly available — we focus our attentions and wills on things we have to buy and on getting the money to buy them. In constant pursuit of money and things money buys, we come to value only things that cost money; and we come to ignore (and de-value) good things that are free, or gifts. There is only so much time in the day. We have only so much energy to spare. There is only so much money available. So, we haven’t the time to notice, or take delight, in the surprise of a gorgeous sunset, the flight of a bird, or the way a blade of grass shines and dances in the wind. In fact, as we race to keep up and juggle the complexities and challenges of a life on fast forward, these gifts become distractions. We don’t even notice — except as a vague sense of uneasiness and lack — how we’ve, drip by drip, lost that sense of surprise and beauty.
But we still want it. There is an un-explainable desire in each of us for surprise, for beauty, for wonder and mystery. For the transcendent, that sense of beauty and mysterious wonder that goes beyond the ordinary world of money, scarce time, petty struggles, demanding desires . . . beyond even the I-world and social-world. Something in us, even in the face of life’s challenges and distractions, cries out for it. Some of us are fortunate enough to have that one thing that lights up everyday life with this unspeakable mystery, at least in our relation to others: love.
We named desire and delight in the chapter title, and we’ve tied them into surprise, beauty, and mystery; but what about will? What even is one’s will?
Let’s study the answer from four directions. Will is desire. Will is choice. Will is intent. Will is action. When you or I were surprised by that beautiful sunrise, there was no will involved. We didn’t know it was desirable until it happened and we experienced it. I desired my coffee this morning. I chose to make it. I intentionally put the water and ground coffee in the espresso pot and put it on the stovetop. I put a teaspoon of sugar in my cup. I poured in the coffee when it was done. I stirred. I waited for it to cool a bit. I drank it. (Actions)
When someone writes his or her will — a written document for when one dies — they are stating their desire, their choices, and their intentions for their estate, which are actionable upon death. When someone is on trial for homicide, the determination of whether this was murder, manslaughter, or unforeseeable accident is determined by whether the accused’s actions were desired, chosen, and intended. A willing homicide is called murder. The killer made an intentional choice.
Will can alter desires. A young wrestler who wants to make weight before a match may be hungry, but he cuts way back on his food — for which he has a strong appetite — as an act of will. His desire to make weight was intentionally prioritized over his desire to eat. In this way, human will is different from that of other animals. Humans have the capacity to think into the future, to prioritize desires based on those projections, and to organize a series of intentional actions in pursuit of a higher-order desire.
We do not, however, intentionally give ourselves this capacity. We are born with an I-world potential for this capacity, and our species-world is such that we develop this potential in our social-world, through imitation, learning, and rules. Human will is a gift, but it is a gift that has to be cultivated in order to thrive and grow. That’s why we see some people who seem to be in control, who have orderly wills, and others who are slaves to appetites, fashions, fantasies, peer pressure, addictions, compulsions, irrational emotions, and so forth (and who often paradoxically consider this enslavement to be “freedom”).
An acorn is not yet an oak tree. It has the potential to become an oak tree (and not a maple tree), but for that potential to become actual, an actual tree, it requires water, a certain kind of soil, light, other beings to fertilize it, and so on. The better the cultivating conditions, the healthier and stronger the tree. Because our wills are similar to that tree, the argument about free will — is there or isn’t there — is too simple. Different people have different developed capacities for self-knowledge and self-control, and those with greater knowledge and control have wills that are more “free.”
Freedom, considered from this angle, is a lot more complicated than, “Freedom is my ability to choose,” or, “I’m a legal adult, so I can do anything I want.” None of this actually frees anyone from his or her animal appetites, from peer pressure, or from a compulsion he or she doesn’t understand. The freest will is the will that chooses, intends, and acts from a base or well-cultivated self-knowledge and practiced self-control. (Humility is a kind of surrendering control to take control, requiring a form of self-knowledge that gets the “I” out of the way to discover the “me” in “us.”)
It’s another paradox: freedom is not escape from control, but the cultivation of control. It’s also the ability to know when and where one does, or does not, have control. Many readers here are familiar with the Serenity Prayer recited at twelve-step meetings.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Some meetings add the phrase, “just for today.” It’s actually pretty decent advice. Knowing what you can’t control can save you a lot of anxiety and grief, (and it also protects you from a lot of con artists who will try to sell you “solutions” to the uncontrollable).
Notice here the appeal to God. That’s about as transcendent and mysterious as you get. In this prayer, the person is asking God — an unknowable mystery, the creator of Being — to redeem a badly cultivated, broken, or disordered will. There is also an unstated recognition here that no one has a perfectly ordered will.
Even the best among us falls. That’s why the desire of the self-righteous to “prove” they are better than those they look down on is, in itself, a form of disordered desire — a self-serving desire, as opposed to a self-giving desire, like that of love.
We said that some desirable things happen without our having desired or willed them, like the gift of a delightful surprise. Once we’ve experienced these gifts, however, we often develop a desire to repeat the experience; no longer as a gift, but as something we intentionally, willfully, pursue. Perhaps that first taste of wine, which brings with it the surprise of a relaxing euphoria, which we then we want to repeat. Five years later, we might have an alcohol problem.
That’s not saying everyone who enjoys wine is or will become an alcoholic. Some people have the self-knowledge and self-control to enjoy things in moderation. I’ll confess to readers here that I am not one of them. Self-control for me — as someone with alcoholic tendencies — means saying, “No, thank you,” when the wine is offered. But that shift from surprise and gift to willful pursuit can apply in all sorts of other ways, too. It might be a disordered desire for money, sex, attention, revenge, or power. It might be perverted into sadism, a pleasure bought with someone else’s pain and willfully pursued.
Some people think, and I am among them, that human beings have a form of desire built into them for the transcendent. Not just as a higher power for the twelve-steppers is a transcendent power upon whom we can rely to do what we can’t do for ourselves, though that is extremely important; but as a kind of spiritual appetite. Even as people in the last hundred years have expressed a lack of “religion,” the market for spiritual fads has exploded. This in-built thirst for the transcendent, for the sacred — moved out of churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues — has re-asserted itself in various trendy spiritual practices, or in the transfer of sacred status to other objects of worship — money, the nation, an ideology, race, power, whatever.
It’s another paradox that what is beyond, what is mysterious, what is sacred, feels so necessary as a kind of ground upon which we can walk, when ground is the most ordinary thing in the world.
Thought exercise: Today, think about your favorite crime story, whether it’s a novel, a film, or a television series. In particular, think about the main characters, good and not-so-good. What were their desires? Were they orderly or disorderly? What desires were perverted, or bent away from their proper purpose? What decisions did the characters make? What was their intent? What were their willful actions?
— — —
Desire to belong
I’ll start this chapter with a bit of autobiography. I’m an old fella now, but when I was quite young — on my nineteenth birthday, in fact — I went to Vietnam as a member of the US Army. I was a parachute infantryman, just out of training; and it was my first assignment. Prior to joining the Army, I was a weird kid who didn’t really fit in well with others — a much longer story. I’d barely graduated high school, and I spent seven aimless months after high school doing crap jobs and hanging out with other kids that didn’t fit in. I had a girlfriend, and that went on the rocks, so I did what any confused post-high-school teen would. I made a rash decision. I joined the Army, even though my selective service lottery number meant I’d never have been drafted.
I hated the Army, even as I volunteered for the toughest specialty and for the Army’s parachuting school (called Jump School), and even as — for the first time — I found myself more and more . . . well, fitting in. That part I really liked. I can tell you a lot of bad things about military service, which I recommend to no one; but I have to admit, it knows how to make a bunch of very unlike people more alike, and how to bully them into fitting in with one another. Putting them together in a war zone does this even better and faster.
My first truly adult experience was the war in Vietnam as a member of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Without it, my life would have surely been very, very different. While I was there, my desires and attitudes were shaped by — you guessed it — imitation and rules. The circumstances were that I was in an utterly strange place with an utterly strange culture involved in a bloody civil war, as a total outsider. This made my comrades like an island of security, and our shared interest in protecting ourselves and each other forced us to be very close. A bunch of the surrounding circumstances conspired to make this closeness result in my becoming a tough soldier, a life-and-death friend, a racist, and a drug addict.
Though half my unit was black, and though we even had members who could barely speak English, the fact that we had to suspect all Vietnamese of being potential enemies led all of us — white, black, and brown — to fear and hate the Vietnamese. We became racists against the Vietnamese (whose land we occupied). We were also at a stage in the war where it was becoming obvious that it was unwise, immoral, and un-winnable, so a lot of us — and I mean a lot — used easily procurable and cheap drugs to make doing what we had to do more bearable. Howsoever disordered this attitude and those practices were, one thing we held onto, and cherished, was our fierce sense of belonging with one another.
When I returned home, even after I got out of the Army for a while, I found that I fit in very easily now with white, black, and brown people, as I bounced around from North Carolina to Arkansas to California and back, because I was a fully-fledged member of the drug culture. Put on the music, light up a joint, pop a pill, or drop acid, and bask in that sense of acceptance and belonging. Things change, of course, and my brother went to prison, I had an infant, the money ran out. Presto! I was back in the Army again less than five years.
The point of this somewhat embarrassing autobiographical snapshot is that one of my deepest drives, deeper even than the highs I chased when I was drugging (the desire for drugs is a desire to feel differently), was the desire to belong. Nothing feels better than that acceptance, that social nest where one can rest and feel like, “There is a place for me.” If “healthy” or “legal” avenues of acceptance are closed, be assured, human beings will do the unacceptable to be accepted. Maybe that’s another paradox.
When we see this in children, when we say they are “seeking attention.” We’ve all witnessed the child who intentionally does something wrong if he or she feels ignored. But it’s not attention that’s the real object of desire. Attention is the means to an end, and that end is feeling as if one belongs. The I-world needs to hear from the social-world to be constantly re-affirmed. Without the recognition, the attention, of others, with whom we believe we belong, the I-world becomes the scary and lonely.
“The last place I need to be,” it has been said, “is upstairs, alone.”
The social-world of belonging, of acceptance, is a world shared by subjects, because only a subject (as opposed to an object) can grant recognition. In the best of circumstances, a strong-bond relationship, a relationship of love (not necessarily erotic love, but love of a friend or close relation), could be stated as “I am yours and still mine; and you are mine and still yours.” That balance we spoke of earlier between self-assertion and the need for recognition. For some people, a very few strong-bond relationships are enough to satisfy the need to belong. The strength of those bonds is a good measure of how strong the sense of belonging is. I very much feel the way I belong to my family. I feel my status as a veteran in common with other veterans, but it’s neither a strong bond nor an essential one. I know I am a member of a nation, and I have to take that into account, for example, in exercising my rights or obligations as a citizen; but I have a very low emotional investment in that. When I was still working jobs, I was part of various teams; and at work, as well as sometimes outside of work, I sometimes had a fairly strong sense of belonging. Different people have different kinds of strong-, medium-, and weak-bond relations that form groups to which they belong and feel a sense of that belonging. There are cultural differences in how we express ourselves and our roles within the groups to which we belong. But the basic fact of a need to belong is universal — it pretty much applies to everyone.
We are social animals, not loners. Even loners are not really loners. How many of you know someone who is afraid of the dark? The cure for that is to have someone with you. The fear then goes away. It’s part of our species-world, built in. Two of my jobs in the Army involved tests where we were left alone in the forest for several days and nights. It was surprising how many very strong, very macho-presenting young men found this being alone outside in the woods at night so difficult that they rang the quitting bell.
Take away one’s sense of belonging, and things start to go wrong. People who are isolated and lonely develop physical and mental ailments. They can begin to act out in strange, often unhealthy, ways. Think of some people who have many social contacts, but few strong-bonds. One example might be prostitutes. Through some misfortune, they are compelled to have many social contacts with many different people, but definitely not the kind that fulfill a sense of belonging. For that, they often turn to one another for support and friendship. Think of the prisoner who has had their contact with friends and family severely limited. They will form friendships — belonging groups — inside prison. In a more widely familiar example, think of how many of us feel isolated in a world where we live among strangers, with our families spread out all over the country. We go to work where we may have limited or unsatisfactory relations, then return home for more isolation. This is actually almost built into the way we live now. So where do we turn for contact? We go online, where we can form relationships with people we may never directly see or touch. These may be less satisfactory than other relations, but they’re better than nothing.
Just as in Vietnam, where my belongingness had some bad consequences, the online world can create some disordered forms of belonging — people splitting up into warring online tribes. First of all, the lack of physical contact makes people less accountable. They can say mean things without seeing another person cry or having the offended person smack them in the nose. But this online world has another dangerous tendency, and that’s the way it so easily allows people to self-select in and out of groups which become accountable only to themselves. It’s the same process as mean, snobbish cliques forming in school, only on steroids. The share button is the most dangerous social device of the last two decades. It not only allows the instantaneous spread of “information,” it allows the instantaneous spread of bullshit. Unaccountable bullshit. Mean bullshit. Slanderous bullshit. Harmful bullshit. And all this bullshit can strengthen online groups, which plunder the need to belong with their in-group/out-group cruelties, into little virtual mobs that can tune out any information which might contradict or correct them. This is the in-group “echo chamber” effect. We only hear our own group’s voice echoed back to us.
Which brings up the last big caution about this in-built desire, this appetite, to belong. The need to belong can make the people who are most desperate to belong vulnerable to abuse. As we mentioned in an earlier chapter, people will put up with horrible treatment at the hands of others rather than suffer the pain of being excluded, of being cast out, of no longer belonging. One of the things the most destructive of possessive, controlling narcissists will do — and people who have escaped from abusive relationships will attest — is to cut their emotional captive off from contact with anyone but themselves, in order to make that emotional captive even more dependent upon the narcissist to satisfy that need for human contact and belonging. It’s incredibly sly and effective, and enormously cruel.
The need to belong is fundamentally a good thing. If we accept that this is one of our most basic and deepest desires, then we’re saying that human beings are created for cooperation, empathy, and care. Those are the conditions under which humans thrive. I believe that, even if it flies in the face of psychological theories that say our most basic nature is lust and aggression. We are built to choose one another, not use one another. The pressures to use one another, to treat one another as objects (or worse, enemies), bends (perverts) that natural goodness at the heart of the need to belong away from the good and toward the bad; manipulating people is a perverse manipulation of the need to love and belong. Some would call it sin, the perversion — or bending — of the best inclinations into the worst.
Thought exercise: Today, take note of every pressure you observe on yourself or others to use or manipulate others. Are people trying to persuade you or others to experience fear or hatred? Are they trying to sell you or others something you don’t need. Are they trying to enlist you or others in alliances against others? On the good side, take some time to appreciate those with whom you belong. Who are the people about whom you can say, “I am yours, and still mine; you are mine, and still yours.”
— — —
Entangled desires & decision muscles
Desires are not little individual things operating by themselves. Between the pushes of the I-world and the pulls of the social-world, we have to order, prioritize, fulfill, or even deny a slippery, writhing worm bin of desires.
This morning, before I even got out of bed, I was thinking about making coffee, stripping the bed, picking up a prescription, what I’d write today, a trip we’ve planned, whether or not I needed a shower, what I’d have for breakfast and what I’d fix for our lunch, filling the bird feeders, taking a walk, replacing a lost recharging cord for my hearing aids, and the fear I have that Ukraine could escalate into a nuclear war. I probably thought about a hundred or so other things, too, that passed into and out of focus in my consciousness. I expect it’s the same for you pretty much every day. There were direct desires in there — making that coffee — and indirect desires, doing things that fulfill obligations and responsibilities because I desire to be a person who fulfills obligations and responsibilities, because I desire the happiness of my wife, because I enjoy seeing the birds on the feeders, and so forth. I’m an old man; and I’ve retired. Most people, on most days, think about things related to work instead of my first thoughts. But you get my meaning.
These “I wants” and “I want to’s” and “I need to’s” and “I should’s” are like fish in a tank. When it comes to actually doing or getting these things that fulfill direct or indirect desires, you have to dip one fish at a time out of the tank with a net. You may have reasons for taking the fish in a certain order, or you may take them out in the order you can most easily catch them. You might even leave some in the tank.
Between desire and action is something we might call practical reason. Practical, because it relates to practice, or what we actually do — practice/practic-al — as opposed to what we only think. Reason, because we have to think about the best thing to do and the best way to accomplish what we do. What is the highest standard to which I might do a thing? In what logical order should I do those things? What is the most efficient way to accomplish these things? Should I even do this thing?
(1) We desire. (2) We think it through. (3) We do what we need to do to get, make, accomplish what we desire. Step two is the exercise of practical reason. Some people are better at it than others.
In the course of the day, for most of us who are in the rat race of present-day life, unlike old retired geezers like me, the main desire is to “get through the day,” having satisfied all our obligations, and find a little rest and relaxation at the end. For most of us, the average day is not mostly about what we desire beyond desiring survival. Most people do not enjoy their work. Most people do not like their bosses. A good part of most people’s time is spent doing things they don’t enjoy, with the desire to survive taking priority over all other desires. Have you ever wanted to smack your boss? That’s a desire; but we know we can’t pursue it, because the desire to keep our jobs, which is really a desire to survive, takes priority. Or the boss might be bigger than you, and it would end badly. You may even have the desire to do the right thing for its own sake, and believe it’s wrong to smack someone. In whichever case, we should think before we act. It’s part of being an adult . . . or should be.
Let’s talk, then, about prioritizing all these tangled up desires. Why and how are some people better at it than others? There are a lot of reasons, but let’s begin with how many decisions you or I make and how many decisions are made for you and me — and by what or whom? If one is a fisherman or a farmer or a construction worker, the weather will play a big part in your decisions. If you commute to a job, the traffic will affect your decisions about when to leave the house, what routes to take, and so on. I can’t see my doctor or dentist or tax preparer without consulting with them about their schedules. If you need to make appointments, you may need to know regular business hours. If your day is cram-packed, your dietary decisions may depend upon fast food outlets along your routes or near your job. If you have to pick up the kids from school, the decision about when has already been made for you by the school’s schedule. If I want to buy a table saw or a new vacuum cleaner or have a tree removed, I have to consult my bank account to determine if and when I can afford it, and perhaps what I may have to do without (a denied desire) in order to go forward.
More and more these days, we leave our decisions to computer apps. This concerns me a little, because I remember the time before computers, which have been falsely advertised as “time-saving technology.” In the late 1950s, children were allowed to do certain kinds of work. When I was eight through eleven, in the summer, I occasionally worked behind the counter at a small public swimming pool. We sold admission passes — daily and season — and we sold snacks and we made change for the juke box. We had a mechanical cash register with a paper roll that recorded transactions. I had to make change “in my head.” Tap in the amount of the sale, pull the handle, the register opens, make the change, and close the register. Every so often, I’d have to change the paper roll. These transactions took less time than the transactions I participate in now at the grocery store with all the bar codes and computerized registers that tell the operator what the proper amount of change is. If they go down, it takes a technician to fix it. If the operator hits the wrong button, the whole process starts again.
When I took my first big job after the Army, we relied on computers, and my Executive Director was crazy for every new gadget and app that came along. Honestly, we spent more time learning new apps and waiting for techs to fix computer glitches than we did working sometimes. If I’d kept paper files and used just my daybook, things would have been smooth as bunny fur. I discovered by and by that the advantage of these technologies for bosses was that technology performs a surveillance function. It keeps an eye on you. Technicians have plenty of work. The rest of us just obeyed the machines and let them decide for us.
If I drive everywhere I go, and quit walking, my walking muscles get weak and my walking muscle-memory gets dull. If I use a lot of “decision-making” technologies, my decision-making muscles get weak and my decision-making muscle-memory gets dull. Eventually, what was once kind of cool and seemingly convenient becomes something upon which I depend so much that it has gained control over me.
In 1865, an English economist named William Jevons studied the use of coal. Certain new technologies had made coal a more efficient fuel, which led many to say that this would result in people using less coal. Just the opposite happened. The more efficient the technologies, the more people who used them, and coal consumption went up, fast. The name for this process where technological efficiency actually leads to greater consumption, and not conservation, is called “Jevons’ paradox.” Remember in Chapter 8, we talked about paradox — a seeming contradiction beneath which is a concealed truth?
With the advance of ever more complicated technology, which was supposed to make everything so much more efficient that we would be able to work less and have the same amount of stuff. In fact, just the opposite happens. It’s the Jevons’ paradox of technology and work. At the same time, the technology we use is deciding for us — making our decision-making muscles grow flabby — and keeping an eye on us, even studying us to make our decisions for us in the future. Then we wonder why people seem to be losing their ability to use practical reason, why so many of us have such a hard time performing Step (2), thinking it through.
I use some of these technologies and some of these “platforms” (right here, for example). I avoid “apps” wherever I can (no thanks, I’ll walk). One platform I use is YouTube, because there are a lot of useful things on YouTube. I’d never built a deck before, so I studied YouTube videos on building decks, then built a deck that came out very nicely. I also enjoy fishing videos, university lectures, history snippets, musical performances, and a few other things. But YouTube does something that’s extremely annoying. It records my choices, even the stuff I open and close before I know exactly what it is, and it organizes those “choices” through an algorithm, then gives me recommendations based on what the algorithm decides I like. YouTube also suppresses certain videos so fewer people can see them if the bosses at YouTube dislike what’s on the video. It’s trying to decide for me. It’s nudging me, because the more I watch, the more I’m exposed to YouTube ads — which means more revenue. More than just trying to steal Step (2) — think it through — for me, YouTube’s secret electronic master, the algorithm, wants to both exploit and form my desires.
My first experience of algorithms was in the pre-computer Army. Medics used them. A medic is not a doctor, not even close. They screen patients for doctors, and treat them when the problems are minor. The medics’ algorithm was in a book they carried around. Algorithms are procedures organized into yes-or-no steps. In a medic’s algorithm book, there will be a question: Does the patient have a fever? Based on the answer — yes or no — the medic proceeds to a next step. Yes tells the medic to ask and answer another question, whereas no sends the medic to a different question. Electronic algorithms work the same way. If yes, go this way; if no, go that way. Only electronic algorithms can ask and answer about a million yes-or-no questions a second. Algorithms are why computers can play chess . . . very well.
Guess what else, besides a computer, can perform thousands of operations in mere seconds. You can. I can. The human mind (a brain and body working as a single consciousness) is far more complex and sophisticated than any computer. The only thing computers can do better than us is fixed algorithms — crunching numbers and following command procedures. Computers are very good at mathematical calculations and strict procedures. They are not, however, connected to a body with all its senses, or to real memories, or to intuition, or to “muscle memory.”
In fact, even in the exercise of practical reason, of Step (2) thinking it through, we don’t have to think about thinking it through. We think before we act, but we do it very, very quickly, thinking without thinking about thinking. We have our own super-fast auto-pilots in our heads. The busy, multi-tasking mom has already learned how to prioritize, and she does it almost by habit. What can happen when technology and habits are combined is that the use of the decision-making technology becomes the habit, instead of using the decision-muscles; and we don’t notice that we have become dependent on the technology — controlled by it even — until, for some reason or another, we lose access to the technology.
