When I ask what you desire, I’m not talking about which menu item you prefer at the restaurant. This essay, instead, considers your most passionate, uninhibited, and selfish side and offers a chance to learn more. I come to praise “wanting,” not to bury it. Last stop before I take you on a roller coaster ride of a part of your nature you might hide from yourself.
What is “wanting?” At the extreme, it is taking, but playful; possessive, rapacious, covetous, but pure. Wanting doesn’t respect every rule. Desire is a thing unleashed: single-minded, obsessed, hungry, spontaneous, irrational. The undiscovered country is its goal.
Adventurers to this land seek new ground. The kind of wanting I’m speaking of lives with abandon and without self-consciousness. It inhabits a place outside the domain of evil or good, so try not to stand in judgement. This creature is feeling-dominated, not word or thought-restrained. Pre-verbal. Desire’s triumph is found in moments of joy and exploration, enough to burst the heart.
Small children possess this jubilant abandon, witness my two-year-old grandson. But I sometimes think we stake their little hearts and then call the corpses civilized.
Desire, at its zenith, is about discovery, about making something new: being alive to the world. Risk is attractive and the downside almost irrelevant. Where others slow down, desire speeds up. More constrained souls, in contrast, seek a fulfillment of duty, a chance to prove themselves by taking on challenges, and acceptance of social rules. Perhaps they are merely afraid.
Desire wants only joy. Sharing of joy to multiply it, too. Yet, in its pursuit of fulfillment (and the evolutionarily-packaged seed it carries), injuries to others can happen. The unknown spouse of a “wanted” married woman (not the kind you find on an FBI poster) can be someone invisible to the desirous one; carved out of the equation, a faceless person who won’t find out and won’t be hurt. Remember, though, no desire, no human race.
I’m not talking about people who intend to injure others, or who see the potential victim and still don’t care. They inhabit a different class.
Some souls submit to risk and adventure only in selected portions of their lives. No one can live there always – too many train wrecks come if you don’t look both ways before crossing the tracks. But, such a life is possible when compartmentalized; though rare is the highly intuitive, curious free-spirit who can keep the boxes separate. Even when they can, existence might become too intense, too high and too low, too painful too often. But the high wire is