Anyone who’s had a storm take out the electricity for a few days remembers how there were two things that come up first: (1) keep the refrigerator closed so the food doesn’t rot, and (2) asking what the heck do we do with ourselves when the internet and the television don’t work. We didn’t even notice how much we depended upon electricity. Then it was gone, and our frailty and dependency were revealed. Suddenly, we had to think actively, not out of habit, about what we are going to do next. New needs and desires came to the surface. We recognized that our decision-making muscles were weak. We had to walk instead of ride.
Thought exercise: Today, pay attention to two things at once: first, when and how are you dependent upon electronically-powered technology, and second, how often is television or the internet telling you how to think.
— — —
Fear and the desire for control
Fear is not, in itself, a bad thing. Fear is a physical reaction which protects humans and other animals from very real dangers. Sudden fear, like being surprised and alarmed, is one kind of fear. Another kind of fear is one that is not a surprise, but a habit or an association — fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of social situations. Then there are those unfocused feelings of general anxiety — chronic fear.
Like desire and any other attitude or emotion, non-reactive fear needs to be managed and directed through imitation, learning, practice, and habit. I was taught to fear all snakes when I was very young, but at around age ten, some very knowledgeable adults taught me how to identify a number of snakes by species, how to safely handle snakes, and even how to accustom snakes to being handled such that I could let them hang on me freely. Now, upon first sight of a snake, I still take a moment to determine what kind of snake I’ve encountered, and based on that determination, whether to give it a wider pass or not. A few years back, when rabbits were overrunning our garden, I actually brought a couple of big black rat snakes I’d captured and gave them a home under our shed. I may have a momentary memory of fear on first sighting of a snake, but it’s quickly under control.
While fear is a tried-and-true protective reaction, we all know that sometimes people learn to fear things — even imaginary things — in ways that are not helpful or healthy. Think of the agoraphobic — a person who suffers a terrible fear of even leaving the house. On the other hand, we may also know people who’ve lost even rational fears to the point where they’re prone to dangerous recklessness. Most of us are somewhere between these two extremes. When we think about this, we can all easily imagine a kind of ideal halfway point between utter recklessness and crippling fear. The ancient Greek philosophers called this balance “the Golden Mean,” the word mean here defined as a point between extremes.
Of course, we can’t really discuss fear in such general terms. First of all, as we’ve already hinted, people fear different things in different situations. Secondly, we feel different forms of fear. One might fear snakes, but only upon encountering them. A child might fear the school bully. A parent might fear what things her child will encounter on the internet. Many people fear losing a job. There’s jump-fear, that surprise we talked about. There’s worry-fear. There’s controlled fear, like the fireman or soldier who nonetheless advances toward the danger. There’s panic, when the fear becomes so intense that a person loses their self-control.
Sometimes we like to play with fear. Children like to play Boo and hide-and-seek. We actually invite the jump-scares in horror or thriller films — a kind of fear we expect and welcome, because we feel insulated from any real danger by the knowledge that “It’s just a movie.” By experiencing fear in a controlled environment, we can, in a sense, tame the fear and maintain a sense of control and security.
This relation between fear and control is very easy to understand because it’s natural and often sensible. On the other hand, fear is not always a reaction to things that are real or reasonable, even if they are understandable. A young woman who was raised by a cruel and abusive step-father who was bald with a beard may experience fear and loathing every time she sees men who resemble her step-father. We know, and she probably knows, that all bald men with beards who resemble her step-father are not cruel and abusive, but she suffers the fear anyway. It’s not a real danger or a reasonable fear; but it’s understandable. It will take a combination of self-knowledge and practice for her to overcome that fear. Without that self-knowledge and practice, she may never overcome it. The ideal outcome is for her to get her fear under control first, then eventually — through practice and habit — lose that fear.
In the absence of self-knowledge and practice to control fears that are unreasonable or crippling, some of us will seek not to control the fear, but to control everything else around us. In the worst of cases, this also involves controlling the people around us, or even other people in general. It may not feel quite right to highlight the experience of fear, for example, of an abusive, controlling husband because of the fear he creates in the wife and children over whom he exercises an almost dictatorial control; but if we are to understand why he does what he does, we have to account for the fears that drive him. We mentioned in an earlier chapter how disgust and fear were mobilized by the Nazis against Jews (and Slavs and the Roma). The fear that brought the Nazis to power (Hitler was elected, after all) was the crushing defeat of World War I and the crash of the German economy. What Hitler did was transfer that deep sense of insecurity and humiliation — that fear — onto a group, the Jews. When one group is identified as the target for mass fear and anger, we call them the scapegoat — a ritual enemy onto which we can transfer our internal conflicts and fears. The Germans, by and large, welcomed the Strong Leader type; because they were made to be afraid and wanted control.
In a far less dramatic example, I can tell on myself. I was quite small as a youngster, and I was picked on a great deal. My defense was to adopt the role of Strong Male, a controlling character whose obsession with control — even as many aspects of my own life were out of control — was actually rewarded and reinforced in the Army, which is organized for that most fearful of experiences, war; and which prepares for war using sometimes near absolute control.
A relative of mine grew up during the Great Depression, and even after the Depression and World War II, when she had a secure life, she maintained a compulsion, born of that decade-long fear of hunger and poverty during her childhood, to pinch pennies and hoard things she didn’t need. It was one of several ways in which she sought control over her environment, including oftentimes controlling other people in very invasive ways, because she lacked the self-knowledge and the practice to control the fear itself.
The desire for control is not, in itself, a good thing or a bad thing, a healthy thing or an unhealthy thing. Traffic laws and signs are control measures; and we’d all agree that they are necessary to protect ourselves from real dangers which we are right to fear. It’s when the fear is not reasonable, or sometimes not even in response to any particular situation or object — many people experience unfocused anxiety — that fear is unhealthy and bad for that person and those around him or her. He or she tries to control the environment and others, instead of controlling the fear.
Determining when, where, and how to get a handle on this fear-and-control thing requires several different measures. We’ve emphasized self-awareness; but while that’s easy to write and read, it’s not always easy to achieve. To begin with, the self is a slippery thing that — as we repeatedly point out — depends for its awareness on the many ways in which the social-world is experienced by the I-world. The mirror effect. What are others’ reactions to me reflecting to me about my-self? Back in some ancient time, this was a simpler matter.
I am Retamar, daughter of Clores and Fon, wife of Yadma, mother of Zisolet, Shevray, and Frank Junior. My culture has well-established roles and practices, we grow what we eat and build our houses out of local materials. We worship the same deity, share the same values, work and play the same ways, and understand virtue and vice in the same ways as we have for centuries. We are governed by a body of elders, and we are more or less content except when we encounter natural catastrophes or attacks from outsiders. I know pretty well who I am, what my rights, duties, responsibilities, and span of control are.
That may sound pretty unexciting for people today, and maybe very restricted. On the other hand, if your own life is in a lot of turmoil, this may sound quite stable and peaceful. Let’s contrast it with someone today.
I am Gerald, Gerry for short. I’m married to Sheila, my second wife after the first marriage came apart because we liked how one another looked, but after living together we found we had incompatible values. My parents were divorced, too. I live in Cleveland, where I moved for work. Sheila is from Los Angeles, where I met her at my last job. My father is dead, and my mother lives in Atlanta, where I lived from the age of twelve until I graduated high school, having lived before that in Columbus, Georgia. My brother lives in Chattanooga, one sister lives in Atlanta and another in St. Louis with her second husband. Our few friends are from work. We have to travel a great deal to stay in touch with family. I am b&w biracial, Sheila is white, my sister’s second husband is French-Canadian, my other sister is married to a black man, and my brother is married to a second-generation Salvadoran. Among us there are atheists, Baptists, African Methodist Episcopalians, Catholics, and agnostics. Our family includes Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, some of whom won’t talk to one another. Most of us will move at least once, probably twice, again, before we finally settle, because work is that way now. What we have in common is that we need money to survive and thrive, but in pursuit of money, we have been scattered. Being apart, with our values now transmitted by media and confirmed by our non-family peers, we share little except some vague family histories. Our kids are more influenced by their age peers and pop culture media than they are by us, and many of us have kids with disciplinary problems. A lot of us spend a lot of time carrying kids to activities to “keep them out of trouble,” some of us can’t afford it, and several of us have kids who are on prescription drugs. Some of us are on prescription drugs, too; and a few of us, including a couple of the kids, are using street drugs. When the families do get together, we talk about our favorite television shows and the weather, because anything serious turns into quarrels.
Looking at Gerry and his family — which may look a little like your family — we can see how most of us are bombarded from the outside with conflicting messages. If our self-knowledge depends upon a combination of signals, information, and relations from outside the I-world, alongside self-reflection, we’re not on very stable ground. Those signals, information, and relations are contradictory. Our identities, or known selves, are no longer rooted in tradition, family, and place; and the need to belong has been channeled through things like television, social media, advertising, and pop-culture. These influences — which are all designed to make a profit, not ensure your well-being — provide a confusing menu of pre-made options for one’s identity, which come with a retail list. In other words, it’s very difficult to know oneself nowadays, because we’ve lost so many of the old hand-holds.
That’s one reason this book is about desire. A close look at one’s desires, using a few tools of interpretation, can help us with the self-knowledge that we need to distinguish between rational and irrational fears and rational and irrational forms of control.
Thought exercise: Today, watch a little television, the kind with ads. How many ads first encourage or inflame some fear, then try to sell you something which will give you control over that fear. How many times in one hour, do you see an ad that provokes some fear (germs, erectile dysfunction, burglary, weight-gain, whatever)? How many hours a week do you and members of your family watch television? You might also watch political messaging. How often does it appeal to fear?
— — —
Desire, death, and meaning
We discussed in the last chapter how balancing fear and the desire for control requires some degree of self-knowledge and practice (which requires the formation of self-discipline). In this chapter, we’re going to talk about the one thing that gives us all trouble when thinking about how we desire, because we don’t like thinking about it, and so we don’t often think about how it affects the way we desire: death.
To get started, though, let’s think about three things: your national flag (mine would be US, but you may have another), God, and “nature.” Each of these words — a symbol, a name, and an idea — means something. The problem we encounter in today’s world is that each of them means something different to different people. Let’s think about meanings here.
The flag is a symbol for a nation, even though it can have practical uses as well. I look for people’s flags on shore when I’m on the lake fishing so I can assess the wind direction. Ships use them to determine countries of origin at a distance. Government buildings display them to make it easier to spot the government offices. But for the most part, the flag is a symbol. Symbols stand for something, instead of being the thing itself. They also have meanings beyond the thing form which they stand. When I was a soldier, we had to salute the flag every time it was raised in the morning and retired in the evening. Some people get very angry about “improper” use of the flag or disrespect for it. This is called flag “desecration,” desecration meaning treating something “sacred” as something not sacred. Some people don’t regard the flag as sacred (I am included in that number), and they think very little about it. The flag is often used now as a fashion — for shirts, dresses, bandanas, and the like. Some people regard the flag as a symbol of oppression or war. Some have modified the flag to mean something new; thinking now about the black and white American flags with the blue stripe to symbolize an attachment to the police, or the more recent revival of the US “black flag” by armed militia-types means “no prisoners, no quarter.” Rainbow variations of the flag stand for sexual minorities, and so on. Multiple meanings attached to a national flag.
God is a name for the divine being, creator of the universe. Among people who lived prior to monotheism, prior to the belief in one divine being, there was not one being named God, but many spiritual beings called gods, plural; and before that many people believed not in gods, but in spirits that inhabited all things — a person, a fish, a rock, a tree, the moon, and so forth. Before the fourteenth century, Christians thought of God as “prior to” Creation — something so different that He was differently different, something that humans could not grasp. Our only access to God was through God’s self-revelation, God’s revealing of God’s self in various ways — the most important being God’s “incarnation” (becoming flesh) in Christ, God crashing through infinity to become a human being. Gradually, after the fourteenth century, some Christians began to think of God not as “prior to” the universe, but as the most powerful being in the universe. This bringing God inside the known universe subjected God to the same kinds of proofs as physical things and eventually led to the growth of modern atheism — disbelief in the God that was part of and not “prior to” the universe. People have very different ideas about God, whether they believe in God or not. And people often assume that others are talking about the same thing when they say, “God,” even if they are not. Some call God “love,” some think of God as an angry punisher, and so forth. Many people project their own desires and expectations on God. God has many different meanings for many different people.
The same applies to something called “nature.” What do you think of when you hear or read the word, nature? Some will think of forests, prairies, rivers, seas, and so forth. A scientist may think of gravity, electromagnetism, diffusion, molecular structures, and so on. Some will think of “human nature” and have some idea about what that is. In the late 1200s, nature meant processes of the body. By the mid-1300s, nature also meant processes of the material world. Not things, processes. By the late-1300s, nature also meant the character of a thing — the nature of a hawk is to hunt. In 1610, Shakespeare wrote a play called The Tempest, where for the first time there was a contrast between nature and nurture, which is a debate today about whether or how much we — as human beings — are formed by nature (DNA, or “heredity”) or nurture (what we learn socially). There are also debates about whether humans are part of nature or apart-from nature. One of the most powerful ideas in the world, ever since the early 1600s, still around today, is that we (humans) can conquer or overcome something called nature, which we regard as somehow separate from and below us, as something inert, as a resource to which we “add value.”
Woven into our fabric of meaning, we each have some notion of the meaning of death.
There are even people today, who call themselves “transhumanists,” who believe we can overcome death by uploading our consciousness to the virtual “cloud.” For the record, the author thinks they’re nuts or they’re trying to sell you something. What better way appeal to the desire to live forever.
We hear a great deal of propaganda aimed at creating and supposedly fulfilling desires, and the hidden message of that propaganda is that we live in a world without limits. But there — hovering over all this happy-clappy talk about unlimited desire, unlimited ambition, unlimited imagination, unlimited economic “growth,” unlimited pleasure, and now, life unlimited by our own bodies (our natures) — is death, the very limit none of us can actually escape.
Just as the flag, God, and nature — as words — mean different things to different people in different places and time, death has multiple meanings, too. The most terrifying meaning of death is death in a world that means nothing; because inevitable death in a meaningless world means inevitable nothingness . . . which leads to the question, “What’s the point?”
Let’s back up a moment, and think about meaning. Meaning means (sorry) (1) the idea attached to the word; meaning means (2) significance; meaning means (3) a goal, intention, or final reason. In definition (1), I say “dog,” and you know it means a canine animal, which we both recognize from a set of characteristics we use to identify dogs from, say, birds or cats or frogs. In definition (2), if you and I observe a red light at a traffic intersection, we both know the significance; it means “stop,” and it also means if you don’t stop and a cop sees you continue, you’ll get an expensive citation and a hike in your insurance payments. In definition (3), if some stranger shows up shouting at your front door, you might come out and say, “What is the meaning of this?” Using meaning as an adjective, we might say, “He gave me a meaningful look,” a look that conveyed meaning.
A key difference between animals and humans is that both recognize meanings, but only humans seek meanings beyond the obvious. A feral cat recognizes and remembers where the bird feeders are, and knows they mean hunting opportunities. But no cat asks the question, “What does all this — life, the world, death — mean?”
For fully-abled humans beyond a certain age, this meaning-seeking is in many important respects a big question mark arising from the knowledge of the certainty of death. This desire for meaning is a big part of that special human condition which is living with the knowledge that death is a certainty for us all. When humans are convinced of things like, “Life is just an accident,” or “You are just star shrapnel,” or “You die, and the universe spreads out until there is heat death and there is nothing forever after,” then they suffer a crisis of meaninglessness. When other humans believe that there is more than just the physical universe that we perceive, that we have souls, that there is a God (who is prior to as well as part of the physical universe), and they believe this God has a purpose (meaning) of which we are a part, they may see death as very meaningful, as an unpleasant path we take on a journey that concludes (in Christian terms) by reconciling with God, These people do not have a crisis of meaninglessness, even if they still experience that natural dread, that rush of fear, associated with death and dying.
Death puts us in mind of eternity. The knowledge of death can push us to consider our relation to eternity, which, considered on way, can feel like a bottomless canyon that swallows us up like a grain of dust. The meanings we associate with life and death can determine whether we face the fact that death is unavoidable for us all with fear, anger, denial, hope, or despair.
The idea that life is meaningless can lead in four directions with regard to desire. First, it can lead people to seek something larger than themselves to give them direction — without God, that might be nationalism (there’s our flag symbol), or “social justice,” or revolution, or your love for someone else. Secondly, it might lead a person to seek escape in obsessions or fantasies, like games and hobbies, or a branch of study, or a form of work. Thirdly, it might lead a person to seek as much pleasure as possible before “the end” (This one is available only to those with the means). In this case, it can also lead a person to abandon any concern for others or social conventions or rules. Finally, it can lead a person to despair — a sense that nothing matters, and in the worst cases, to a lack of most desires combined with a desire to stop living. Many suicides are preceded by the sense that things have become meaningless.
One of the problems related to desire, meaning, and death today is what we described above — that we no longer live, as people once did, in very particular cultures where everyone shared the same beliefs and values, the same meanings. In today’s world, the only thing we share across the culture is a dependence on money to survive and a dependence on massive material grids and institutions. Our common spaces are mostly commercial — places where we buy and sell things. Our access to ideas, beliefs, and values is likewise a kind of loud marketplace, full of noisy sales-people all shouting at us at once.
In our modern “freedom” from traditional ideas, values, and meanings, we’re forced to choose our own ideas, values, and meanings from among hundreds, even thousands, of ideas, values, and meanings (shopping?). This, too, can lead to a crisis of meaninglessness and despair; because the fact of hundreds of different and often contradictory ideas, values, and meanings hints that they all might be, to one degree or another, bullshit. Then we’re right back to a world, and a life, without meaning, and under the long cold shadow of death. It’s like a dictatorship of “choices” we can’t avoid in a world where the meanings that root our choices have been yanked out of the ground. We are stuck in a crisis of meaninglessness, unless we can find a structure of meaning within a community that shares and lives out a particular set of ideas, values, and meanings.
This suggests that we need a basis for meaning — some independent and final source of meaning to which all our other meanings and desires can make some final appeal.
Thought exercise: Today, take notice of how many people are in some way expressing different beliefs, values, and meanings; and venture a guess about their thoughts on death. Also give some thought to what death means to you. Be honest.
— — —
Distorted desires, children, & media
The last chapter stands on its own, but it was also a set-up for this one. This one applies to every age group, but especially to tweens and teens, whether one is now a tween/teen or whether we are thinking back to when we were, or whether we are raising tweens/teens.
We said in an earlier chapter that we learn what and how to desire. We’ve also said that social media today — everything from TV to Tumblr — plays a powerful, and often negative, role in the formation of desire. Young people, in particular, are susceptible to these forms of highly impersonal and deeply personal mediators.
We’ve also said that people don’t only desire pleasure, possessions, and advantages. Sometimes, as we all know, people want to suffer, want to be sad, and want to be unhappy. This may seem nonsensical on the surface, but it’s actually quite common. The desire to be sad, to suffer, to be unhappy, is often a means to gain something else we desire — sympathy, attention, a sense of belonging, even elevated status as “the sufferer.”
For teens, one baseline desire — fueled by media trends and media productions — is to be dramatic and therefore interesting. There is a common idea that suffering is noble and dramatic. This need for drama is a need for dramatic (artistic) values — called aesthetics. Suffering, sadness, tragedy, these are often uninteresting in real life except for the sufferers. But in a world where we are raised on dramatic productions — stories represented in books, film, TV, or the web — where the characters are interesting, sad, and noble all at once, the desire to be like these role models — especially in a world where we all struggle, as we pointed out in the last chapter, with the threat of meaninglessness — can be particularly powerful for impressionable teens. When these imaginary characters with all that interesting dramatic (aesthetic) value are made attractive, this can be catnip to a young person whose day-to-day life doesn’t have much drama, or whose day-to-day life is a dictatorship of choices without any way of meaningfully organizing how to choose, what to believe, or which values are important.
More than that, all people, and especially young people, seek validation, or confirmation, of the “identities” they “choose” to perform. I once heard a woman at a 12-step meeting say, “I always thought I was a piece of shit, and I sought out men who would validate that I was a piece of shit.” Without that validation from the social-world, the I-world has trouble hanging onto an “identity” — to which one may attach tremendous significance.
I used the word “perform,” which suggests that these “identities” which are “selected” — often from a menu provided by media — are not the same as a person who is secure about who he or she is. A fellow once said, “The only people who seek an identity are those who don’t have one.”
We hear a great deal about identities nowadays, because we have all become so much alike. If you ride a bus or subway, or sit in a waiting room, or do anything else where there are strangers thrown together, you’ll see like ninety percent of them looking at their phones. Most of them have shopped on Amazon. The stuff they watch on TV is produced by just six big companies. Their clothing is mostly produced by just ten companies. Like you, they have been channeled into this bus, subway, or waiting room by their dependency on the same systems. Like you, their lives can be generally described as, go to work, come home, make some processed food, do some laundry in a machine, watch some TV or play some games or surf the web, go to bed . . . rinse and repeat.
At the same time — in part because we have been taught to want to be dramatic and interesting — we want to stand out as a special individual. We’ve learned the desire to be unique, more interesting than just a member of the herd. This desire combines with the desire to belong, especially in a world where the old markers of belonging have been swallowed up by systems, grids, big companies, and the boring same-ness of our lives.
Well, you can have an “identity.” It’s no longer an identity based on terrain, weather, food production, local language, and old customs, but on things like “race,” sexual inclinations, “gender,” in-groups, and hyphenated nationality. You can be a Japanese-American or a white het-cis or queer-goth or a black nationalist or trans-woman, but you’re still sitting in the same waiting room, looking at the same phone, and absorbing content from the same producers. The “identity” you may claim is not a way of life, based on land, climate, food production, local language, or old customs. The way of life shared by each of these “identities” is produced by “the machine” of technologically-controlled culture. The identity is a performance that makes one seem unique and gives a sort of sense of belonging at the same time.
The desire to be tragic, or dramatically sad, or part of a “suffering” identity is like that. And the deeper desire is often to be interesting, which is based on a still deeper desire to belong — belong to others, and belong to be part of something bigger than oneself. Without belonging to something bigger than oneself, we are like boats without anchors. We have nothing and no one to refer to when we need to decide what to do and how to do it.
This is not to say that people don’t suffer or have reason to be sad or even live tragic lives. They do. And none of this is to say that life does not, or should not, involve suffering. We will suffer illness, setbacks, worry, the pain and deaths of loved ones, and our own deaths, sometimes with prolonged suffering.
We even have to suffer one another; and here is a special kind of suffering. Every relationship, even the best of them, begins with that brute fact discussed in chapter 1, that your I-world is not fully knowable to anyone else, nor is anyone else’s I-world ever fully knowable to you. (Our I-worlds aren’t even fully intelligible to ourselves, though we are the only ones who can experience them.) We’re constantly trying to be for others what we think they want us to be, and yet not really fully knowing what it is they want us to be; and, likewise, that other is always trying to be for you what they think you want him or her to be, and not knowing what you want him or her to be. This is a matter that’s never settled, because neither of us is sure what we want from the other or what the other wants from us. So, in a sense, we chase our tails; and we get it wrong — sometimes a little wrong, sometimes a lot wrong — even though we also sometimes get it right. It’s a struggle, this desire aimed at the desire of others we can’t fully know, a form of suffering. And, still, we can and do love others. We suffer one another. That’s why friendship, marriage, and childrearing take a good deal of work. We have to be willing to tolerate the mis-interpretations, the false starts, the offenses — intentional and not, and be willing to set aside our pride, to adjust, to forgive, and to accept forgiveness.
But that isn’t the kind of suffering that we should worry about with regard to a web-influenced teenager, who faces a world that sometimes appears meaningless, and desires to suffer in order to be seen suffering, to be sad in order to be seen being sad, and to be tragic in order to be seen being tragic, because he or she desires to be interesting, and has come to associate a dramatic value with her or his suffering — an aesthetic of suffering and tragedy. A performance that takes over minds, especially of the young and impressionable. A performance that requires constant validation — whether positive or negative.
As many of us know, this can be a source of confusion and conflict, especially between parents and their children. It is not, however, restricted to children. Adults can also desire sadness, to be dramatically, aesthetically, tragic. Again, those cultural influences that associate being tragic with being more dramatically interesting can be found in the same massive centralized media we all consume. The danger is when these influences, interpreted rightly or wrongly, especially by the impressionable young, can lead to very self-destructive behavior, everything from groups who engage in bulimia, cutting, and even romanticizing suicide. Many of these influences promote conflict and rebellion as characteristics of dramatic and interesting people. The difference between most adults and most younger people is that adults (hopefully) have acquired enough experience to know what’s wrong with romanticizing tragedy, and children have not.
There are tragic heroes, and heroic people who have suffered, and (interesting) anti-heroes. The tragic hero, however, is not made merely by suffering, but from being undone by his or her own “fatal flaw” (in Greek, hamartia). That’s what “tragedy” means in the old-world sense, not just someone who suffers. A good person with one flaw, who does good things with good intentions, but has a bad outcome because of that one flaw. There are people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazis and was executed in a Nazi prison camp days before the war ended. Then there are anti-heroes, dramatic rebels, like the protagonist of Breaking Bad. They all suffer; but the suffering alone is not what makes them interesting. It’s their reason for and response to suffering that makes them interesting, sometimes even worthy of imitation (and sometimes definitely not).
Children will misinterpret this, because they haven’t developed the habits of mind necessary to get the whole picture. They can’t immediately see the difference between life and performance. And yes, for many adults whose reasoning muscles have grown flabby from letting technology take over their lives, they can’t see the difference either. Many adults have, through technological dependency, become like children. This process of making whole populations of adults like children is called infantilization, making us like infants.
The infantilization of many adults, especially if those adults are parents, makes it very difficult for children to mature. Since, as we’ve already learned, we discover (or nowadays “invent”) ourselves through others in the social-world, the infantilization of large numbers of people in any society becomes a process which expands by itself to more and more people. Our I-worlds, then, are weakened in the ability to deal with reality, especially realities that have been taken over by technology, by the powers of government, and by the market.
These things (technology, government, market) are impersonal powers producing unintentional outcomes, like children who desire to be sad, tragic, and part of a “suffering” group. Certainly, Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or TikTok are designed to market attention — they are attention-seeking platforms — but they are buying and selling attention to their users. Their goal is to make money and achieve the kind of power to make more and more money. But because young people (and many infantilized adults) seek attention, for whatever reasons, they are easy pickings, so to speak, for those who offer them opportunities for attention . . . and other things they desire and may not have in their lives — belonging, connection, friendship, and so forth.
Even people with good intentions can produce unintended consequences.
My wife, Sherry, and I have bird feeders. We like watching the birds come to them a feed. We don’t even mind that the squirrels go after them, though that was not what we intended. We’ve also found that we have to keep them filled in winter, or many birds who have come to depend on them will die. Another unintended consequence — bird dependency. And the feeders have also attracted hawks and feral cats, who want to hunt on the feeders — yet another unintended consequence.
Social media sites did not intend for children, tweens, and teens to be preyed upon sexually, to witness suicides or see them romanticized, to watch pornography, to learn to desire to become depressed or bulimic as a way to be more interesting, or to be convinced they’ve been “born into the wrong body.” But it’s happened.
We all know how busy some people are, which is why some people rely on tablets, TV, and phones to act as babysitters. But these are worse than bad babysitters; they are malicious babysitters, mis-educating young people’s (and many older people’s) desires. They are interfering with the process of maturity — which includes that most important of skills, practical reason — and even making irrational children out of adults.
Thought exercise: Today, think about the kinds of practices in which young people can participate that will develop their sense of structure, rules, skills, and problem-solving. Sports, chess, billiards, fishing, scouting, sewing, music, etc. What practices do you have as an adult that don’t involve a computer?
— — —
Desire, wish, fantasy
Nouns — desire, wish, fantasy. They can all mean the same thing. She had the desire to visit the lighthouse at Crisp Point. She wished she could visit the lighthouse at Crisp Point. She had a fantasy about visiting the lighthouse at Crisp Point.
Verbs. Here we can break the three terms out a bit. He desired her. He wished she desired him. He fantasized about her approaching him in the park.
If we go to the dictionary for any one of these terms, there are multiple definitions alongside different examples of how desire, wish, and fantasy — as noun or verb — can be used in sentences. One part of one definition of desire is “a wish.” When we took on the topic of desire for this book, it wasn’t very hard to write the chapters, because the word — desire — covers so much territory. The number one definition of desire, as a noun, in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary is “conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment or satisfaction in its attainment.” That pretty much covers most of our lives while we’re awake and a good deal of our dreaming lives, too.
To be a conscious animal — especially a human being, who projects desires into the future (and sometimes into the past) — is to be drawn toward people, places, things, actions, situations, and practices by desire. The question we are faced with, having so many desires at once, is to which objects of desire do we apply our willpower, and when do we apply our willpower to turn away from powerful desires that we have determined — though practical reason — to be wrong, bad for us, bad for others, less important than competing desires, and so forth.
Desire is not in itself either good or bad; but we need not worry about that, because actual desires never appear in themselves. Actual desires always emerge within us in particular times, places, and situations — that is, in some context. It is that context, the related conditions in which something appears or happens, that gives us the information necessary to apply our practical reason in deciding which desires are good, which are not so good, which take priority over others, which need to be pursued now and which later, and so on.
Then again, we know from our experience of our own I-worlds, which we can safely assume are similar (though never identical) in many respects to the I-worlds of others, that our minds are not mere machine-like calculators that march forward through logical procedures. Stop now and become aware of your own mind, and you’ll notice that it swims and flows and leaps and jerks and carries on, with our thoughts and emotions performing a drunken dance in a noisy, crowded club. That’s why the disciplines of practices and formation of habits and routines becomes so important. We need disciplines, habits, routines, memorized procedures, and rules to get some control over the mind’s capacity to run wild. Some people say our minds should control our bodies; but let’s reverse that. Sometimes, our bodies — in following routines, habits, and rules — are needed to control our minds.
For our purposes, we’ll call fantasies longer stories and wishes shorter stories. I have a fantasy that I’ll be offered a one-time job that will net a couple hundred thousand dollars, and we’ll never have to worry about money again. I can imagine the details of this long story. On the other hand, I wish I was taller. Short and sweet. The difference between a wish and a fantasy, for our purposes, is that a wish is pure magic. I don’t dress up this desire with a lot of context. I just want it to happen without my participation. In my fantasies, the stories have a setting, and I’m a participant in the story.
Like desires, wishes and fantasies are not, in themselves, good or bad, right or wrong, practical or impractical. So long as they are just imagination — just magic tricks or little stories in our minds — they have no actual context, no actual related conditions in which something appears or happens. It’s only when we act on them that they can become act-ual in some way.
Wish and fantasy are important for our creativity. If I want to build an office desk, the whole process begins with a wish — I wish I had a better desk — then proceeds through fantasy — wait a minute, maybe I could build a desk, I mean, what would it take? — and begins to actualize when I start drawing up my design, listing my materials, and organizing my tools. Most of our creative activity starts in some way similar to this, with a wish, followed by a fantasy, followed by will-directed action.
On the other hand, there are two ways wish and fantasy can go wrong.
The first way they can go wrong is when a person lacks the ability to understand the difference between wishes and fantasies and what’s actually practical in the real world. The process of recognizing the difference between imagination and reality is called discernment — mentally recognizing meaningful differences. Which wishes and fantasies are practical — which have real potential in the real world to become actual — and which aren’t?
In the last chapter, we talked about children. The reason the internet can be such a dangerous place for children is that children have not sufficiently developed their ability to discern the differences between wishes and fantasies, on the one hand, and practical reality on the other. The same applies to infantilized adults, adults who still think like children . . . which nowadays applies to far too many of us.
I remember after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was destroyed, a conspiracy theory started making the rounds that the buildings were really destroyed by “controlled demolition,” like what you see when they use explosives to drop some big urban building. This was an elaborate fantasy that took hold because people knew very little about actual explosives and how they’re employed. When I was in the Army, for a time I received an extra pay for using complicated explosives, and I knew that setting up a controlled demolition is not something that can be accomplished in secret around thousands of people doing their daily jobs in offices. It requires all kinds of dusty drilling, moving things out of the way, connecting miles of coiled, cumbersome non-electric fast-fuse, measurement and remeasurement, etc. etc. etc. It simply cannot be done in secret!
When I pointed this out, a lot of people got angry with me. They’d become attached to this fantasy, a fantasy that no doubt came from watching movies and television. Their capacity for discerning the difference between fantasy and practical reality was under-developed. They lacked the maturity to discern the difference between reality and what they saw in entertainment media, and that lack translated into a failure to discern the difference between their fantasy of controlled demolition and the actual events of 9–11. This was, of course, made worse by the internet, where people in self-selecting groups took turns validating one another’s delusions.
Children and adults can become upset about learning the difference between reality and some cherished fantasy. That’s why giving them the tools and information necessary to recognize the differences is so important.
The second way wish and fantasy can go wrong is with people who have mental and moral disturbances. In the most extreme cases, we might have a Ted Bundy; but what is much more common is true for many thousands of people. A bad (or perverse) social-world can mal-form us. There are a lot of people who still believe the World Trade Centers were destroyed by controlled demolition.
Conspiracy theorists and other fantasists have been mal-formed by a social-world that has been shrunken down to the internet. The actual people are home, often alone, with their computers. Many have very restricted face-to-face social lives . Most blame “the government.” Among them are many people who desire to belong, desire attention, desire to be interesting, and some desire a degree of fame. Since they belong to self-selecting groups, and because they lack discernment, many have convinced one another of a fantasy about “resisting the government” with guns. They got this fantasy from books, television, and movies where fantasy characters resist the government with guns and get away with it. In reality — I’m speaking now again as a former career soldier and a member of the government — little groups of people with stashes of personal firearms stand no real chance against the actual government. Instead, what we have actually seen, has been the destructive and ultimately failed January 6, 2021 insurrection, a lot of intimidation of the public, and a huge increase in the number of mass shootings by the most unbalanced among these people (almost always men) whose desire for attention is so extreme that they will kill innocents to get that notoriety.
It may seem paradoxical to say that these people — and the most dangerous among them — are like children. But they are like children in this one key respect: they cannot discern the difference between wish, fantasy, and reality. In the case of January 6th, it didn’t help that a deeply-corrupted Chief of State was peddling a lie, echoed through the internet, that he’d been robbed in a fraudulent election.
The failure to discern the difference between imagination and reality is part of a process of infantilization. Look at these grown men showing up in the streets, dressed up like commandos. This is a major reason people have become more susceptible to spiritual fads, conspiracy theories, hate groups, and cults.
The desire to belong, perverted by things like social media, in combination with immaturity in the form of an inability to discern fantasy from reality, is not just some psychological problem. If this were merely some medical issue, we could treat it with pills or something. Some people believe it can be treated with pills; but what they’re avoiding is the fact that these I-worlds, where psychology happens, are powerfully influenced by a social-world where desire is not treated as a way of creativity, love, or values pertaining to the common good. Instead, desire is manipulated for profit. The knock-on effects of this dog-eat-dog social-world of competition and conflict, of addiction and envy, of attention-seeking and performative “identity” groups, include the infantilization of the public. Children, or adults who’ve not matured into the ability to discern imagination from reality, are — like children — more impressionable, easier to take advantage of and manipulate.
Wishes are often harmless. “I wish I was taller,” for example, might be a passing thought that I can easily discard, immediately returning to an acceptance that I am a short person, and that’s the way it is. Wishes can also be expressions of discontent that find no rest in a state of acceptance, especially acceptance of the fact that we are, in fact, powerless to change certain things.
Just as some of the people who were convinced of controlled demolition in the 9–11 attacks grew angry with me for saying it wasn’t possible, the failure to accept (acceptance is a sign of maturity) can lead some people to hold onto an impossible wish and become bitter about its impossibility. This can even be true of wishing into the past. Just as impossible as my wish to be taller, for example, is some wish I’d done something differently in the past. Of course, I do it. Everyone does. But without discerning the difference between wish and reality and accepting my own powerlessness to change the past, I could become depressed and bitter, sharing my unhappiness with everyone around me. The mature me (when I am mature) can think about what I wished I’d done differently and, along with acceptance, I can try to understand how I went wrong and try not to make the same mistakes again. Or I can tell others what I did wrong and how to avoid making the same mistake themselves.
Fantasy can be the first step toward good, the first step toward evil, the first step toward a lucky accident, or the first step toward a big mistake, or the first step toward nothing at all. It can grow into creativity, obsession, a real and useful project, or disappointment and bitterness. The trick is to have good disciplines, routines, rules, and habits . . . and to practice the discernment of the difference between what is imaginary and what is real or really possible. In a world where we are being sold fantasy after fantasy, that last one is the toughest.
Thought exercise: Today, if you have time, go onto the internet (ha!) and look up as many famous hoaxes as you can. See if you can figure out how and why people were fooled by them.
— — —
Desire for secrecy
If you ever read or watched a good mystery drama, it’s all about the secrets. Layer after layer of secrets are peeled back before the truth is revealed. Oftentimes, the process of uncovering these secrets leads to a lot of collateral damage; and sometimes the revelation of secrets leads to healing or positive change. One reason the mystery genre is so popular, I believe, is that we all identify with secrets. I have a secret. You have a secret; He has a secret. She has a secret. Probably more than one secret. People have secrets, but this chapter isn’t about secrets as things in themselves. A secret is just concealed information.
There are two faces, or aspects, to the desire for secrecy.
First, there is the secret itself.
One has thoughts that are so bad, he or she would be ashamed for anyone to know. That one there has violated a trust. She self-harms. He’s committed a crime. They don’t want anyone knowing their financial status. I am an addict. You hate your boss. She is fourteen and pregnant. We are planning a surprise party. She did something extremely cruel. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s gay. She had an abortion. He doesn’t want to talk about a traumatic experience. I don’t want you to know I work for an animal testing lab. He cheats on his wife. They used a cheat sheet to take a test. He gets off sexually from something taboo. You want to hide a friendship with a person most of your other friends dislike. He lied about where he spent the money. We stole money. She entertains sexual fantasies about someone other than her boyfriend. There are all kinds of secrets. When I was in a very secretive unit in the Army, we were bonded — we had a sense of belonging — around the secrets we held in common; we were “the insiders.” Context, context, and more context.
The second aspect of secrecy is motive.
What is the deeper reason one has for concealing the information? The desire for secrecy is seldom concealment for its own sake. There is an underlying desire. If I tell her this, she’ll lose respect for me. If my boss finds out, I’m fired. If my mother knew, she’d be devastated. If he finds out, he’ll become violent. If she finds out, she’ll leave me. If this gets out, it will damage the reputation I’ve built for myself. If he finds out, he’ll quit sending money. They’ll never see this coming, and I’ll win. I don’t feel like doing anything about it, so I’ll wait for someone else to spot it and take care of it. I’d be mortified if anyone found out. I don’t want to deal with their judgement. I don’t want to hear his mouth. I have to maintain this front. I need for them to believe I’m trustworthy so I can take advantage. I want to get elected. I’m ashamed of what I desire. It’s too gross to tell anyone about it. It would hurt his feelings. If they find out, it will cause an unnecessary and destructive conflict. This is our special secret. If they find the Jewish family we’ve hidden in the barn, the Nazi soldiers will kill them and us. Does that poker player need to bluff, fold, or call?
Most motives for secrecy — not all — are negative desires, or aversions. The desire is to avoid something, some consequence. There’s no way to judge the goodness or badness of a secret without that all-important context, even though different people will interpret the same context differently. Why is it a good thing to have a secret ballot on election day? A government secret might be to prevent random lunatics from making nuclear devices. On the other hand, if a government secret is not designed for security, but to cover up a crime, it’s no longer a good thing.
In this light, the content of a secret — what the actual secret is about — is not as important as how one relates to that content. An example: one person might feel it’s very important to keep his or her net worth a secret, whereas another person is like, who cares? The content of the first person’s secret is not content about which secrecy matters to the second.
One of my favorite theologians, Stanley Hauerwas, has dared pastors and priests to ask their congregants to disclose their financial status and net worth. You can imagine how scandalized many parishioners would be. In a church, where people supposedly follow Jesus — who told his rich followers to sell their goods and give the money to the poor — some parishioners would be embarrassed by their poverty; but more would be embarrassed by their wealth. What desires are at play here? How might they conflict?
We can all think of ways in which secrets contribute to stability. It might be a good stability, or a negative stability, but it still relies on keeping some information “close hold.” If the French farmer hiding Jews from Nazis tells righteous lie to keep a secret, and if telling your great aunt that her new hair color looks great is a benign lie to conceal your first reaction, and if lying to conceal a theft or infidelity is a sinful lie, secrets and lies can be good or bad depending on context. This is why rules have to be confined to particular practices, like carpentry or chess or quilting. When rules become general rules with no reference to context, the exceptions to the rule multiply, fast.
Secrets — good, bad, or indifferent — take some work. It may seem a passive thing, to keep a secret. I had an old military commander whose mantra was, “If you want to keep a secret, don’t tell anybody.” Sounds easy enough. But it’s not. He knew it, too. People with secrets want to tell them. Sometimes, people with secrets want others to know they are privy to secrets.
Secrets are always social. You can’t keep a secret from just yourself. There’s always someone else involved, even if it’s someone from whom you desire to conceal the secret. Human beings are social creatures. Part of being social is that we like to talk. We like to exchange information and ideas. We like to communicate things. We like to gossip. It’s part of that need we spoke about in the first chapter to bounce what’s in our I-world off others in the social-world to constantly re-validate our experience and maintain a sense that we are real. We want to tell others what we know, what we think, what we’ve heard or read or thought, about people, places, things, relationships, and events. It’s an urge for most of us, like having to go to the bathroom. Resisting that urge to communicate, by keeping a secret, is not passive at all. It takes a kind of active effort. That’s one reason we talk about secrets “weighing us down.” It’s like work, like mentally carrying something heavy. Of course, not telling the great aunt that her hair looks terrible isn’t the same effort as lugging a sack of cement. The “weight” of a secret depends on what’s at stake and how much that worries us. The weight of a secret depends on the power of the emotions involved.
We can have several different emotional responses to maintaining secrets. Anger, sadness, loneliness, nervousness, outright fear, even obsession. The desire for secrecy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the film Lone Star (a great film, by the way), the whole plot is a tangle of secrets. [Spoiler Alert!] Two characters, who are the parents of two teens who have fallen in love, aggressively prohibit the teens’ contact. At first, it appears to be racial (he’s white, she’s Mexican); but we eventually find out (spoiler alert) that the two teens are half-siblings, one the result of an affair. The film portrays well the emotional tensions associated with layers of secrecy, the weight of heavy secrets.
People have these emotional responses, then they use various strategies to deal with those emotions, some helpful, some not so much. One such strategy is very common, called compartmentalizing, putting different parts of one’s experiences into little mental compartments, or drawers. A paramedic, who deals with emergencies at her work, leaves her work aside when she gets home to her husband and child. She puts these two aspects of her life in different compartments to prevent the stress of the job from interfering with her home life. Some people do this with secrets, walling them off from other parts of life.
Another strategy is rationalization — finding “reasons” (excuses) for keeping the secret, or for the thing the secret is hiding, that let us off the hook. “I took that money, but they didn’t need it anyway.”
Some of us manage the emotional work of secrecy with masks. Not real masks, but “putting on a happy face.” Literally, we control our expressions in such a way as to conceal the stress of keeping the secret. Old people like me will remember the Temptations’ song, “Smiling Faces.”
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof (Can you dig it?)
Many of us, if the secret or the thing we are keeping secret is worrying us, use distractions. Someone in a bad marriage he or she won’t acknowledge will throw him- or herself into his or her work.
Some people end up re-framing their thoughts, thinking it through and discovering it’s not such a big deal after all. Some let the secret go. Some settle with the secret; they decide to leave it a secret for whatever reason, and quit worrying about it.
The real work of the most worrisome secrets is lying, because a lie is active. It’s out there, performing its duty of concealment; but because lies also require contexts to make them believable, and because the shifting of real-world contexts can threaten to expose lies, lies can begin to multiply in order to protect the lies that protect the secret. That is to say, a lie is a mis-representation of reality; so, reality constantly threatens the lie by representing — and with changes in reality, re-representing — itself. One only needs to look at public figures, especially politicians and some of their allies in the media, to see how much work is required to sustain a mis-representation of realities that seem to want to reveal themselves.
Some of us develop a habit of lying. Little lies (“Tell her I’m out of the office.”) are common enough, though this isn’t motivated by a desire for secrecy, but by avoidance or “convenience.” It’s just an easy-out. That’s not to say it isn’t dishonest, or that it doesn’t take down a kind of mental barrier against lying. We’ve also seen people who constantly tell more substantial lies. There are some who are called “compulsive liars” or “pathological liars.”
Wherever you are on the lying spectrum, from scrupulously honest to compulsive liar, and however many secrets are associated with the lies, one sure consequence of making a habit of telling lies is that it becomes much harder to trust anyone else. Our tendency is to think of others as being driven by the same motivations as us — as bearers of secrets, or tellers of lies, or both. This is that projection we discussed in Chapter 2. We project our own traits and characteristics on others. This can make the world seem a more hostile place — a place without the possibility of trust.
Thought exercise: Write down ten of your biggest secrets. Read then to yourself ten times. Burn the paper.
— — —
Desire and law
In the last chapter, we said, “When rules become general rules with no reference to context, the exceptions to the rule start to multiply.” In this chapter, we’ll look at desire in the light of the most general rules there are: laws.
We’ll be looking at law and desire from a couple of different directions. First, we’ll discuss what we desire from popular entertainment genres — artistic categories based on style, content, and form. These genres are representations of the law. Then, we’ll look at the tension between actual desires and the desires that are behind the making of actual laws.
Popular television makes constant references to the law, from Dragnet (a police procedural show) and Perry Mason (a courtroom drama) in the 1950s to the 23-season Law & Order franchise (a police procedural and a courtroom drama, combined) that was re-booted in 2022 after a twelve-year break. I have two books next to me now for my bedtime reading: Lady in the Lake, by Laura Lippman — a murder mystery with an investigative journalist, and Suspect, by Scott Turow — a investigation-based legal thriller.
It’s always about investigating — looking for the answers.
In the 1950s, the first mass television audiences were trained to desire certain outcomes from their shows. Good outcomes. The basic format of Dragnet and Perry Mason was broken into four parts. Part 1: the world is normal and safe. Part 2: some crime or injustice threatens normality and safety. Part 3: police or lawyers (experts) intervene with law and legal procedure. Part 4: through those interventions, criminals are brought to justice, the innocent are set free, normality and safety have been restored. The audience, for its part, became familiar with this format, which they’d learned to desire and enjoy in 30-minute stories with three ad-breaks. First, they identified with some character or characters. Then, some danger or injustice appeared, and the audience slipped into a state of anxiety — or dramatic tension. This was followed by a brief period where everything looked disastrously wrong, and audience anxiety peaked (Often as not, a touch of humor was thrown in here to bleed off a bit of tension). Finally, some breakthrough captured the criminal and freed the innocent, and the audience experienced a huge sigh of relief, called catharsis — a sudden relaxation of emotional tension that restored our spirits.
(Oh, and by the way, these genres are all about uncovering secrets!)
By the time Law & Order came onto the scene in the 1990s, society had changed, and so had the legal drama genres. The legal institutions, police forces and courts, as well as the legal agents, cops and lawyers who populate the institutions, are still portrayed as an official wall of defense between criminal anarchy and civilization.
This notion is part of an ideology — a set of beliefs that hold together a social group, whether they are strictly true or not. When I was a kid, there were safety ads that said, “The policeman is your friend,” accompanied by a picture of a smiling cop holding a little girl’s hand. When I was grown, I’d discovered that this ideological claim was not always true, certainly not for some people.
There were no variations on the formula in the 1950s, nor did they raise ethical difficulties. In the 1990s, Law & Order developed into a show where every episode included some ethical dilemma. These dilemmas gave some of the characters more depth, because they portrayed struggles with themselves and between characters. Certainly, sex was discussed far more openly than it was in the 1950s. And every episode didn’t end with a nice, neat resolution. You might say the genre “grew up.” But the basic ideological foundation — that the law and its institutions — police and courts — are still what stands between the goodness of normal life and the violent chaos that stands just beyond the armed frontier of the law.
There’s also an element of audience voyeurism in law/crime shows — the desire to secretly watch things that are sensational, scandalous, sexual, violent, and squalid. It’s a little like peeking in someone’s window. The characters seem unaware we’re watching them (the irony here is that the actors themselves are aware of nothing else). In the background of the danger in the plots and the voyeurism, there is safety. We know we are safely out of reach of the violence and degradation. We can experience it from a safe distance. We can escape into this high drama — these life-or-death situations — with no real physical risks. And the genre remains morally reassuring, in that the law and its institutions “bend toward justice.” The aim of law, including the police and courts, in these dramas, is justice. If it were only (law and) order, and not justice, we could celebrate a brutal dictatorship as orderly. That’s not part of the ideology to which we subscribe.
In more gritty and realistic representations of these institutions, like The Wire or Seven Seconds, we find representations of the law and its institutions as self-serving, self-protective bureaucracies — sometimes themselves contemptuous of the very laws they are sworn to uphold.
A re-presentation re-presents. It is not a presentation of the thing itself. In the real world, the people and institutions that make, enforce, and interpret law — while in some sense the same — are very diverse. And let’s not forget that all-important context. In taking in representations of law — from books, films, television shows, and even the news — we again project our desires, aversions, fantasies, fears, and so forth onto these representations.
Once upon a time, there were no laws — just customs and authorities. In a band of say 150 hunter-gatherers, there were customs, including role obligations and taboos, and authority was given to a council of elders or a chief. There were no formal, written laws. There was no property as we now think about it, beyond personal or family possessions — clothes, tools, weapons, shelters, and so forth. But there was some sense of and desire for justice, according to custom.
Around 800 BC, in what is now Greece, there was a society not like our band of hunters-gatherers, but organized in city-states for war. We have literature that describes justice as a set social structure — an order — in which everyone has his or her place and role, and justice is the same thing as everyone doing what is required of that role and remaining in that role. A good king, a just king, is someone who can make sure everyone does his or her part, who could resolve conflicts that threatened the social order, and who was a good war leader. At the top of the social/cosmic order, there was Zeus, the chief god, and all laws supposedly conformed to Zeus’s master laws — like a constitution.
If we read the Bible, in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we find the many and various laws that govern the lives of the Israelites, written between 1400 BC and 500, BC. At various times, the Israelites were governed by family patriarchs, by councils of judges, and by kings. These detailed written laws — which covered everything from priestly functions to the proper way to poop — were what all leaders were obliged to follow and enforce. They included laws to support the poor, the widows, and the orphans. This charitable element was unique at the time. Two other customs were unique, and that was the balancing of the law with prophets and the law of Jubilee. There was a recognition that the law and the leaders were sometimes inadequate to justice — conceived now as both order and charity — and one role of the prophets was to “speak truth to power” when power was getting it wrong. Jesus was, in this sense, an Israelite prophet. Jubilee was a law that every fifty years, all debts were forgiven, and any land lost through debt was to be restored to its original families. Th recognition, again, was that the laws which governed the people were necessary, but inadequate to produce justice. The law needed something more than the law to achieve justice. Prophets to hold leaders to account, and Jubilee to prevent unjust accumulations of wealth.
Still later, beginning with Greek philosophers and extending all the way into the present day, people began to think of legal justice, beyond the maintenance of general order, as of two kinds: the correction of wrongs and the distribution of goods. What were just punishments? What was a just distribution of social goods? These questions raise the issue of what does one deserve? Are some things due to everyone as human beings? Should everyone have the right to vote? Are some things only due to those who have done something to merit them? There are requirements in scouting, for example, to earn merit badges. Is the punishment for a crime proportional to the crime — that is, does the degree of the punishment fit the degree of the violation? We wouldn’t want the fine for exceeding the speed limit by five miles an hour to be a year’s wages.
But what is justice? What is just and unjust? It might mean what’s orderly. In another definition, being just means doing what is morally upright. In another, it means doing what is fair. In yet another, being just means doing what is deserved. If these ideas of justice are too complicated, some people fall back on the idea of being just as doing what is legal — no more, no less, a circular argument: the law is justice and justice is the law. In whichever case, justice is a social idea. It governs relationships between more than one persons.
We have a desire for the law to do certain things; but your desire and my desire might not match. You may desire public schools as a matter of law; and I may find that these schools teach values that are alien to me and my family. In our time, the law-giver is the state — the master institution within some geographical boundary. There are institutions for making laws — legislatures, and institutions for enforcing laws — the police, and institutions for arguing and interpreting laws — the courts. One problem we face is that legislatures, under various pressures and faced with changing contexts, keep making more and more laws. Either the legislatures are responding to pressure — for example, big business has the desire for legal advantages and shells out campaign contributions to get them (legal, yes, but is it right?), or legislatures are making laws for new contexts (there was no desire to regulate the internet before there was an internet), or legislatures are making laws, or changing laws, to fill in the gaps for laws that were inadequate to deliver the desired order and justice.
Inside institutions, we find the desire for the legislator to be elected, the desire of a good cop to protect and serve, the desire of a bad cop to prove his masculinity or exercise his racism or to take bribes, the desire of the bureaucrat for advancement (which entails the desire not to “make waves”), the desire of one prosecutor to deliver justice and another put wins on her scoreboard, the desire of a good judge to carefully interpret the law and a bad judge to punish those he doesn’t like, the desires of legislators, cops, and judges to get along in their intermingled social circles, and the desires of socially powerful people who have influence within those social circles.
In the public, we find the desire for these institutions to behave as thoughtfully and admirably as those representations we see on Law & Order (though, I’ll admit I find their bullying — which is represented as being “good cops” — to be extremely offensive). We also find the desire to believe these representations, which is an expression of a deeper desire for a just world in the face of (1) a world that is very often unjust, (2) a world where the law itself is too rigid to account for contexts that constantly multiply, (3) a world in which we have very different ideas about justice, and (4) a world where legislators, law enforcement, and courts are frequently corrupt and unjust.
Thought exercise: Today, consider this quote from Anatole France (1844–1924): “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread.”
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Desire and money
At first glance, this chapter is a no-brainer. Everyone desires money. But have you ever thought more deeply about why you would want money, when money itself is not useful? Some paper, some pocket jingle, maybe some numbers on the computer displaying your bank balance. We don’t want money for the money itself. We want — and need — money as a means to some desired end. Money gets us things we can use, because pretty near everything now has to be bought. We learn to want money for money’s sake, then, because with enough money one has security, and with enough more, one has power.
Things that can be bought, things-for-sale, have a double, or split, personality. I have a book here beside me. I bought that book. Before I bought it, the book was something I could use by reading it. But it also had a price — a sum of money for which it could be exchanged. It had value as a book, but it also had a different kind of value, as money. I also have this computer in front of me, and the glasses on my face, and this chair in which I sit. The book, the computer, the glasses, and the chair all have different uses. But I bought them all with money. They are all different by use, and all the same in having had a price.
That’s why we desire money; it is exchangeable for pretty near everything. Before I bought them, the book, the computer, the glasses, and the chair had the same half of that split personality; they were things-for-sale. In their uses, they were very specific. In being things-for-sale, they were all the same.
Money, then, has one use. It speeds up exchange, or trade. If I need glasses, I don’t have to find out what the optometrist needs that I can provide — say, yard work or a bird house — and trade one specific thing for another specific thing. I don’t have to exchange a use for a use; I buy the glasses and the services with money. It’s a kind of magic when you really think about it.
Without money, everything would slow waaaaay down. It’s based on a kind of shared faith. We all have to believe the money will continue to be accepted as having this value — apart from uses — in order for the money to continue to be accepted as a universal quantity of exchange that can get us many things of different quality. We notice certain instabilities in that shared faith when we have periods of, say, inflation — where, for reasons we may not understand, prices suddenly go up everywhere for everything, and a given amount of money trades for less of the same stuff.
The desire for money, then, is not only a desire for more things, it is a desire for speed — for cramming more actions into less time. In Chapter 12, we talked about death, that inescapable end for each of us that ticks like an ominous clock in the back of our consciousness. Many people experience this as a sense of urgency, or speed, to get in as many good “experiences” as possible in the least amount of time. There are all kinds of things wrong about this notion, like the sacrifice of peaceful contemplation, but most readers will recognize this urge to fulfill “bucket lists,” if not in themselves, then in others. Some people desire the speed of money because they don’t have enough money to get by. That person who has to take a second job to make ends meet is sacrificing time. More money would buy her more time. When you work for wages, you are exchanging work/obedience for money, but that work/obedience is measured in time. How much money do you earn per hour?
In Chapter 5, we discussed the difference between needs and desires. They may not be exactly the same thing — you can have desires for things you don’t need, for example. But you always desire the things you need. When you’re hungry, that indicates a need, and that need triggers a physical desire for food. Money is not just a trade-accelerator — and therefore an accelerator of life — which depends on all sorts of trades; money is also necessary to live.
That hasn’t always been true. For many thousands of years, human beings were perfectly capable of living without money — that peculiar thing that did nothing except store price-value. That’s because people crafted and cultivated and used things ready at hand to make their lives without price-exchange to speed things up. They stored food by salting and fermenting and drying and such, but they didn’t store “value.” History has changed that. There are still a very few people in the world who live largely without money; but for the vast majority of us, all the things we need to survive — clothing, shelter, fuel, food, water — are things-for-sale. In a world where everything is a thing-for-sale, money becomes a need, and not merely a desire, because we’ve come to depend upon money for our survival.
Many of us read crime novels or watch crime stories — fictional and true. The motives for crime are the five L’s: love, lust, lucre (money), loathing, and lunacy. Apart from relationship crimes, money is the biggest motivating factor in crime. In fact, the overwhelming majority of crimes are to get money or to get things without paying for them. This brings up the Anatole France quote we asked you to think about at the end of the past chapter: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread.”
The money economy is an economy of scarcity. Scarcity means less-than-what’s-needed. “Food was increasingly scarce during the famine.” For those who have what they need — the basics — it can also translate into less-than-what’s-desired. The fact that many people have less money than what’s needed, and that they need money nonetheless, doesn’t just mean they depend upon money; it means they depend upon people with a lot more money to supply the money that’s scarce.
For those who have a lot of money, that means they hold all the cards. People without enough money depend upon those with money to such a degree that people with a lot of money can tell people without enough money what to do. In other words, money isn’t just time or exchange value or acceleration or necessity; money, in sufficient quantities, is power over others. This is what makes Anatole France’s statement rather grimly funny . . . and extremely insightful. Behind the obvious statement that we all desire money, we find magic (storing value), psychology (shared faith in money), and social relations (dependency and power).
This presents us with all sorts of moral difficulties, with tensions between desires. When our desires are at odds, the will by which we pursue our desires is divided against itself. As persons, we are broken into conflicted parts. Money has a unique and extremely powerful ability to create this internal conflict, because it presents us with the temptations to cut corners, to take advantage, to treat others as objects or obstacles.
Integrity is the word that describes ordered desires accompanied by an integrated and harmonious will. It is very difficult, then, to be persons (I-worlds) with integrity in a society (social-world) ruled by money. When we say a person has integrity, we mean they have sound principles, and that their principles and their actions match one another. But this is an observation from outside the person by others. To experience oneself as having integrity can be a much stormier and intimate thing. It can be experienced almost as a battle.
We need money so much that we can’t afford to be too morally sensitive — or too picky — about what we do to get it, because it’s a scarcity economy. People we love depend upon us, and so we may have to do things we find distasteful, or even harmful to others we don’t know, to get the money to fulfill our prior obligations to those we love. As we’ve hinted already, there are three forms of this problem: (1) stealing money, (2) doing work that feels like pointless, soul-sucking drudgery, and (3) doing work that we find morally questionable (I did an Army career where this was a constant).
Another very common issue with work, which has less to do with integrity than personal relations, is having an unlikeable or abusive boss. There is a powerful tension between our desire to have a job and our aversion to being ordered about, humiliated, abused, or taken for granted.
In Chapter 15, “The desire for secrecy,” we talked about “compartmentalization — putting different parts of one’s experiences into little mental compartments.” People use compartmentalization to deal with the kinds of challenges to integrity we face from our dependency upon money. I can hold my nose and treat other people as objects during the day as part of my job; then I can act according to my principles when I re-join my family in the evenings and on weekends. It’s a way to cope, for sure; but it’s not integrated. I am divided against myself by my need for money.
There’s an even more toxic problem with money-desire — which is based on (1) dependency on money and (2) everything being a thing-for-sale — when a person surrenders to the ruthless logic of money-domination. One might set aside all other considerations and commit oneself to a merciless pursuit of money as an end in itself. Money then becomes one’s sole reason for action, one’s North Star, one’s idol . . . one’s god.
We have all seen how those most successful at accumulating money are held up in popular culture almost as heroes, as role models, as sought-after celebrities. We live in a popular culture that celebrates this kind of “success.” At the same time, we hear people howl in protest against our culture of selfishness. It’s no wonder one person will feel his or her will is divided against itself, when the popular culture in which he or she swims is also a compartmented culture, morally divided against itself.
This is not to say you or I are bad people. It is to say that we are all part of a society where our desire to be good people — however we might define that — can run into difficulty around our need/desire for money. It leaves us with unpleasant and sometimes extremely difficult choices.
Money-dependency also structures us into relationships of power. We may not like it, and we may be stuck with it; but at least when it is you or I who have the money/power — as a spouse, a parent, or an employer — we can choose not to use it abusively, and we can choose to give money to others without holding it over their head (another form of power — enforced gratitude).
I don’t have any solution to the problems created by a money/power society, because I have no power over society. Nor do you, except in a very limited political way. What we can do is increase our awareness of (1) the difference between needs and desires, (2) whether we use money for ourselves or for others, (3) the ways in which money seems to put us between two or more bad choices, and (4) how we might resist the power of money to (a) make us look at the world as a marketplace and (b) tempt us to use other persons as objects.
Thought exercise: Today, look to yourself for examples of a “will divided against itself.” What are your conflicting desires, and how are they related to (1) needs (yours and others) and (2) existing obligations. What part does money play in these considerations?
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Desire, right and wrong
The social-world and your I-world aren’t really two separate things. We split them up to think about them, but in the real whole-world, one never exists without the other. The social-world is always perceived through the I-world, and the I-world always interprets perception through what it learns and verifies and corrects using the social-world. We’ve already said that faults in the social-world, where the I-world learns, promote faults in the I-world. Violent societies tend to produce violent persons. Bigoted societies tend to produce bigots. Confused societies tend to produce confused people. Polite societies tend to produce polite people. Calm societies tend to produce calm people, and so on.
We’ve also discussed a few things related to right and wrong, or doing the right thing — whatever that happens to be in any given situation. We know that some of us mostly try to do what’s right, and some of us do what we know to be wrong in certain situations. Now, let’s think about choosing right or wrong in four thought categories.
Category 1 is the person who does what she knows is right — even when there are advantages to doing wrong — and does what’s right without any effort. She feels fine about passing by the advantage of doing the wrong thing, because doing the right thing is just her habit, her automatic way of being.
Category 2 is the person who does what he knows is wrong when there are advantages to doing what’s wrong, and it doesn’t bother him a bit as long as he can get away with it. He doesn’t feel guilty, but he is often secretive, because he knows what he does is wrong and doesn’t want to be caught.
Category 3 is the person who does what she knows is right, when doing wrong would give her something she really desires, but with great effort and a little regret. Her action is right, but the pull of temptation to take advantage of the wrong is still powerful, and resisting it takes something out of her. She lives with feelings of internal conflict.
Category 4 is the person who does a wrong thing to get what he desires, but he feels bad about doing the wrong thing, and he feels somewhat helpless in the face of his own desire. This person spends a lot of time with guilt, shame, and secrecy.
The truth is many of us fall into different categories depending upon what and how we desire. I used to drink . . . a lot. I don’t (and shouldn’t) drink anymore, because I always drank to excess, and once I started drinking I became — by turns — silly, stupid, obnoxious, irresponsible, pushy, and sometimes mean as a rattlesnake. While I’m now a Category 1 (about drinking), I was once a Category 3, and before that a Category 4, and before that a Category 2. These things go through stages.
In the social-world I once inhabited, drinking was encouraged — even when it consistently led to a lot of unfortunate consequences. We’re drinking, and the rest of you can go to hell of you don’t like it. In facing some consequences, however, especially how my drinking had hurt others, even those I cared for, I transitioned into Category 4 — I wanted to stop drinking, but I’d become an alcohol addict and did it even when part of me didn’t want to drink. Then I transitioned into Category 3 — I quit drinking, but for a while, it was, as we say, kicking my ass (relying on others was crucial at this stage, btw). After months and years passed, I became habituated to not drinking, the urge disappeared, a lot of other things improved, including my relationships and my health, and now — even though I know I’d feel great (for a short while) if I downed a couple of beers (I love beer, and still have a non-alcoholic one from time to time) — actually doing it is so far out of the question that I never give it more than a moment’s thought.
Another thing we’ve discussed is honesty, which also brings up questions of right and wrong. Honesty is telling the truth, and truth is an important factor in deciding questions of right and wrong in relation to desire. There are two kinds of truth that are essential for determining right from wrong: truly right desire (should I do this or that?) and the true situation (what will the effects of doing this or that be on other people, places, and things?). (1) Self-knowledge and (2) a grasp of reality. Thinking these two forms of truth through before acting constitutes the virtue of good judgement.
Good judgement sounds easy on paper, but we all know from experience that self-knowledge can be difficult; and fully understanding any given situation likewise takes some effort. There are several impediments — or obstructions — to the exercise of good judgement. Self-deception is a big one. Plain evil meanness is another. A weak will is another impediment. Ignorance — not knowing better, not fully understanding — also creates an impediment to good judgement.
Children are not born with good judgement. Good judgement in determining right from wrong isn’t transmitted by our genes; first of all because judgement happens in many different and specific situations, second of all because we are learners by nature. Good judgement is learned through imitation, study, and practice. Good judgement is transmitted by the social-world to the I-world. The social-world we live in at the moment is not always a good teacher, and the social-world of the internet is often a very bad teacher. The combination of the two forms of truth, good will — or the desire to do right — and good judgement should lead us to do the right thing in most circumstances; but the social-world can muddy the waters about what is true, inflame the desire to do wrong, and discourage the kind of sober reflection that is necessary for good judgement.
A child doesn’t have to be taught how to lie. He or she will lie to avoid consequences. We claim to teach that tendency out of children, but the truth is, we see the same thing in adults — even in the powerful and famous — all the time. They do wrong, then they lie, then they lie to cover for other lies, then they do wrong again. We’d like to presume that a mature adult, after making a bad judgement, which we all do from time to time, would admit the mistake or the bad action, and attempt to make some remedy or amends; but what should be routinely expected has come to be exceptional. Sometimes, in this often manipulative, dog-eat-dog society, doing the right thing is tough; because learning to do the right thing can be tough when the social-world has a lot of rottenness in it.
There is no judgement or right action that is not stacked into other judgments and right actions. The rightness of an action at one level may not be justified at another. I may learn how to drive a car properly, and obey the rules of traffic properly . . . and do so in the course of a bank robbery. Our strategies in life are aimed at big desires, and our tactics are aimed at the many different tasks that are necessary to achieve our strategies. I may want a bigger house. I may want it for the status; or I may want it because our family is growing and growing up. My strategic goal is to accumulate $20,000 for the down payment. My tactics may include working an extra job and cutting back on other desires, or my sub-strategy might be robbing a bank, which will require a number of tactics — getting a weapon, studying the bank, planning the robbery and getaway, and so forth. I can exercise good judgement in the selection of a weapon, but that good judgement about a tactic is made wrong by the wrongness of the strategy it serves.
I doubt any of my readers are planning to rob banks. But all of us will still get things wrong from time to time; and sometimes even a right action can have unforeseen, even terrible, consequences. This is where the question of intent becomes important in determining right or wrong. I could be driving to pick up my kid from baseball practice, when a pedestrian steps out in front of the car and is killed. Both the law, and common sense, say I did nothing “wrong” in going to pick up Freddy from practice. My desire was to do something right. I was obeying the rules while driving; I was attentive; then this person — who may have been confused, drunk, mentally ill, or having a stroke (who knows?) — suddenly veered into traffic where my car hit him and killed him. Accidents — unintended consequences — happen. The truth is, I’m still going to feel terrible, and I’ll spend the rest of my life watching pedestrians very closely, or perhaps not driving at all. But I never intended to hurt anyone. I didn’t do it on purpose.
Intent can be just a legal thing, like avoiding prosecution for an accident. But it can become more than a legal definition of responsibility. If I become far more cautious as a result of the accident, my intent has been schooled — in a horrifying way — to be more attentive to possible consequences from my own decisions and actions.
Desire leads to action. Action involves intention (will). There is thoughtless intent, and there is thoughtful intent; and these two also have bearing on the question of right and wrong, which is not just a clear-cut two-way choice. There is more right and more wrong, less right and less wrong. A well-formed intent means thinking about the predictable consequences, and also admitting there can be unintended consequences.
A well-educated intent is a key component of good judgement. Well-educated intent — thinking through consequences and being willing to set aside desires and actions that you know may have bad consequences, is the virtue of prudence, of thinking ahead cautiously.
The first question is, “Is what I want a valid or a right desire?” Just wanting something isn’t good enough. The second question is, “Is this the right way to get what I want?”
The second question raises yet another question: “How will what I do to get what I want affect others and the community overall?”
Even with good judgement and prudence, we still aren’t done in determining the rightness or wrongness of desires and actions taken to satisfy desires. Last night, I desired macaroon cookies. I opened a package of them while I watched television, and the next thing I knew, I’d eaten a dozen of them and felt a little sick. In other words, I lacked the virtue of temperance, or self-restraint. Temperance is the virtue that tells us do things in moderation. It’s the Goldilocks Principle — not too much, not too little . . . just right. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten a dozen cookies in a row. Maybe that was bad for me. Maybe someone else wanted a cookie.
In Chapter 11, on fear and control, we discussed the Golden Mean — the desirable middle between extremes. In several other places, we’ve mentioned self-discipline — the willpower to control one’s own conduct. I don’t want to be all self-helpy cheerful about self-discipline in this discussion of desire, right, and wrong; because that would be dishonest. Doing the right thing might deny us our desires. Sometimes doing the right thing results in undesirable things happening to us. Ask Jesus, or Martin Luther King, or Rachel Corrie, or Berta Cáceres. Sometimes people do the right thing and die for it. In less extreme cases, we can be hurt, or work extremely hard, or lose something. In some cases, we’re just inconvenienced. The point it, doing what is right is not always rewarded in this world. Doing what is right sometimes involves sacrifice. It requires fortitude — the combination of a strong mind and courage, the will to do what’s right no matter what. Sometimes fortitude is admitting you are wrong. Sometimes fortitude is going without. Sometimes fortitude is doing something really hard for a long time. Sometimes fortitude is risking life or limb. Sometimes fortitude is willingly losing life or limb. Fortitude is not tirelessness or fearlessness. Fortitude is doing something that is right in spite of being tired or afraid.
As you may see by now, these virtues — judgement, temperance, prudence, and fortitude — all operate together. We name them as individual virtues, but in reality, they depend upon one another like a family. That family of virtues expressed in the actions of a person gives that person what we said has good character. Someone of good character can be relied upon to at least try to do the right thing, to do the right thing even when rules and laws don’t cover certain situations, and to admit error and seek remedies for errors once they are committed.
Understanding situations requires we be based in reality, in the truth of the situation. Truths do not conform to desires, and here we encounter a powerful enemy of the exercise of virtue — of knowing right from wrong and trying to do what’s right — and that is substituting our desires for the truth. In other words, self-deception. “I want” is not always “what is.” “I don’t want” is not always “what is not.”
PS — If someone tells you there’s no such thing as right and wrong, agree to disagree, wish them the best, and walk away. They are wrong. (-:
Thought exercise: Whether you read or watch television or films, take the next story you read or watch and pay attention. Actively look for examples of prudence and imprudence, good judgement and bad judgement, temperance and intemperance, fortitude and weak character. Look for good intentions, bad intentions, and try to classify the characters as Categories 1, 2, 3, and 4.
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Desire, truth, and beauty
In the last chapter, we said we would tackle desire and self-deception. All the way back in Chapter 2, we discussed beauty, which along with language, is something that makes us different from other animals. You may think that these two things — beauty and self-deception — have little to do with one another. I think I can change your mind.
Self-deception is the substitution of desire for the truth, a mental trick to avoid uncomfortable realities.
“That check-engine light is probably no big deal.”
“She’s just playing hard to get.”
“I’ll quit smoking next week.”
“He only hit me because he had a terrible day; he’ll change.”
Self-deception can take several forms: denial, procrastinating, projecting, rationalizing, minimalizing, blaming others, and so forth. It’s a dangerous form of deception, because the liar and the lied-to are the same person. In the next two chapters, we’ll talk about how other people can more easily deceive us when we become active participants through self-deception — though the substitution of desire for reality.
We’ve used two terms here: reality and truth. Let’s begin by saying that these terms are closely related, but not always used in the same ways. To complicate matters even more, there are debates about what is and is not real.
Some would say that nothing is real if you can’t measure it. That’s nonsense, of course. I’m having a thought right now, which is a real experience, but no one can touch it or measure it in a laboratory. It’s still real. It still exists, just not as some material you can weigh. On the other hand, the thought I’m having may be very unrealistic. I might be thinking of a unicorn or the King of Nebraska or an honest politician.
There are real things — whether they are material things, symbolic things (like language), perceptions (like colors), and so forth — and there are collections of things that likewise are real. Baseball teams, cities, watersheds, gardens, and so forth. The key to the real is that real things exist. Real things are real whether we know about them or not, whether we notice them or not. Astronomers have found a galaxy they named HD1, the furthest seen from Earth. A hundred years ago, no one knew about that galaxy, but it was still real; it still existed.
Truth, on the other hand, is a kind of statement, or claim. Where HD1 never needed a subject to recognize it as a real object, truth lives in a subject. A rock doesn’t care whether a thing is true or not. Truth is a form of knowledge. In the social-world of subjects, we try to understand and agree upon what is true. Because truth lives inside subjects, and because the I-worlds of subjects are formed by social-worlds, and because social-worlds can often be organized around things which are not real and not true, and because we don’t all think alike, there are disagreements about what is and what is not true.
We all desire to know what is true, even if sometimes our desire for something that’s not true interferes with or take priority over what is true. It’s human nature to seek after something true, or more generally the truth. In addition to our I-world and our social-world, there is a real-world. We never come into total contact with the real-world, because it is both too big and too small. We don’t actually see the vastness of the universe, nor do we see the orbits of electrons. We infer or imagine them. Reason and knowing are relationships with the real-world, but that’s more than the real-world that can be measured. Love isn’t measured, but it’s very real and very significant, with real consequences. Knowledge is constructed of concepts — ideas with patterns that “fit in: with other patterned ideas. We know what a cat is, because we have a concept of a cat — a general idea made up of the characteristics and patterns, or the form that means cat. Mammal (concept), four legs, retractable claws, almond mirror eyes, whiskers, slinky movement, purring, etc. It can be a Burmese cat or a Lambkin cat or a Scottish fold or a feral blend — or a lion or tiger — but we still recognize all of them as cats, because we have a concept of cats based on the form, cat. But the real is not always already organized into concepts. We also encounter reality as something revealed. Reality is constantly revealing itself to us, ready (with concepts) or not. Reality surprises us, like a bird that got into the house. Reality is always changing, too. Some real things change very slowly, others more rapidly. That teapot on the stove appears to be sitting still and not changing at all. If it sat there for ten years, undisturbed, I could compare before-and-after photos and see the change. The bread dough on the counter will change within the hour. The clouds outside are changing so fast I can watch the change. The truck passing on the street is changing its position so fast I can barely keep up. The totality of what is real emerges — or comes into view — as a combination of forms, patterns, cycles, various speeds of change, things expected, surprises, changes that we make through our own decisions and actions, and the combination of I-world, social-world, and real-world.
The desire for knowledge, and for the ability to reason, happens at all these scales. The child wants to know what things are called, how to tie her shoes, why the adults are doing this or that. A young adult may question rules or norms he doesn’t understand. A group of people living together want to know how to best cooperate to get things done, and how to resolve conflicts. A biology student wants to learn cellular structures. An orienteer needs to know how to read a topographical map. People want to know information, but also meanings. Reason is more than knowing things, or facts. Reason is knowing-as-a-whole. How do things work together, and what do things fitting together and working together mean?
Think about the statement, “It works.” This is a discovery of knowledge, but it may be short on knowledge of the whole — of reason. I can change the oil on my car, and pour the old oil in the grass. “It works.” The dirty oil is disposed of. But if a lot of people who have cars and change their own oil do likewise, that old oil has bad consequences; it pollutes the water. “It works” signifies a form of knowledge put into action, but it is not a sufficient reason for doing what “works.” Knowledge-of-the-whole tells us more than knowledge as a collection of facts, like “it works.”
Knowledge is always limited and incomplete. For one thing, we each have built-in limitations on our capacity to know; and for another thing, we only exist in the here-and-now; and for yet another, creation has a depth or horizon that, no matter how much we learn about it, there’s always infinitely more about it that we cannot know (knowing this is knowledge of a mystery).
Neither you nor I can be in two places at once. I cannot sit here in our home in Adrian, Michigan, and know first-hand what is going in someone else’s home on in Tianshui, China. (That’s why I find it a little humorous when experts and pundits pretend to know what the world will be like next year. They can’t even be sure what will happen when they get home after work.)
Knowledge is a sharing between the I-world, the social-world, and the real-world. It’s a form of intimacy that involves content (facts and so forth) as well as one’s disposition — the mood and inclination of my I-world. This is why we can say that we develop a love (love is pretty intimate) of knowledge . . . and truth. Reason is the habit of the mind that can lead to the intimacy we call truth.
Truths are not just collections of things-known. Greater truths are forms of knowledge that may not be subject to mere measurements, like knowing the structure of a cell. A person composed of cells is still infinitely more than just cells. Knowing as intimacy is like “knowing” one’s child or spouse or other beloved. On special form of this knowing-as-intimacy and knowing-as-wonder, is beauty. Beauty is experienced as a kind of pleasure that involves both the senses and the mind. Like reason, it can only be experienced as-a-whole. We might see a beautiful landscape, but we don’t experience the beauty — we don’t know the landscape — as a mere collection of parts. We experience all its “parts” as a harmony. It’s not the parts that make the beauty; it’s the harmonious relationship of the parts experienced all at once, the wonder at the mystery of their fittingness that forms something larger than the sum of the parts.
Beauty casts a kind of spiritual light that reveals truth as mystery and wonder. It “takes our breath away.” It aims us beyond ourselves. It unifies differences. It combines subject and object in something transcendent. It wakes up a sixth sense in us. It wakes up a desire which was already in us (as part of our very nature) for a kind of knowledge — even a form of truth — that doesn’t clear away wonder (as some forms of “knowledge” do), but generates greater wonder.
I visited Vermont once for a few days, and I was constantly struck by the beauty of the place and by the sense of calm and wonder it produced in me. It was only on the third day that someone pointed out that billboards were illegal in Vermont. Billboards are among the ugliest things I can think of; and ever since then I’ve thought about how much soul-satisfying beauty we are being denied by the ugly-fication of our landscapes by commercial bullshit. Social-world harms I-worlds. But the billboards “work.” With this insight, I’d discovered a truth.
There’s been a confusion about “what is true” for several centuries now, but it’s become even more confusing in the last few decades, and more confusing still in the most recent years. One version of “what is true” says that only that which is factual — meaning it can be demonstrated by observable and measurable facts — is truly true; and that all the rest is just imaginary. There is an arrogance in this belief that human beings can know . . . well, everything. It’s just a matter of taking the right steps to learn everything. One of the problems for people who’ve taken this big-headed view is the very consciousness they exercise in thinking about and communicating about this belief.
What is consciousness? I can assure you this: a scientist can dissect and test and analyze a thousand brains, and she will never run into a consciousness. It’s true that if a person is dead, and the brain with him or her, we can no longer observe any of the outward signs of consciousness. Anyone who has had anesthesia knows that the period of the anesthesia is a memory blank. But consciousness, as you are experiencing it right now, is not something that can be measured. It depends upon material things, but it is not itself a material thing.
Spoken words cannot be explained by studying vocal cords and sound waves. Music is not just sound waves and eardrums. The experience of love is not communicated through a study of chemical reactions. There are truths everywhere that are more than and different from mere facts. Big truths, likewise, cannot be cooked down to mathematics. In fact, truth, to be meaningful, has to be encountered as a whole. The bigger the truth, the greater the whole.
The bigger the truth denied, the greater the self-deception.
You can certainly disagree if you like, but I think this notion that the only true things are things material is a special form of denial and self-deception; and as we’ve noted, self-deception grows out of desire. What is the desire behind the self-deceptions that truth can be reduced to physical science and that beauty is some form of chemical reaction in the brain? Since I posed the question, I’ll venture an answer: the desire for control.
What desires are behind the desire for control? Two I can think of right off the bat: fear and power. In Chapter 11, we discussed fear and the desire for control. In Chapter 7, we discussed the desire for power as a perversion of desire — as a desire disorder. In the next chapter, we’ll discuss one way that power is exercised by manipulating our desires.
Thought exercise: Today, if and when you encounter something beautiful — no matter what — try to blank your self-conscious mind, open up, and experience that beauty as a form of intimacy that goes beyond facts and concepts.
— — —
I like to fish, if you hadn’t noticed already. There’s probably something you like to do, a lot, in which you become so concentrated that everything else becomes a distraction. When I fish, I forget to eat and drink sometimes. I have to get very hungry before I’ll stop to eat, or very thirsty before I stop to drink; and when I do get hungry or thirsty, I “take care of it” really fast. I slug down some water or I wolf down some peanuts, so I can get back to my fishing. When I watch television at night sometimes, though, I’m concentrated on what I’m watching, though not nearly like I am on my fishing; and I find myself eating constantly. Before I started to think about this television and food thing, I would have said that I got hungry while watching television; but now I realize I “get hungry” because of the television.
There are several reasons for this. When I watch TV, I don’t really use my body for much (as I do when I fish). My eyes and ears and mind are all kind of attached to whatever content is on TV, but in a very passive, receptive way. I’m not doing something, but having something done to me. I can nibble away at that bag of chips with little interference to my passive, receptive, plugged-in TV experience.
In fact, I’ve formed a habit that associates TV-watching with eating. When I was a smoker, every time I had a cup of coffee, I had a cigarette; and if I didn’t have the cigarette, the coffee somehow fell short. Habit, association. Same with TV and snacking. Two desires satisfied together and seeming incomplete unless they are together.
In addition to this passive experience and my habit of associating television and food, I see other people eating on TV, and I see ads for food and drink. These reminders of food — which may just be part of the script on the show, or ads designed to talk me into buying certain food and drinks — trigger the desire to eat and drink. My desire is provoked from the outside. It’s no wonder people gained a lot of weight during the pandemic lockdowns. They were watching a lot more television.
Triggers of desire are part of life. Who hasn’t had their hunger stimulated by walking into a house where someone is cooking? Who hasn’t seen or heard or remembered something that triggers sexual desire? How many of you have associated a time on the clock with that first beer? Desires are built into habits (associations), and they can also be triggered accidentally when you walk down the street and catch a whiff of frying onions. But some desires are created for the purpose of selling you things — that is, some desires are manufactured and manipulated for other purposes.
The trick is recognizing when you are being manipulated, and the next trick is learning how to take back your free will and free intent from these manipulators who are creating desire within you, and using those created and inflamed desires as a very sly way of controlling you while giving the impression in you that you are exercising “choice.”
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled,” said a guy named Charles Baudelaire, “was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
“The second greatest trick the Devil ever pulled,” said a guy named Ken Ammi, “was convincing the world he is the good guy.”
To get at the ways that this particular devil — desire-creation-for-profit — works, we’ll need to step back and look at that mystery we call “the self,” and how it’s formed by stories. Yes, you are a story.
Obviously, you are more than a story. You are an indivisible animal, begun at conception and ending at death. You change between conception and death, but you are nonetheless continuous. You know this from uninterrupted consciousness, which includes memories. You know this from being recognized by others over time. Your doctor can identify things happening in your physical body, which has a history, and so forth. But a self (experienced in the I-world’s consciousness) is a good deal more, and a good deal less “material,” than an animal body just going through the motions like a marionette between conception and death.
Stories construct the self. Think about it. When someone says, “Tell me about yourself,” you’ll often respond with a kind of story. A mere name is not enough. You have to tell a story, with settings and action and you as the main character. When we go to family gatherings, we tell stories (often edited and embellished) that are part of the family lore, in which one is embedded as a character. These stories have themes, like how someone got better, or got worse, or fell in love, or won or lost, or discovered something, or was good or bad or hilarious. These memories are themselves constructed as little stories (and subject to be edited or embellished or even re-written). Because we understand our selves through stories, as advertisers and con artists know, the most effective way to create desires in us, then manipulate those desires, is by telling us a story, into which we can project our selves. And let’s face it, desires (like the desire to present as the good guy, or the person who “has it going on”) can re-work our stories . . . worse so if we’re prone to self-deception. Desire, as we noted way back when, is also involved in wishes and fantasies — also constructed as stories of sorts.
As to stories and desire production, I’m remembering a Jeep ad that cycled incessantly for a while on YouTube. In the ad, there were familiar (sacred) mountain views in the Western United States, with a stated reference to “America.” The scenery was selected for its intense natural beauty (transcendence). The occupants of the Jeep were laughing, attractive, adventurous youngsters (belonging), powering around the corners of dirt trails creating rooster-tails of dynamic dust (fun), while exciting music played in the background, then arriving at the transcendentally beautiful lookout (beauty). The oral message combined with the visual in story that said, “You can have it all when you buy our Jeep.” The little story aimed to manipulate our desires with these associations.
You could dismiss this ad and say, “It’s just an ad.” You could reduce this ad and say, “It’s to sell Jeeps.” But you’d miss the secret action of the ad; secret in the way you hide a dog’s pill in a piece of meat. You’d miss the integration of references and symbols and images and the ways in which this ad aimed at the desires and unconscious needs of the viewer. You’d miss the secret action of a desirable, if fictional, way-of-life, smuggled into the story. You’d also miss the way it constructs a little myth — a compelling form of story that tickles your fantasies.
The ad is designed to sell Jeeps, but there’s not a single reference to money in the ad. There are iconic and sweeping scenes of “America!,” waking up your public school patriotism. Before reason can kick in, another spurt of fantasy-juice is stimulated by joyful companionship — those attractive, laughing people who we can imagine as our friends. In almost all ads — excepting the ones whose appeal is ironic humor — the presence of the product is accompanied by broad smiles, touching, belonging, and sex, that run counter to our actually-lived, often humdrum, and sometimes lonely lives. References direct and indirect to the enjoyment of “sacred nature” are combined paradoxically alongside the idea of “conquering nature,” an appeal to power for the powerless, the dusty rooster-tail as one powers through the turn, accompanied by phrases like “grand adventure!”
The ad invites you to live into its little story and to associate that story with having the Jeep. The ad itself was designed by well-paid, professional manipulators.
As audiences have become dulled by the old standard ad pitches, the advertisers and propagandists have had to become more creative, more sophisticated. A human-interest story about a man who lost 240 pounds on a “Subway diet.” The branding of “Death Wish coffee,” for those who can’t keep up with the rat race. Sainsbury chocolate re-creating a scene from the World War I Christmas truce. Airbnb tells the “true story” of an unlikely friendship between two former border guards — east and west — on the Berlin Wall, who meet through an Airbnb; the tag line says, “Belong anywhere.” Entertaining mini-stories with familiar characters — Progressive Insurance’s “Flo.” Ads that are analogies — or comparisons used to suggest and enhance a meaning: a pill for men who have trouble getting erections is sold by showing a very manly man driving a manly truck with a manly horse trailer, whose manly truck gets stuck in the mud, whereupon he unloads the manly horses, hitches them to the front of the manly truck, and the manly horses pull the manly truck out of the mud. This story, this “analogy,” sells hard-on pills. In all of them, no mention of money (though this is the desire of those who commissioned the ads) . . . and when there isa mention of money, you’re not spending money, you’re “saving” money. “Buy X, and save $200!”
Inventing and inflaming desire is big business. The carrot is hedonism and belonging, pleasure and friends. The stick is danger and being left out — those “germs” will kill you, your children are unsafe, your breath is bad, you’re not up-to-date, you’ll be embarrassed.
Now I’ll tell you a story.
You head into the grocery store, your four-year-old perched in the flip-out child seat on the cart. The store is crowded, and at each check-out station there’s a line of at least three people. You collect your items around the store. You join the line at one of the check-out stations. Positioned alongside the check-lanes are every species of candy and gum imaginable, brightly packaged to appeal to children (and infantilized adults). Your child begins reaching for candy or gum; and you say, “No!” You say no in a firm way, but not too aggressively, because people might get the idea that you’re mean to children if you’re “too firm.” Your child becomes more demanding, even a bit defiant. “No!” you repeat, more firmly, a hint of threat in your tone. The child senses you are holding back, senses your embarrassment before all these people, and you are caught in the checkout line — trapped. He or she doubles down, giving a full-throated and tearful shout. You’ve now become the point of attention for everyone within earshot. You break down, and get the candy bar, mollifying the child (or maybe not, if you’re brave).
The positioning of that candy and gum alongside the check-lane is intentional. It was strategically planned in the layout of the store to accomplish two things — take advantage of customer hedonism and appeal to kids whose parents are trapped in the line. It’s right at their eyeline, right within the kids’ reach. Manipulation is built into the layout.
Thought exercise: Today, pay attention to the ways in which advertisers and propagandists are appealing to you. Television, radio, internet, billboards, the works. Pretend they are all speaking at once, and imagine you are in a room full of people shouting at you. Just for today, resist them as if they are your enemy — mentally tell them “No!” when you recognize their manipulations. Don’t buy or consume anything you don’t really need.
— — —
Technology and desire
Words in the dictionary have precise meanings, but in the social-world a word gets used in a variety of ways no dictionary every imagined, and in the I-world a word conjures up a kind of mental theater full of unexpected characters. Language is not a machine, it’s a game with very flexible rules. The word, “word,” for example has some dictionary definitions, but it can also be used as “the word made flesh,” which in the Bible is not like the dictionary version at all; or my own kids and grandkids use “word” as a term meaning something like “amen” to express their agreement. When I hear or read the word, “oats,” I am hit with thoughts of breakfast food, Quakers, horses, and sexual promiscuity (“sowing his wild oats”). Technology is also a very promiscuous word.
Some might say that the first time some ancient person sharpened a piece of flint to cut wood or skin an animal, that was a technology — technology meaning tools. Technology has meant chariots, long bows, steam engines, sailing ships, cars, pinball machines, airplanes, you name it. In the sense we use it today, we tend to mean electronically powered gadgets, and sometimes we use the word as an abbreviation of digital technology — things made with microchips.
We discussed technology in previous chapters. In Chapter 5, we discussed technology and boredom. In Chapter 9, we discussed internet in-groups and political tribes. In Chapter 10, we discussed how technology weakens our “decision muscles,” how we’ve become app-dependent, and how our phones conduct surveillance on us. In Chapter 13, we discussed how technology has made us more like children — infantilization. In Chapter 14, we talked about technology’s role in fantasy-generation and spreading conspiracy theories. In Chapter 18, we showed how technology can contribute to bad judgement.
While these previous chapters pointed at the downsides of technology, we have to admit that it does afford us many advantages, too. I’m writing this on a computer after all. I also used to work with explosives. There are valid uses for explosives; but they require good judgement and experience to use them safely and rightly. This is my attitude toward technology. It can be used for good things, but it also has great potential for harm. Since technology’s harms are not as dramatically obvious as an explosion, these harms are harder to see. Our criticisms here about technology are designed to help readers think and reason about technology so they use it safely and rightly — and not to be used by it. It’s not going away.
That’s why learning those virtuous habits we talked about earlier is so important. Before we “use” anything, we should be asking two things: “Is how I’m using this good for me and others?” and “What sort of person am I trying to be?”
Today, we are going to look into how technology mediates — acts as an interpreter of — our thinking, our practices, and our desires.
We’ve taken notice of how our desires are formed through the imitation, how children, for example, learn what is and is not desirable by observing the adults around them as models, or model-mediators. Adults do it, too. We come to desire what we observe is desirable by others who we see as model-mediators. In this way, the formation of desires is mediated by other people. Between the A of the I-world desire and the C of the social-world or real-world desired thing is the B of the model-other. A>B>C.
Once learned, A>B>C can become just A>C — we desire the thing directly . . . the model-mediator can be out of the picture, and the desire appears to be “natural” or self-evident.
When we say technology here, we’re using the word in the popular sense — digital technology, which significantly includes, but is not limited to, social media. I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan once, during the approved season for hunting bears. People once hunted bears for meat, but nowadays, they hunt bears so they can make rugs and trophies that tell the world, “I am Man-o, the virile, lion-hearted hunter dude!” It’s a performative desire. At any rate, it was the way they hunted these little black bears — nothing like the big brown ones from the Northwest — that struck me. These dudes were mostly kind of fat, which is to say they weren’t up to a lot of hiking and stalking or running after the dogs they were using. Those dogs instead wore sound-transmitting GPS collars, which were linked to a portable receiver the Man-o’s had with them in their trucks. The Man-o’s just hung around drinking beer in their trucks alongside the roads while the dogs hunted the bear. The dogs would start baying when they had a bear up a tree, then the hunter dudes would follow the app out to where the dogs had the bear up a tree, point a gun at the bear, and shoot it. Then the Man-o’s could take the bears to taxidermists to make the carcasses into trophy rugs and wall-mounted bear heads (stuffed to make them look ferocious instead of terrified). Digital hunting. That’s one example of technological mediation of desire that’s not social media. A=hunter>B=technology>C=Man-o trophy (performance of masculinity).
There are lots of different desires that are answered with technological gadgets: companionship, political agendas, entertainment, sexual gratification, etc. Now some might say, at this point, that the human model-mediator has been eliminated, but that’s not really true. I have a Facebook account, and the people I respond to and who respond to me are absolutely real people. My grandkids and even grown kids have been known to play tech-games, and for some of those games, they play as teams with other people they’ve connected with electronically, who are likewise real people, coordinating their actions in real time. Twitter wars (if that is still a thing by the time this is published . . . it’s in a Musk-crisis now) are/were between real human beings. So, the question is not whether we are “mediated by” a person or a machine.
Human beings have been technological animals ever since a digging stick became an extension of some ancient woman’s arm to unearth edible tubers. We make our tools, and then our tools make us. Not only that, “technologies” — ancient and modern — have never been just things “out there.” Technologies are already inside our social-worlds — technologies have a social character. We make them, they make us. We seem to be very aware of the first part — we make our gadgets. We take a good deal of pride in that, congratulating ourselves on being such clever creatures. On the other hand, we tend not to notice the ways in which our gadgets (including apps now) make us. We think our wills are free and the technology is like a hammer we can pick up when we need it and put away when we don’t — something strictly “outside” of us. Technology is just an object of my perfectly free will as an independent individual.
In fact, we know we are neither independent nor some “individual” who can separate out from the social-world, nor are we “independent.” Human beings are born dependent upon others, we depend upon others to live, and we approach death dependent upon others. Given this dependency, and what we know now about the mediation of senses, thoughts, and emotions, we can begin to recognize how modern digital technologies make us by manipulating our senses and our practices.
Senses give our I-world access to the real-world. Language is the super-power that organizes concepts and ideas, allows us to transmit those concepts and ideas back and forth, permits us to store knowledge over generations, and acts as the most important mediator of social life. Anything which can put itself between the I-world and the real-world, and which can shape the way we do things, is very powerful indeed.
People who profit from technology want to sell it to you with the message, “Imagine what you can do with this!” Think of the same message from someone selling explosives. The message this book hopes to send is, “Think of what you should do with this . . . and what you shouldn’t!” But this book also has another message, which runs counter to the unquestioned belief that technology is “just a tool” used by “individuals” with perfectly “free wills.” Your will is only as “free” as your understanding of how technology puts itself between your I-world and the real-world, between your I-world and your social-world.
Sherry and I have a pair of binoculars. We like to watch birds. The binoculars are a technological instrument. You put them between (mediate) your eyes (senses) and what you want to see in the real-world (the birds). The images your eyes and brain receive are magnified, so you can observe details that would otherwise only be available if you were much closer. The binoculars give the will an extra measure of power — like being invisible and approaching these animals. I wear hearing aids (sometimes), and when I turn them way up, I can actually hear the carpet fibers squeak when I walk on them. My senses are enhanced, and the way I do things (watch and listen) are changed.
Now think of how much of “what’s going on in the world” is mediated by television, radio, and the internet. Yesterday, I watched some “news,” where I saw terrible storms, an attack during a war, two mass shootings, and some stuff about celebrity’s lives. When I walked around the park near our house, I saw a little quiet traffic, other people walking, the nearby river, the clouds going past, and some kids playing. The walk around the park is far more representative of most places as most times than the concentration of horror and celebrity worship I saw on the “news.” How does the mediation of these technological systems affect our perception of “the way the world is?” Remember our earlier discussion of fear and control? Does the news make us fearful? Does it jack up our desire to control? Does our inability to control, then, set us up for mental turmoil that accomplishes nothing except to make us miserable?
Putting our technologies — which we can’t escape — into perspective gives us the capacity to use the technologies, and not be used by them. We can order our desires and order our relationship to technology in ways that prevent technological systems from implanting disordered desires in us. There is no me-and-the-world; you and I are not apart from the world, which includes these technologies now. We are in a constant and participatory relationship with the world, and as part of the world, but that relationship is mediated. Are our mediators making the world a better place? Are our mediators making us the persons we want to be?
I tried out Twitter for a while. Twitter had its own ways of relating, its own language, its own form of practice. After using it for a while, I became aware of certain patterns of relating between users that were unpleasant and unproductive that appeared to be built into the relationship between Twitter’s structure and certain human vices which amplified vicious behavior more than it promoted virtuous behavior. I began using Twitter less and less, until I finally gave up on it altogether. In addition to the unpleasantness of the platform, Twitter and other platforms were nudging me toward more and more time on a computer, where the real-world is mediated in ways that distort reality, and where I began to notice bad habits and a tendency toward a kind of addictive behavior in myself. I was in a bad relationship, one that was bending my desires in the wrong directions (and wasting a lot of time). I was beginning to engage in a form of self-deception, aided by the deceptions of these technological media. I was beginning to think of these representations as more real than the real things they supposedly represented.
Thought exercise: Today, any time you use technological media, consider three questions: How is this representation different from the real world outside my door? How is this representation affecting my desires? What kind of person do I want to be?
— — —
Desires, habits, addictions
Habit — (1) a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition. (2) an established disposition of the mind or character. (3) customary manner or practice.
We’ve been discussing desire and will a lot, and we’ve been discussing these things in a very focused way. But we also know from experience that we don’t go through the day thinking about will and desire and the ordering of desire and will. These kinds of reflections are important, but like salt, a little goes a long way, and too much is a problem. In our day-to-day lives, we’d never get anything done if we had to go through some constant, highly attentive process of evaluation.
I desire my breakfast, but I don’t have to think very hard about it. The shopping and the cooking are things I’ve done so often I don’t hard-think them. Like breakfast, a lot of the things I do, I do over and over. I’m the train following the tracks. Much of my life — and yours too — is made up of habits. In the case of breakfast, the repetitious actions of my breakfast habit are in response to cycles of needs: I sleep, I wake up, I’m hungry.
Our biological needs run in cycles, which are closely tied up with the cycles of time, like day and night, so the satisfaction of those needs run in cycles, too. Today is most often very similar to yesterday and the day before yesterday. Same times, same places, same things, same needs, same actions. Habits are ways of almost automatically satisfying our needs and desires. In this respect, habits are not only good, they give us mastery of skills and predictable security. They are an inescapable feature of life.
Like desire — as one word for many things — habits — as one word for many things — might be good, bad, or indifferent. And like desire, habits come in multiple forms and in multiple contexts. In the three definitions above, we have (1) personal actions, (2) mental dispositions, and (3) customs or norms. Of course, all these are related. When a child learns to tie her shoes, at first her mind is heavily focused on the unfamiliar task, her fingers fumbling to imitate the steps (or actions) her parent or older sibling has shown her. As an adult, the same person ties her shoes without looking, without thinking, and without any special effort while talking to another person about things entirely unrelated to shoestrings. The habit is first learned, then practiced, then transformed into an automatic muscle memory — kind of an autopilot. I can develop muscle memory for playing guitar chords, dicing onions, or cooking a spoon of heroin.
Habits have associations. In an earlier chapter, I recalled my days as a smoker, when drinking a cup of coffee was closely associated with having a cigarette. Some associations are regular, like when one gets out of bed and immediately urinates and washes his face. Some associations appear as triggers, like the teen with a cutting disorder who retreats with a razor blade to her secret place when her parents fight.
Some habits make practical sense, and some don’t. Checking all the doors before bed is pretty sensible. Checking them three times in succession with your right hand, then your left hand, then your right hand . . . is not sensible. In the latter case of someone who has obsessive-compulsive habits, these habits may not be practically sensible — the extra and alternating locking and unlocking produce no discernible change in outcomes — but they, for whatever psychological reasons, do act as some form of self-soothing in the face of some form of psychological discomfort.
Addiction — “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence: the state of being addicted.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Addiction is defined, as we see here, as a harmful habit. Like the obsessive-compulsive person we just described, an addicted person is engaged in a form of self-soothing in the face of some psychological (and even physical) discomfort. I can speak to this, because I’ve experienced several forms of addiction. Another addict once told me, “I used because I wanted to feel different.”
Fair enough. Few people begin “using” (whether cigarettes or marijuana or Twitter or heroin or porn) to “feel worse.” Even the teen cutter is inflicting her own pain to get relief from something even more unbearable. We take hold of our addictions initially to “feel better,” not just to feel different. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course. There’s always a bad trip or a “never again” drunk-sick in the wings, but the goal — the desire — is to either kill the pain or produce the pleasure . . . or both.
The problem here is twofold. First, let’s look back at a word Merriam-Webster skipped — dependency. What begins as pain relief or hedonistic pleasure-seeking becomes a form of enslavement, a constant re-enlistment of the substance and-or practice to prevent the “feeling worse” of “withdrawal or abstinence.” Second, habituation. We may not be faced with withdrawal, but with an inability to stop out of habituation. The kid who’s addicted to games or porn will not need methadone to avoid getting physically ill. But he or she is still trapped in an habitual cycle.
Remember in Chapter 18, when we discussed the four categories of people relating to right and wrong?
“Category 1 is the person who does what she knows is right — even when there are advantages to doing wrong — and does what’s right without any effort. She feels fine about passing by the advantage of doing the wrong thing, because doing the right thing is just her habit, her automatic way of being.
“Category 2 is the person who does what he knows is wrong when there are advantages to doing what’s wrong, and it doesn’t bother him a bit as long as he can get away with it. He doesn’t feel guilty, but he is often secretive, because he knows what he does is wrong and doesn’t want to be caught.
“Category 3 is the person who does what she knows is right, when doing wrong would give her something she really desires, but with great effort and a little regret. Her action is right, but the pull of temptation to take advantage of the wrong is still powerful, and resisting it takes something out of her. She lives with feelings of internal conflict.
“Category 4 is the person who does a wrong thing to get what he desires, but he feels bad about doing the wrong thing, and he feels somewhat helpless in the face of his own desire. This person spends a lot of time with guilt, shame, and secrecy.”
Category 4 describes a lot of addicted persons.
Not all habits are addictions; but all addictions are habits.
If you have the desire to escape from addiction, a desire to escape from another desire, then you’ll need to “break some habits.” That sounds a lot easier than it is, because there’s not just one desire behind the “using” desire of an addicted person. More than that, thinking back now on our poor teen cutter, the triggers for the addictive habit — in her case viciously combative parents — are completely out of her control. If the addictive habit is the only relief someone knows, it’s pretty easy for someone else sitting on the sidelines to give easy answers to a situation he doesn’t understand or appreciate.
For the last sixteen years, one of my habit-substitute for hard times has been prayer. But I’m not one of those people who tell other people to pray. First of all, prayer isn’t just asking God for things (I mean, sometimes it is). It’s a practice of self-formation, and one that I’ve only barely grasped. What happens when you tell our teen cutter to pray, or do yoga, or go on a keto diet, or whatever other magic formula you think you know . . . and it doesn’t work? Prayer has helped me, but before I could pray in ways that helped, I had to do a lot of other things, like study. If I’d have started out with “pray,” and it “didn’t work” like a table saw “works,” then I’d had said to hell with it, and grabbed a grain of codeine instead. You’d be far better off telling the teen cutter to call social services, move in with her aunt, seek therapy, and take up interval training (at least that hurts). In the case of physical addiction, the first step may be some kind of medical intervention. If you’ve ever experienced or seen heroin withdrawals, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
I’m not just being funny about “interval training.” While that, in particular, may not be a good solution for most (I sure as hell won’t do it!), there’s a lot to be said for trading the old bad habit for newer, better ones, whether its jigsaw puzzles or woodcarving or caring for a pet. But something still has to be done about the triggers over which we may have zero control.
The first thing one might need is the ability (and eventually the habit) to discern the difference between where, when, and how we do or do not, and should or should not, have control. Even that’s too difficult for many people, in many circumstances, for me or anyone else to prescribe glib, simple-minded one sentence solutions. Remember in Chapter 11, when we discussed “fear and the need for control”? Some people’s lives — beginning with very early experiences — have been dominated by fear. You can’t wave a magic wand over that and make it go away.
If you are the person who struggles with fear, control, and addiction — even if you have a powerful desire to escape from this triangle of misery — it will take study, work, and a lot of practice. I remember my addictions very well; and I remember how the hardest first habit to develop was saying no to the old habit. That old habit comes at you, and it comes at you as a form of seduction. It’s hard to say no to being seduced by a familiar lover. It requires the concentration and clumsiness of the three-year-old learning to tie her shoes. Only with lots of practice does it become automatic.
Thought exercise: Today, consider the areas of your life — if any — where you are a Category 4: “the person who does a wrong thing to get what he desires, but he feels bad about doing the wrong thing, and he feels somewhat helpless in the face of his own desire. This person spends a lot of time with guilt, shame, and secrecy.”
— — —
Desire for freedom
Being a veteran, as other veterans will testify, I’m accustomed to being told, “Thank you for your service.” In more speechy and less personal terms, I often hear people thank veterans for “protecting our freedom.”
I get it, and I don’t get it. I get it, because I grew up hearing this stuff and how people around the world wanted to take away our “freedom,” and how the USA is a “free” country, and how our Revolution was fought for “freedom.” I don’t get it, because I “served” in eight conflict areas, beginning with Vietnam, and by no stretch of the imagination were any of the people we opposed interested in who was free to do what inside the USA. I won’t go into what these various wars were about — it’s complicated — but they definitely were not about protecting American “freedoms.”
In thinking seriously about this word, “freedom,” we have to admit that there are two questions that always qualify what the word means: what kind of freedom? and freedom from what? Freedom means “the state of being free,” those two critical questions remain before we have any real context.
In thinking about freedom and desire, we encounter two different forms of freedom: freedom to pursue desires, and freedom from desire. We very commonly think about the freedom to pursue desires.
Think about how many times you may have heard, or said, “When I’m eighteen, I can do whatever I want.” Legal adulthood is understood as a liberation from parental authority, a line one crosses into a world where “I can do anything I want.” It’s surprising really, or maybe not, how many adults (remember that infantilization we spoke about) still relish adulthood as meaning the “freedom” to pursue desires. The moral character of those desires, whether they are good or bad for you or others, is secondary — sometimes even irrelevant — to the “right” or “freedom” to pursue them.
Morality, in other words, is seen as a personal thing, something invisible to public discussion, or even the law. There were and are reasons, grounded in history and politics, that we tend to put this kind of morally-blind “freedom” ahead of discerning the moral character of particular desires; but that moral and legal blindness doesn’t give us much to go on in terms of deciding which desires should be pursued, and which not. More than that even, this freedom to pursue desires, and our intense focus on that, distracts us from seeing all the ways in which desires can themselves take control of us in a very unfree way.
To get at the meanings of freedom here, we have to back up and lay down some context. When we say “freedom from,” we most often mean some “authority.” “Authority” is a confusing term, too, because we need to use it in a different way to show how “authority” differs from “power.” In the popular sense, we call anyone or any institution that has power an “authority,” but now we are going to use it in an older sense. In that older sense — think of the Bible, where people say Jesus “speaks with authority” — they aren’t saying someone who speaks from a position of power, but someone who “knows what they’re talking about.” Abby Wambach is an authority on soccer. Denzel Washington is an authority on film-acting.
As in these two examples, not only do these authorities have a great deal of knowledge about their subject, they have been practitioners — people who have real first-hand experience. If you are interested in learning a practice — say, gourmet cooking — you would seek out a chef, and you would willingly take direction from that chef. This is a master-apprentice relationship. In a karate class, the sensei, or instructor, is the boss; and no one would say you are unfree because you accept and submit to his or her authority when you’re training. In these cases, authority is accompanied by a kind of power, and the power comes from that authority. The issue of “freedom from” power or authority is irrelevant. Those who want to learn desire an authority. Without parental authority, none of us would survive to adulthood.
Many modern governments, like the one within whose boundaries I live (the US), have been founded on an idea of “freedom from” government interference. Unfortunately, in some cases, as we saw in Chapter 16 on “the law,” these freedoms often work better for those who have the most money and power, because the same laws are blind to forms of power that exist prior to the performance of the law. The other thing about these governments — with regard to freedom and desire — is that where the soccer team coach’s power flows out of her experience and the real possibility of team improvement — the possibility of improvement comes before the exercise of power — there is no such guarantee with the government’s power, which can be placed in the hands of any skeezy operator who can manage to get elected. Power comes before the possibility for improvement. This may be a very good reason for wanting freedom from government interference. Some “leaders” are not good leaders at all, but are just rich or slick or both.
The danger here is that we often think of “freedom,” as we said above, is this kind of freedom from power comes to be seen as a kind of principle governing all aspects of our lives. “I can do what I want” becomes more important that the character of what you or I want. “I can do what I want” becomes a conversation stopper — the end of the argument. We can drift from “I have the right to do X,” to “X is a therefore a good thing,” to “You really should want to do X.” That is not a logical progression.
We’ll talk a lot more about sex in Chapter 27, but any young woman who has ever been pressured to have sex when she didn’t want to knows what I’m talking about. “You have the right to casual sex,” becomes “Casual sex is a good thing,” to “You really should have casual sex with me . . . what’s wrong with you?” The young woman in this position is being confronted with a “freedom” that feels pretty unfree at the moment. In thinking about ad pitches (desire creation, desire inflammation), one ad might say, “Our product will make you healthier, happier, and more desirable.” Another ad might say, “Get with it, our product is what everyone is doing, and you don’t want to be left behind.”
While we think of freedom in the sense of rights, law, and government, in our actual day-to-day lives, most of us experience very little direct control from institutions of legal power. We are for more controlled by things we’ve already mentioned: the need for money, duties and obligations to others, love and friendship, personal conflicts, animal appetites, the need to belong, fears and aversions, habits, and addictions, and so forth. We seldom think of any of these things as limiting our “freedom,” with the possible exception of relationships (children v. adults, helpless wife v. domineering husband, worker v. asshole boss, etc.) We also — in the age of high technology — have very little freedom from the processes by which our smart-phones, as one example, work. We depend on the phone, so we depend on how the phone operates.
Let’s think a fourteen-year-old high school student. She resents and resists the authority and power of her mother, who she sees as limiting her “freedom.” But what we have to consider is that she spends 35 waking hours a week going to, attending, and coming home from school. She spends an average of seven hours a week on some extracurricular activity with her peers. She spends half of each weekend with peers. She spends 20 hours a week online or on her phone, and 12 hours a week watching television. On average, she will spend, let’s say, 15 hours a week actually in direct contact with her mother — who has to set or enforce the rules and boundaries for all these other activities. Our student is at the age, in modern compulsory school societies, when her greatest desire is to fit in with her peers, or in some cases, to at least minimize the abuse she might take from some of them. She and her peers are likewise influenced by commercial pop-culture, which creates and conforms their group-approved desires. Commercial pop-culture is telling her X is a good thing; her peer groups are telling her that she should want X (and something is wrong with her if she doesn’t); and under this pressure, her relationship with her mother — who may have the authority of experience — is being shaped by her belief that she has a right to X.
Our fourteen-year-old is under her mother’s influence 12 waking hours a week (or often less). Of which kinds of desire is she the captive? The desire, shared by her mother, to grow into being a healthy human being of good character, or the desire to consume the products of commercial pop-culture? Her peers and her, more influenced by this pop-culture, which profits from mindless hedonism, compulsive vanity, and celebrity worship, have already been jumped to “You should desire X . . . and what is wrong with you if you don’t?”
The near desperation of some people — especially the young — to share these desires, out of the desire to fit in (for example), is hardly a freedom at all. The rebellion against adult or parental authority is as deeply felt as the fear of being left out, shunned, ridiculed, or bullied when one’s not home. At the same time, the school is teaching these kids that the essence of “freedom” — as enshrined in the Bill of Rights or whatever — is freedom from interference by authorities. There are a lot of freedom-seeking young people who are as unhappy as they are frantic to behave as if they are having a great time.
My readers may be from many faith traditions, or none. I myself am a Catholic. Every year, prior to Easter, we have a season called Lent. It lasts 40 days to commemorate Christ’s fasting in the wilderness in preparation for his earthly mission. Lent is a time of repentance, which has two parts — acknowledging one’s sins, and making a commitment to repair and correct. There is an old custom associated with Lent, one of renunciation — of giving something up to which one has an attachment or even a “felt need.” Some people use this as a form of self-improvement, like giving up junk food to lose weight. But the real meaning of renunciation during Lent is practicing the self-discipline of repentance while contemplating the sadness and brokenness of the world (Easter is the happy ending.) This practice of renunciation is an exercise of freedom, more so when it’s difficult. It’s a little triumph of the spirit over one’s self-satisfaction and a recognition of the ways in which our greatest unfreedoms might not be obligations or restrictions from the outside, but desires that eat at us from the inside.
We discussed addictions in the last chapter, which is an extreme example of enslavement to desires on the inside. It’s important to remind ourselves that desires “inside us” weren’t necessarily “born there.” In Chapter 20, we had a long talk about “manufactured desires.” I remember when I started smoking around age nine. Adults around me smoked. The ads on television promoted smoking as “grown up,” sophisticated . . . cool. It was an act of rebellion, a seizure of premature adulthood. It felt liberated, edgy, transgressive. When I quit — like seven times — decades later, my smoking habit was revealed to me as an unfreedom that had been implanted inside my body and mind. The problem with implanted desire is not that it’s “in” you; it’s that it becomes you, and you experience the desire not as some alien, but as “being yourself.” Since “being yourself” has become one of those things that has been pronounced “good-therefore-should” (like “you should have sex with me”), it’s a great standing defense for continuing to do what you’re doing, even when what you’re doing is obviously not good at all. As you may guess, I think “Be yourself” is stupid, meaningless advice.
Just as my smoking desire was smuggled into me through other desires — the desires to rebel, fit in, appear mature and sophisticated, and so on — many of our non-addictive, day-to-day desires are “implanted” through other, deeper desires.
Thought exercise: Today, think back. Were there any “shall nots” that you desired to be free of as a child or adolescent, that have become desire now from which you wish you were free?
— — —
In everyday life, your I-world and social-world are having a conversation, in which you both give and seek recognition, information, validation, affection, correction, and so on. You’re still you, recognized as you and accountable as you.
The social-world within which each of us operates as a recognizable and accountable I-world is pretty small. Do a quick mental count of the number of people you know by their first names. Then count how many to whom you feel you have obligations beyond common courtesy. The list gets pretty small, even for the most outgoing people. For the average person, the number of “let’s hang out” friends is generally less than ten. For many, it’s fewer than five. For some, it’s only one. And for some, it’s zero.
In relation to these people with whom you are “close,” whether family or friends, your actions are limited, or constrained, by the norms of courtesy, shared ideas about right and wrong, the desire for continuing acceptance, and so forth. You are known.
How many of you, however, when you are in heavy traffic and anonymous, become less patient, less forgiving, and less charitable with other, likewise anonymous, drivers? You may be constrained by the traffic and by the knowledge that acting out too much could lead to a dangerous confrontation, but you are not constrained in your attitude in the same way as you are when you are known.
The point is, various kinds of “crowds” can give rise to various kinds of crowd-desires felt by the individual person. We’ll look at four different kinds of crowd desires: copy-cat desire, leader-follower desire, get-away-with-it desire, and “contagious” emotional desire. Before we look at these, we need a short discussion of group-think.
Group-think is associated with a desire to belong, a desire to fit in, a desire for harmony, and a fear of rejection or being shut out. Group-think is not just general agreement, which is often necessary for group cohesion, especially if the group in question is engaged a common practice. A baseball team needs to share most beliefs about what makes the team good at baseball, for instance. Group-think is the term for conformity of thought whether it’s reasonable or not. Group-think, in the way we’ll use it here, applies to crowd-desires in a problematic way; it overrides perfectly reasonable ideas and beliefs in the name of conformity. Group-think doesn’t function as a way to think better, but as an in-group policing mechanism.
I am ashamed to say that when I was an infantry soldier in Vietnam more than five decades ago, I held and reinforced and acted upon a racist approach to all Vietnamese. We called them “gooks,” and treated them as if they were sub-human. This was true of the overwhelming majority of infantry soldiers, even those who held anti-racist beliefs with regard to the social unrest going on back in the US. If anyone deviated from this script, he would be shunned among his comrades as a “gook lover.” This is what happens when you send soldiers to try to control a whole population; they begin to see that population as objects and potential enemies. Group-think made racists of almost all of us — white, black, and brown — and we internally policed one another by jumping on any show of sympathy for Vietnamese as suspect.
The less mature and experienced a person is, the greater his or her vulnerability to group-think. Adolescents in school, in particular, are very susceptible to it. Twitter is a good example of a digitally-mediated social space where one can encounter quite vicious and unaccountable language-attacks based on group-think, in-groups, and in-group policing . . . where the physical anonymity of the virtual space permits people to treat one another in ways they would never consider face-to-face. People can actually take on different personalities; not always better ones.
Crowd-desire is not always like this, though. Some crowd-desires and crowd-actions actually have rational, or at least understandable, reasons. In other words, crowds are not always “mindless” or “irrational.” This belief — in the mindless irrationality of crowds — has been the basis for a lot of police policies and procedures; and police “crowd control” actions have had some terrible outcomes.
There are, of course, many kinds of crowds. A football game, a rock concert, and a protest are all quite different from one another. In the case of protests, there are very different kinds of them as well. Since “protests,” which involve crowds with grievances, are one of the preoccupations of police, let’s look at those.
During the American Civil Rights movement, one form of protest was the sit-in, where black and white allies entered public and commercial spaces (like restaurants) that prohibited black people. These sit-ins were intentionally and strictly non-violent on the part of the protesters, though they anticipated violence from counter-protesters. It was a kind of moral judo, in which the protesters “won” through “weakness,” beginning the actions with the expectation they would be attacked and harmed. The intent of the protests was to increase public support for anti-discrimination and voting rights laws.
On January 6, 2021, a crowd called together by the outgoing President of the United States entered Washington D.C. and the Capitol with the intention of overturning the results of the 2020 Presidential election. This crowd came prepared for self-initiated violence against government officials.
In 1968, at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, organizations opposed to the Vietnam War planned peaceful protests against the war — which was still supported by the Democratic Party. The Mayor of Chicago, known as a kind of strong-man political boss, deployed 23,000 police and National Guard to prevent these protests. When the protests began, the police themselves initiated violent attacks against protesters, which — over the course of two days — escalated the protests into deadly riots.
Whatever one thinks about the three examples, one has to admit they were not “mindless.” Every one of them had a unifying purpose — whether we might agree with that purpose or not. A crowd’s purpose gives the crowd an identity built around that purpose; and this group-identification is the basis for solidarity — union of purpose combined with a sense of mutual responsibility for one another. These protesting social groups are not — as is often believed — easily influenced or “mindless.” For the most part, they have leadership structures and a very strong sense of well-defined and shared purpose. They begin as a shared desire, driven forward by a shared will toward a shared goal.
While there is no doubt that the sit-ins intended to provoke violence (against themselves) and the January 6 insurrection intended to initiate violence against government officials, crowd dynamics are such that in some cases, people who are not part of the initiating crowd, or group, take advantage of these breaks in routine life, and the anonymity provided by crowds, to pursue violence that has little to nothing to do with the protest itself or the purpose of the protest. In some cases, there is even political intrigue and opportunism.
Undercover police have been known to pretend they are protesters and commit acts of provocation and even vandalism to discredit real protesters or encourage them to commit arrestable offenses. During the protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd, much of the violence was committed by young white people with agendas different from and contrary to the original African American led protests. In every crowd, too, there will be people who are mentally unbalanced or who have bizarre off-message agendas.
My main point is, when we speak of crowd-desires only in terms of “contagion” (disease, pathology), we will miss the core reality that crowds have identity and purpose; and that purpose and identity (identification with others) — not some disease — determine the desires of particular crowds. In this way, the protest crowd and the football crowd and the concert crowd are not the same as a traffic jam or a crowded street, where there is no identity and shared purpose.
So, what does this short summary of group- or crowd-desires tell us about what to do?
I think it suggests that we will all at some time or another be part of a group, perhaps even a crowd, and that as such we will share an identity based on some purpose. I think it tells us that we need to make some very important mental distinctions, calculations, and ethical judgements. We may share a desire, and a purpose (desire-goal-will); but there are sometimes many different means for accomplishing the end. Is the desired end a good thing or a bad thing, and for whom? What kinds of actions do we use to accomplish the desired end; and are those actions, in themselves, justifiable? Have we calculated what kinds of things may happen if we achieve this end?
I’ve participated in a fair number of protests; and one tactic suggested by some is to block traffic. I’ve never agreed with this tactic, which I consider childish and irresponsible, because we cannot know all the reasons people may need to get where they are going without our disruption. Not only can it cause various kinds of damage to people trying to get somewhere; it damages the cause for which one is protesting by pissing a lot of people off and demonstrating a disregard for the problems they are dealing with in their own lives. It has the moral structure — if not the net effect — of carpet bombing. The end does not justify the means. On the internet, there is a tactic called doxing, where people publish the addresses or contact the employers of someone with whom they may disagree or who has done something of which the in-group disapproves. This opens the targeted person to harassment of them and their families at home, even attacks; and it has resulted in people losing their livelihoods — which doesn’t just affect the targeted person, but other members of his or her family.
In terms of other groups — smaller, more constant groups — we need to consider what it means to be part of a group — in the group, or part of the in-group. We’ve already noted that the desire to belong is right up there at the top of our in-built desires, so even when the group to which one belongs might be headed down a wrong road, this is when that extremely powerful need to belong might be challenging. The rules and norms for any group are necessary to give the group its cohesion. Rules and norms are not bad things in themselves. Just as we need to make distinctions, calculations, and ethical judgements about the ends and means of used for crowd purposes, we need to make distinctions, calculations, and judgements about our own social circles — about what gives them their identities, about what they do together, and how they do what they do together.
Thought exercise: To what kinds of crowds have you belonged? What was their purpose and identity? To what kinds of groups do you belong? What are their purposes, rules, and norms? Is there a difference between a group one knows in the flesh and an online group?
— — —
Desire for revenge
Almost everyone watches movies, so let’s begin this chapter with a film genre I’ll call the “revenge fantasy.” This genre includes too many films to list here, but in the revenge fantasy the main character resolves the plot in the film (an gives the audience a sense of grim satisfaction) through vengeance. Think Kill Bill, Death Wish, Man on Fire, Gladiator, Payback, Unforgiven, V for Vendetta, The Godfather, Carrie, Death and the Maiden, Road to Perdition . . . I mean the list numbers in the hundreds. Many of us obviously like revenge fantasies. Based on history, we can also conclude that human beings not only fantasize about revenge, they take revenge on others, often very violently. Sometimes — remember our last chapter about crowd-identity and purpose — groups are motivated by revenge, often against other groups.
We’ve also noted how one doesn’t need to teach a child how to lie. In the same way, one doesn’t have to teach a child to push or hit back. It comes pretty much automatically. Children will also bite without instruction or provocation; but in the same way we have to teach the impulse to bite out of the child, we have to teach the impulse to hit back out of the child. Unfortunately, we almost always teach kids not to bite, but culture and even parents themselves often teach revenge as a good thing. That’s why we like revenge movies, why we “get into them,” and why we don’t feel ashamed of it. But . . .
. . . what is revenge? Really?
We call revenge “payback” and “getting even,” which brings to mind debt on the one hand and balance or symmetry on the other. “What goes around comes around” suggests the completion of a cycle. Revenge is often understood as some kind of rough justice; and this brings up the question, “What is justice?”
I looked up the definition of justice, and one definition is “the quality of being just; fairness.” That’s not an answer; it’s what’s called a tautology — saying exactly the same thing using different words. Another definition is “righteousness,” which again leaves us hanging. Justice is often thought of in two ways that are not always consistent with one another: what is deserved, and what is lawful, or legal. Most of us will follow the part about “deserved,” while many of us will hesitate on making justice mean the same thing as “lawful.” We know that in the real world, the law — in its formation, its application, and its enforcement — may claim to aim at producing justice, but it can perversely produce all kinds of injustices.
In the opening scene in The Godfather, an undertaker whose daughter was attacked didn’t receive justice from the law, so he asked the head of a crime family to give him justice by killing the daughter’s attacker. Don Corleone replied that this was not justice, because the undertaker’s daughter was not killed. The question of what was deserved was determined by some form of equality of suffering, or proportionality. The punishment has to be of the same proportion as the offense. In the Bible, the law stating “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” which was about proportionality, was not intended to encourage vengeance, but limit it through proportionality in order to protect the larger community from the dangers of escalation. Don Corleone was channeling the measure-for-measure justice of the Book of Exodus. If revenge is allowed to progress through cycle after cycle without limit, groups of human beings would lose their cohesion and dissolve into violent chaos. Revenge is acknowledged, in a sense, by many of us as some kind of good, but one that has to be strictly regulated.
Another supposed good of revenge, regulated as measure-for-measure punishment, is deterrence. Future offenders, the logic goes, will be deterred — given a negative incentive — from committing a particular kind of offense. Deterrence, like revenge, is not always proportional. In fact, many of us would draw a distinction between revenge and deterrence. Revenge is the satisfaction of some emotional desire on the part of an offended person, whereas the establishment of punishments, or consequences, is an unemotional, or dispassionate, application of order and justice, and the calculated aim of deterrence.
Sometimes deterrence works, and sometimes it makes things worse, but that’s a different conversation from this one. Today, we’ll think through the desire for revenge apart from its domestication as legal deterrence. It’s still perceived as a kind of justice — justice constructed as the reciprocation — or repayment — of suffering. While the three-year-old may not be able to articulate justice as the reciprocation of suffering, he or she understands this crude desire to “balance the scales of suffering.” Which should make adults stop and think about the desire for revenge, which often hides behind the idea of deterrence as its rationalization — or mental excuse that conceals the crude desire to inflict suffering for its own kind of satisfaction.
Reasoning adults might ought to consider, in being honest with themselves and others, that taking pleasure in the suffering of others, no matter how much we might be justified in disliking those others, is a form of sadism — deriving pleasure from the suffering of others. This is a difficult conclusion when our whole culture admires revenge and often praises it. If you watch the film Man on Fire, you’ll find that it’s an elaborate and emotionally manipulative justification for torture (and came out when the US was routinely using torture in its prosecution of the so-called “war on terror”). We weren’t merely invited to enjoy measure-for-measure revenge, but to enjoy and admire ten-times-over retaliation and even preemptive violence, whereupon the hero was portrayed in the end to be Christ-like. So, it can be difficult, in a culture that celebrates revenge and even sadism, to develop the kind of mature moral sensibility which freely acknowledges (1) that sadism is not a good thing and (2) that the desire for revenge is ultimately a sadistic desire.
When I was thirteen, I was very small, and there was a kid who never missed an opportunity to harass and humiliate me. One day this culminated in a fight. We grappled around a bit, which took us to the ground, and by mere chaotic chance, I got up faster than him and managed to kick him — with a boot — right in the chin. He went down like someone had cut his strings. I remember suddenly realizing that I may have hurt him very badly, even risked killing him. While I basked publicly in my little victory, I felt terrible about it. It turned out that getting my revenge wasn’t at all like I had imagined it, and I wished I could take the whole thing back. Some light of conscience inside me was trying to tell me something, but the public praise and admiration won the day. Six years later, I was inflicting suffering on Vietnamese, and again being admired for it. My desire to be perceived as masculine crowded out my conscience.
Enjoying revenge, and enjoying the suffering of others (or pretending to, to fit in) — even people we have reason to dislike — is a destructive interplay between the I-world and the social-world. I remember seeing an interview with an Amish man whose daughter had been among ten girls who were killed by a demented school shooter, where the Amish father said he forgave the shooter. That was astonishing. But the Amish father explained what he meant by “forgive.” He didn’t say he would become friends with the shooter. He said, “I forgive him; I forego my revenge.” This is so difficult to comprehend — this profound commitment to a principle of forgiveness — that our natural reaction to the father himself is not admiration, but “no fucking way.” The protagonist in Man on Fire was portrayed as Christ-like (for dying in the end for another), and was admired as a torturer by the well-manipulated audience; whereas the Amish father — who followed the hard way of Christ (who forgave his own torturers and executioners) was seen as weak and deluded. A culture this committed to revenge and its sadistic undertow makes it hard to even want to control the desire for revenge. It may even make readers resistant to my argument here that revenge is altogether destructive.
Increasing the sum of suffering does not in any way erase suffering. The “repayment” of suffering really only adds suffering and promotes the further addition of suffering in the future. As with my high school fight, the lesson of which I ignored at the time, it doesn’t even always make the one who takes revenge feel better. It does set up cycles of destruction and suffering though. It does make things worse.
The reason we project our suffering back onto those who in some way caused it (or sometimes onto innocent bystanders), the reason we want to displace or offload our suffering onto others, may look at first glance as an exercise of power; but it’s quite the opposite. It’s a reaction to our powerlessness to go back in time and recover what was lost.
Powerlessness is a difficult thing to accept, especially if it involves terrible loss. In Chapter 12, we discussed desire, meaning, and death. Death is the ultimate powerlessness, because it is inevitable and irreversible. When someone we love dies or is the process of dying, we feel a terrible powerlessness. Likewise, when anything happens that causes us or those we love to suffer, our most primitive and childlike reaction is to overcome, displace, deny, or erase that suffering. And yet, we haven’t the real power to do so. In Chapter 14, we discussed fantasy, which can also be a childlike reaction, wherein we imagine we have the power to restore what is lost to the past or to death, over which we have no real control. It’s easy to imagine that revenge will restore something. Coupled with the desire to hit back, there’s a lot to overcome in exercising both the acceptance of our powerlessness and the willingness to forego the revenge to which we feel entitled.
Even measure-for-measure revenge can be destructive. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” It also leaves the world with a battered conscience.
In Chapter 16, we talked about desire and the law. While we’ve separated out revenge, a personal desire, from justice, a social notion involving fairness and ideas about what is and is not deserved, any discussion of revenge inevitably shifts into questions of law and justice. Should the law punish (enforce consequences) for wrongdoing? This is a very complicated topic and the source of endless debate. Not only do different people have different ideas about what is and is not just, even those who generally agree on some definition for justice will have strong disagreements about how justice is to be administered, or even if it can be administered.
My eight-year-old granddaughter recently told her younger brother, during a dispute, “Life is not fair.” We had to suppress our laughter. (Humor is often a distanced restatement of the real.) Of course, the context mattered, but regardless of her motivations then, she said something that is, unfortunately, true. As we noted in Chapter 16, the law can produce new injustices as quickly or more quickly than it addresses old ones. After all, the law is an instrument of power that enforces itself with violence. Everyone seeking power will seek to take control of the law (which sets up conflicts over access to the law). It’s like Tolkien’s evil ring.
This chapter is not attempting to address questions of law, but to make us more self-aware about the personal desire for revenge.
Thought exercise: Is there anyone in your life upon whom you feel the desire to take revenge? Is there anyone in your life who seeks to take revenge upon you? Do you feel the desire for revenge on public figures? Do you read about or watch stories that celebrate revenge?
— — —
Desire and Envy
We’ve made the point that desire can be extended indefinitely. There’s always more that can be desired, something sales culture understands very well. It’s this potentially endless sense of lacking something that can turn desire into a menu of miserable obsessions. The person who learns to accept “enough” is generally happier than the person who’s on the treadmill of always feeling compelled to acquire new things, to continually optimize his or her life, or to sustain some exhausting social performance.
We’ve also learned that we learn what and how to desire.
Not only do we learn from others what and how to desire, we experience another emotion when what we’ve learned to desire is not ours, but someone else’s. Someone else has achieved something, acquired something, or bears in themselves some quality (talent, charm, good looks, great intelligence, popularity, etc.) which we lack . . . but we still desperately desire. Sometimes seeing these objects of desire in the possession of another person actually provokes the desire, which then turns into the emotion of envy. He or she has it. I want it. I resent him or her for having it when I don’t.
Envy is no fun. In a way, it’s internalizing — absorbing inside oneself — the belief one has been personally wronged. Drinking poison in the hope it will kill the person you resent.
In the last chapter, we discussed the troubled relation between a desire for justice and a desire for revenge when one is wronged in some way. Remember granddaughter’s quip to her younger brother that, “Life isn’t fair”? Envy can set up the desire for revenge without having been wronged when we consider life unfair for not making us equal in some way to those others toward whom we envy. We feel we have been wronged by someone else who has neither the inclination nor the intent to harm or offend us.
Good rule to remember: Me feeling angry is not proof that my anger is justified. Take a breath. (Grown-up stuff.) One of the problems arising from a lack of self-knowledge and a lack of self-control (immaturity) is the inability to distinguish the difference between our own feelings and reality.
Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated than that, because alongside envy we have pride. Some people who have something others want (talent, charm, good looks, great intelligence, popularity, riches, power, etc.), which they enjoy lording over others . . . they enjoy provoking envy. “I know you wannabe like me.” Another good rule to remember: Don’t take the bait.
This interplay between pride and envy is a recipe for conflict.
Let’s stop for a second and make another important distinction. The desire for fairness is not the same as envy. I think it’s criminal that there are a handful of billionaires living alongside huge masses of people who have to worry about their very survival every day. That doesn’t mean I want to be a billionaire. I have my pension, I eat regularly and well, and I sleep indoors. That’s plenty. This huge wealth disparity doesn’t provoke my envy; it offends my sense of justice. Poor people don’t spend much time envying billionaires. In fact, for most of us, our envy is generally directed at the people around us — poor people often direct their envy toward other poor people. Envy is generally local and personal.
That’s why it’s such a potent recipe for conflict. Some working class stiff in some dying Midwestern town isn’t going to start a fight with Jeff Bezos. Some Mississippi poultry plant worker who’s two generations away from sharecroppers or half a generation from a Honduran drought isn’t going to start a fight with Elon Musk. They fight, when they fight, with people much closer to home. “Rivals” they can see and hear. They may fantasize about being ultra-rich, but their envy is far closer to home. Sometimes they even admire the ultra-rich assholes as avatars for their own fantasies.
A philosopher named Nietzsche claimed that socialists and Christians were motivated by envy of the powerful, because he took no account of the local focus of real envy or of the difference between a desire for fairness and the emotion of envy. Nietzsche projected a lot, and he had issues with his father, who was a Lutheran pastor. Nietzsche didn’t believe in justice, but power, and he called Christianity a religion for women and slaves. He advocated for harsh male supremacy and for slavery. Nietzsche liked to talk a big macho game, even though he was himself a sickly academic. Nietzsche was compensating. Nietzsche was full of shit.
Envy has two forms of desire, when you think about it: the desire for something someone else has and you don’t, and the irrational and sadistic desire on the other end for revenge against the person or persons one envies — even if it’s unjust revenge. This makes envy a particularly dangerous emotion for communities or societies. Revenge has to be contained to ensure the stability of communities or societies. Revenge and counter-revenge can spiral into socially destabilizing violence pretty easily. Sometimes, societies control this with rules and punishments. Sometimes, societies shift the anger and strife onto a scapegoat — a victim that’s been identified as a “common enemy” — as an unjust way of off-loading their built-up hatreds and restoring the general order.
There’s another form of envy/desire escalation that can go out of control, even in societies where violence has been at least checked enough to ensure some stability. Let’s begin by noting that envy is a competitive desire. Competition in a game, like soccer, is contained by strict rules and by clock times, so the competition has limits and an endpoint. Other social competitions don’t. Perhaps readers have heard of “financial bubbles” and product crazes, when things become massively over-valued because of a competition to have them, which turns into a competition to own them as containers of cash value. Read up on the seventeenth century Dutch tulip mania, or the Beanie-Baby-boom-and-bust. Look up “financial bubbles” or “asset bubbles” or “economic bubbles,” and you’ll see how competitive desire can escalate irrationally until one day, the value “bubble” pops, leaving a lot of people holding “assets” for which they paid dearly that are suddenly nearly worthless. A few people have the wealth and knowledge to game these bubbles, but the vast majority of people who get involved — as well as people who become the financial collateral damage — lose big time in the end. (The richest people who lose are then bailed out by the government. Everyone else is caught in front of the interface between the shit and the fan. A different story.)
Unfortunately, we live in a commercial culture where envy is yet another vice that’s actively promoted and provoked (then mined for profit and power). We need only look at public relations, advertising, and politics — the dominant triad of public communications. There’s an old advertisers’ mantra that says, “People make emotional buying decisions, then use logic to justify them.” Advertisers, politicians, and public relations experts hold us in contempt as their “targets,” as manipulable animals, as their trained monkeys. They know that envy is a vice that easily motivates.
In Chapter 13, “Distorted desires, children, & media,” we identified something called infantilization — making adults less and less mature, inhibiting or removing their capacities for self-knowledge, good judgement, and self-control. These virtues are the very one’s that would give us the defenses we need to protect us from the immature vice of envy — the vice the provokes social comparison and social competition then uses them to sell things or turn people against one another as a power-seeking strategy.
There was a reason, when Moses was trying to create social cohesion among a mass of people with no prior experience of self-governance, that one of the principal commandments was, “You shall not covet” what is not yours. Envy destroys social cohesion.
It’s a curious thing that in our consumer society, the same people who promote advertising and endless consumerism are often those who want to post the Ten Commandments in government buildings. They want them posted, as a testament to their fake piety, but they don’t want the rules to be understood. The business of government is business, and we are ruled, through our dependency on money, by a business class which intentionally infantilizes us by promoting this explosive vice — envy — and uses envy to control us. Envy is the enemy of social solidarity.
I say “explosive” emotion, because envy is an extremely difficult emotion to control. It can hit people with as much force as sexual desire or hunger. Jealousy is one version of envy, or at least envy’s first cousin. Our first experience of jealousy is often directed at our siblings (when we are small children!). Every parent of more than one kids who are close to the same age knows what sibling rivalry is, and that it is very, very real. It’s also mixed with jealousy.
The most talked-about and thought-about jealousy for teens through adults is sexual jealousy — jealousy over boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers, and spouses. This is, again, complicated, especially with regard to committed monogamous relationships. I know, I know, some people claim to oppose monogamy. Let me just say, based on my own experience and my familiarity with people who’ve tried to live into polyamorous relations . . . it goes badly far more often than not; but that, too, is another story.
Sexual envy and sexual jealousy are not the same thing. Sexual envy is when Bob is attracted to Betty, and Betty has no interest in Bob, but is dating Bill, and Bob envies Bill. Bob has no prior claim through some monogamous covenant with Betty, like Betty has with Bill, with whom they’ve exchanged a promise of sexual exclusivity with one another. Sexual jealousy is when Betty suddenly expresses a sexual interest in Bob, and Bill gets a giant case of the ass about it. Jealousy is an emotional reaction to the alienation of something or someone to which one has a prior claim.
The problem with it, at times, is not betrayal of this covenant — this promise of sexual fidelity — but the imaginary betrayal or imaginary potential for betrayal that might not be justified. Shakespeare wrote a famous play about this, called Othello. This is what we might call pathological (sick) jealousy — the projection of one’s own insecurities about a relationship onto the partner and a perceived rival. The desire here is to “protect one’s own” in a sense. As we’ll discuss in the next chapter, regardless of people who say, “Sex is not a big deal,” this claim is pure nonsense. But more than jealousy, infidelity between partners who have promised fidelity is experienced as the pain of a betrayal of trust . . . and this is not jealousy, even when it may be mixed with jealousy.
Now we’ll move to the next chapter, “Desire and sex,” where we’ll pay special attention to some of the reasons sex, like envy, can be emotional dynamite.
Thought exercise: Today, pay attention for signs of envy in yourself, in others, and in public “speech” by public relations experts, politicians, and advertisers. Today, think hard about what, for you and yours, is enough. How hard is it to draw that line in a competitive social-world?
— — —
Desire and Sex
Sex was once mostly contained. Now it is mostly uncontained.
In this chapter, we need not show the connection between desire and sex. Sex is — in this period of sexual un-containment — our first thought when we hear the term “desire.” Instead, we need to do a bit of history, because sex is not the same from place to place and time to time. Yes, it’s always been a natural appetite, and, yes, that appetite has ensured and continues to ensure human procreation. But as we’ve seen, again and again, our universally shared human appetites are always given particular forms through customs and norms.
Once upon a time, in Medieval Europe, for example, the act of marital consummation was attended by witnesses. In one Himalayan culture, a woman would be married to several men, all brothers. In one South African subculture, polygamy was fine, but having intercourse during daylight hours was strictly forbidden. Some cultures find kissing to be utterly disgusting. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt would publicly masturbate into the Nile to ensure good harvests. We experience sex as desire, but sex is not “natural,” in the sense that it always also has a social, or cultural, aspect.
Let’s take a trip back in time, into the world before women’s oral contraceptives, or hormonal birth control . . . say, 1959, just before the FDA in the US approved oral contraceptives. Up until that time — and still for the many women who have unpleasant and unhealthy reactions to oral contraceptives — women who weren’t taking the pill had one common response to men who were seeking to have sex with them. “I could get pregnant.”
Acknowledging that pregnancy was and is a serious matter, there were four motives for telling the man involved that this was a possibility. Motive 1 is that she wanted to get pregnant, and was, for example, asking her husband for sex to accomplish this. Motive 2 was she had a desire for sex with this man, but she did not want to get pregnant and so wished to abstain. Motive 3 was that she had the desire for sex with this man, but she had strong convictions about sex outside of a committed relationship, like marriage. Motive 4, which is not commonly discussed, but which was (and still is in some cases) quite common, is that she doesn’t want to have sex with this guy, and this is (or was) one reason she could give without hurting the dude’s feelings.
Once the pill came along, the whole context changed, though it changed differently for different people. In some cases, it allowed women who wanted to have more or more promiscuous sex to do so. In some cases, it removed the old excuse to avoid sex and subjected women to more pressure from men to have sex, even if the women weren’t that enthusiastic about it. In some cases, marriages, for example, it was used for “family planning.”
One unexpected result of “the pill” was that it increased the rate of women seeking abortions. Yep, true story. The expectation was — and the current mistaken belief is — that with ready access to birth control, that didn’t require an interruptive visit to the local pharmacy for rubbers, women would seek fewer abortions. Remember in Chapter 10, where we talked about Jevon’s paradox? Cheap energy didn’t lead to less destructive energy use, but more. Birth control didn’t lead to fewer abortions, but more. The reason? A lot more women were having a lot more sex with a lot more men, and no birth control method — condoms, pills, et al — is foolproof. Failure rates for the pill were around ten percent (condoms, 20%). So, if a fertile female was having sex with men ten times as often, she was just as likely to become pregnant as she was when she was having ten times less unprotected sex. Abortion became the back-up plan for the pill’s failures.
I’m not making a political point here, but showing how sexual desire and practice are changed by changes in social circumstances, or historical context. For the overwhelming majority of human history, women who were sexually active became pregnant in fairly short order. That is to say, sex between men and women was always associated with pregnancy.
That’s often not the case today.
Here’s the other thing: until the period beginning after World War II, sex was understood — in various ways, it’s true — to have meaning. Remember in Chapter 12, where we talked about meaning, about the human desire for meaning, and about how humans are the meaning-seeking creatures? Sex was, for most of history, embedded in a structure, a hierarchy, a chain of meanings and symbols that wove sexual desire and practice into the fabric of an “order of being,” which is to say, everything — it was understood — connected to everything else. Even sex outside the chains of meaning and in violation of the norms took its meaning — as transgression — with reference to some culturally-shared understanding of sex as embedded in the life of a person and the life of a community where certain ideas and values were shared by all. Shared ideas and values are the very basis for any real, directly cooperative community.
Here where I live in the US, the pill, more women working, and all that stuff, changed the way we were trained to understand sexual desire and practice; but there was also a philosophical change. When I say philosophical, I mean having to do with the big questions, like who am I? and who and what are we? and what does this all mean? and how ought we to live (to desire, think, and do)?
I was born in 1951. That’s around the same time that a philosophical shift began taking place. After World War II, the US — and Europe, led by the US — began a program of making lots of new consumer goods. At the same time, the US began to work on perfecting a system of government that was supposedly “scientific.” New household and recreational products flooded the market (creating new desires), and by 1960, the “technocrats” (“social scientific” managers)) started running the government. It’s also when sex began to be dis-embedded from larger meanings, separated from its formerly symbolic significance, and spoken of as “just sex,” no more consequential than buying a burger or having ice cream for dessert.
All these developments were related to the philosophical triumph of materialism — the idea that the only reality is the material reality (there is no spiritual or transcendent reality) — and the re-definition of human persons not as “made in the image of God,” but as a bundle of physical and therapeutic needs. Not needs as we’ve described them — food, water, air — which are just base physical realities, but human persons being reduced to nothing but these supposed needs — sexual release (without any meaning beyond physical release) being one of them. This idea of humans treats human beings as if they are machines which have to be “maintained,” optimized, and even rebuilt for improvement. In a real sense, this notion of human persons reduces us, stripping away our transcendent desires, our yearning for higher meanings, and what Christians call the spark of God that resides in each of us. Sex, in this view, became pure meaning-less appetite. We’re just a tangle of energy, and our happiness (referring to our last chapter) is nothing more than the satisfaction of these appetites with the addition of plus-or-minus pleasure-seeking/pain-avoidance — which we’ve shown is based on the idea of the person as an I-world separable and distinct from any social-world, and missing that spiritual urge toward the transcendent. For Christians, rationality and beauty were connected in the desire for the transcendent — as a form of human participation in the Divine Logos, or God’s eternal word in action, or Being set into an order by the Creator.
The idea behind this transformation of sex from its meanings and context, in some order of being, began before the big war, early in the twentieth century, when a new idea was proposed — psychoanalysis, which sometimes floated the idea that what messes people up, mentally, is something called repression — restraint imposed by subconscious fear. There was a kind of steam-boiler theory of psychology at work here, that the mind (and body) can become “blocked,” like a valve, and cause the machine to explode. Repression was creating internal pressure, and the solution was to undo the repression and open the valve to “let off steam.” Restraint — which had always been (and still is) something one learns as one matures (unless we are infantilized) — became a kind of psychological disorder. “He’s like that, because he’s repressed.” “She doesn’t want to have sex with me, because she’s frigid.”
As we’ve noted already, one big motivation for peeling away all restraint is to create the desire for more stuff and increase sales. It’s no accident that the constant need on the part of business to sell more stuff corresponds to the constant creation of new desires and the constant erosion of restraint. It’s also no accident that this drive for profit upon which society now runs corresponds to the idea of a person, reduced to a machine-like I-world, who needs to constantly optimize themselves with products, fads, and therapies — including “therapeutic” sex. It’s finally no accident that we’ve been indoctrinated into the idea that “happiness” (optimization) of this I-world, understood as pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance, aims not at the transcendent — love, beauty, eternity, mystery, God — but at accumulating pleasurable experiences and keeping one’s pressure valves clear.
“I believe,” a guy told me once, “that, to stay healthy, a man needs to drain his balls at least once a week.” Crude, but you get the picture. He’s discussing sexual release as therapeutic, and he makes no mention of the means, nor of the feelings and concerns of anyone else who might be involved in this “draining.”
I’m not making moral observations designed to judge others, but philosophical observations aimed at helping people to understand why this whole view of human beings, and our attempts to live into it, have made us terribly unhappy — including in the realm of sex. We are unhappy — that is, discontented — because we are ever more broken off from a world brimming with transcendence, beauty, love, eternity, mystery. Even God has been replaced by utility, or being usefully therapeutic — for the mindless and meaningless purpose of optimizing ourselves for pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance. We are unhappy, because that’s not our nature. Out nature is to desire to participate in an ordered creation, to find how we fit.
For a time during the worst of the pandemic, when the world closed down, I started watching “reaction channels” on YouTube. The hosts listen to music or watch movies while you listen to and watch them listening and watching (I know, it’s a little weird). I got caught up watching people watching the film version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As film, in my opinion — and as one who has read Tolkien — it was a masterpiece, even though it took quite a few liberties with the books. The liberties taken, however, did not depart from what I call the moral sensibility of Tolkien, and it stayed true to Tolkien’s Middle Earth structures of meaning, its symbolic architecture. This world had meaning and an order of being, within which each person could find his or her place, an where each person had the capacity to choose between good and evil.
One of the main themes of the film, behind all the epic battles and the terrific challenges and the close calls, was the way friendship and virtue fit together. When I watched people watching the trilogy, almost without exception — young and old, male and female, every color and creed, and many nationalities — they were captured by the story, enchanted or horrified by the characters, and, by the end, reduced to tears . . . even though they’d just sat through around twelve hours of film.
What was it about this story — which took a lot of its “texture” from Celtic and Nordic myths and its moral architecture from Catholicism — that “pulled in” these diverse audiences? I’ll venture an answer.
There is in each of us a longing to participate in the created order as a way of participating in the life of the divine. We are each of us, as a writer named Annie Dillard once said, a bell desiring to be struck by the divine. This is a form of truth that nests in mystery, and a form of freedom that dances with, or quests through, a divine order.
So, what does this have to do with sex?
Maybe I fooled you a bit, if you were expecting a discussion of sex to be about eroticism — the endless (and fundamentally selfish) seeking after heightened pleasure. But like any desire removed from a larger order of being, removed from friendship and virtue, desire which makes other people into mere objects, or means to one’s own ends, is wrong . . . wrong . . . wrong. In the LOTR trilogy, what one sees and hears and responds to — even if he or she can’t put it into words — are the characters who refuse to use and manipulate others for selfish ends. Everyone’s favorite character is Sam; and he was Tolkien’s favorite, too. Sam didn’t use people; in fact, everyone needs one selfless, loving friend like Sam.
Eroticism is sex that sells things, that uses others like objects, that captures people in a never-ending cycle of desire that comes to resemble addiction, requiring ever stronger hits of the drug. Instead, this chapter on desire and sex will ask readers to take a personal inventory of sorts in which we each examine what we’ve found unsatisfactory about sex when it’s removed from larger orders of meaning, when sex is an addiction, or an escape (which uses others), or a manufactured desire thrown at you from every direction to sell you things, or worst of all, sex understood as a therapeutic pressure valve (making you see yourself as a mere machine).
Selfish sex that leaves us unhappy is one part of the “not-belonging” of our time, of our deep and natural desire to belong, to fit, being buried in the so-called freedom to be “an individual.” We talked about right and wrong in Chapter 18, so let’s revisit that topic now with regard to how sex is portrayed and even preached as pure eroticism unconnected to any order of being. Let’s start with a basic rule: using other people as objects is wrong. In a world where sex has been reduced to eroticism (pleasure without love and care), where we refuse to consider the rule that using others as objects is wrong, we are then reduced ethically to the weakest and most inadequate standard there is: consent. What I’m saying here is not that consent isn’t necessary, but that it isn’t even close to adequate.
Thought exercise: Today, think about consent in the following situation: a single mom, who is cash-strapped and can’t afford winter coats for her two children, is propositioned by her creepy-ass boss to have sex for $200. If she agrees, even though she feels used and humiliated and violated, is that consent? If this is consent, is the standard of consent sufficient? Or is it no big deal, because “it’s just sex.” Second exercise: Try to think of ways in which sexual practices do not make use of other people as objects or means to an end. How does this place limits or restraints on sex?
— — —
Desire and happiness
As I said in the introduction, I want what I’m writing here to be accessible to plain everyday folks, including my kids and grandkids. Now, I’m going to say something provocative to my kids and grandkids (and to you):
I don’t want you to be happy; I want you to be good.
Whaaaaat?! You wish unhappiness on everyone? Can we not have both goodness and happiness?
Not what I meant. I said what I said to direct our attention to deeper questions: (a) What do we mean by happiness? (b) How do we describe “happiness”? (c)How do we measure it? (d) Is “happiness” the highest good? (e) Is happiness an end in itself, or the result of the achievement of higher ends? (f) Is there a difference between passing pleasures, satisfactions, and delights and some form of deeper satisfaction with one’s life that can carry us through good times and bad? (g) Can we be happy by ourselves, or does our happiness depend on relations, responsibilities, and work with others. (h) Is there such a thing as unjust “happiness,” gained at the expense of others?
What do we mean when we say, “happiness”? Joy? Contentment? Pleasure? The Declaration of Independence claims a right to “the pursuit of happiness,” but it doesn’t give us much to go on about what kinds of things we might actually “pursue” to get there. Given the biographies of the men who signed this Declaration, and what they said elsewhere, it’s a pretty good guess that they meant prosperity . . . the right to accumulate wealth. There is little doubt that being poor or economically on the edge is no fun, because one is too busy trying to juggle one’s own survival and that of his or her family to have more than moments of joy, contentment, and pleasure. On the other hand, for those who have so much wealth that everything they desire might be instantly and effortlessly available, their happiness might be dulled by boredom that has to be relieved by the often unhealthy, and-or unethical, pursuit of ever more extreme desires. We know that poor people experience joy, contentment, and pleasure; but they also deal with more dangers and fears than people who are not poor. We have probably also known drug addicts who experienced very powerful moments of physical pleasure, and who were horribly unhappy people.
I passed a Haitian peasant woman on a foot trail in the mountains once. She was skinny and weathered, dusty, wild haired, her hands calloused and misshapen, her clothing barely more than rags, with only a few remaining teeth. I greeted her in Creole: “Good afternoon. How are you?” She replied, “I am well, thanks be to God.”
I have also — as you have — been around people who have enough of everything, and who still have foul or perpetually discontented dispositions, because things aren’t “going their way,” or because of petty rivalries, or because they desire things they may not need but for whatever reason desperately want. They can’t handle unfulfilled desires. Infantilization?
Let’s think back for a moment to Chapter 12, “Desire, death, and meaning,” because the way one relates to the inevitability of death has a lot to do with how one thinks about happiness. For one whose horizon is beyond death, what constitutes happiness — or a settled sense of self-respect — is different by far from the person who only sees death as the last act in an ultimately meaningless life. The latter person may see everything in the simple terms of (a) me first and (b) seek pleasure/avoid suffering (hedonism).
On the other hand, in my own experience, very few people are firmly in either “camp,” so to speak. Most people I know haven’t thought this all through, and may not have access to the kinds of concepts, the mental tools, to do the thinking-through. And so, we skip back and forth between tying to be good, ethical persons and pursuing the shallower “hedonistic” goals of pleasure-maximization and avoidance of suffering. This sets up a situation that is distinctly unhappy. We’re split personalities, like Gollum.
If I’ve deceived myself through lazy or convenient thinking about (a) being an ethical person and (b) being a hedonist, I’ll tell myself that I can do both at the same time. I have bad news — we can’t. It’s pretty clear from anyone’s experience that the selfish pursuit of pleasure for its own sake — which often involves treating others as objects — is not the same as being good. The people we most admire for being good are generally the least selfish and most willing to endure inconvenience, hardship, and loss for the sake of others and for the sake of their own self-respect, their sense of integrity.
More importantly, people who try as best they can to be good people, even though that often requires them to put others before themselves and suffer hardships, are happier than people who mindlessly chase pleasures and avoid hardship. There are deeper satisfactions to be had in life than simply seeking pleasures, acquiring things, and avoiding any and all forms of suffering.
Think here of a twelve-year-old soccer player — the “investment” of hard work, stress, frustration, and sore muscles is the road to the deep satisfaction that she experiences from progressive mastery of her sport. On the other hand — readers who are parents here will know — think of a toddler who gets everything he wants from an overly permissive or timid parent. The child, for whom no limits are established, becomes a miserable, screaming tyrant. He’s unhappy, and he shares that unhappiness with all who are within range. Fast forward to adulthood, and you have a selfish, grasping, manipulative, even obsessive, and miserable human being on the slavish emotional treadmill of desire-acquire-desire-more-never enough. It’s living in a ceaseless state of lack, an ungrateful and obsessive state of being aware only of what one lacks. One is like those racing dogs who chase the fake rabbit they never catch.
This is not to say that no one gains from the selfish and shallow definition of happiness. Selfishness sells like hotcakes, because it’s the easiest appeal to children . . . or to a society populated by infantilized adults. Once again, the people most keenly aware of how well shallow self-interest, vanity, and mindless pleasures sell are salespersons, advertisers, con artists, and politicians (I may have been redundant there). Salespersons, advertisers, con artists, and politicians are often themselves addicted to pleasures gained at others’ expense, enslaved by their own unchecked desires, and infatuated with power. It’s a chain.
“Happiness” is big business, sold to us as “well-being.” Buy our shit, and be happy. Two authors who’ve written about this “well-being” sales pitch are Augusto Del Noce and William Davies. You can check them out on your own.
What’s wrong with “well-being”? you may ask.
It’s tricky language, that’s what. There’s nothing wrong with “safety,” either; but I remember back when I was in my early fifties, we were sold a bloody and disastrous two-front war for “safety,” which destroyed the lives of millions, and took twenty-years to end.
The problem with “well-being,” the sales pitch, is that it’s aimed at the I-world and pretends the social-world doesn’t exist. It is, in a word, individualistic. Its appeal is to selfishness, which doesn’t lead to a sense of well-being at all, but back to the desire-acquire-rinse-and-repeat treadmill. “Happiness,” alone, is pretty unhappy.
If happiness is accounted purely as “well-being,” that is, as the satisfaction of unfocused desires, desires aimed at no purpose beyond mere physical pleasure or avoidance of any discomfort, then most of the time in most of our lives, everything done without the aim of fleeting personal pleasure or avoidance of all discomforts must be accounted as unhappiness. But we know this is untrue from experience. A happy marriage, or happy family, for example, may pass through all manner of challenges and struggles, sometimes outright suffering, and will inevitably have its ups and downs. It is a happy marriage or a happy family, when everyone involved is cooperating to achieve or maintain a common good. The most unhappy marriages and the most unhappy families — apart from catastrophic circumstances, like extreme poverty, disaster, or war — are those within which each person’s first concern is his or her self-fulfillment. Any social group in which it’s everyone for him- or herself is characterized purely by power struggle — one of the most unhappy of all states. Human beings are happier — by which I mean more generally satisfied with their lot in life — when they dwell in groups that look out for one another, even if they do so sometimes in conditions of challenge or hardship.
Happiness is the outcome of living a good life, not a product to be pursued. Happiness is not an outcome of the pursuit of random and selfish desires; it’s the outcome of orderly desire, pursued virtuously, in cooperation with others whom one respects and loves. We are happiest in “communities of virtue.”
Thought exercise: Here are a few basic guidelines to think about to set aside the “pursuit” of “happiness” in order to live well.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
If someone asks forgiveness and means it, forgive that person.
Do the right thing, even when it’s the harder thing.
Tell the truth, but only when you’re very sure it’s the truth.
Check and verify before you repeat hearsay.
Put others first.
Don’t manipulate people.
Don’t treat others as objects.
Be courteous and respectful.
Praise in public and criticize in private.
Be loyal to those who earn loyalty.
Don’t judge what you don’t know; and don’t gossip.
Don’t humiliate others; it’s the hardest thing to forgive — harder even than being assaulted.
Listen and watch, then take time to reflect.
Admit when you’re wrong.
Admit when you’ve done wrong and apologize when appropriate. (Real apology, not the kind where you qualify it, take it back, or retaliate: “I’m sorry, but . . .”)
Make amends, where possible, for harm you’ve done.
When you do things, do them as best you can, especially when what you do affects others.
Don’t be conceited or boastful, and don’t seek attention for its own sake.
Accept and welcome the authority of those from whom you can learn.
Apply the HALT rule: You can be your best for others when you take time to address these in yourself — hunger, anger, loneliness, and being tired. Eat, take time to settle down (acting in anger is almost always a really bad idea), talk with someone, and rest.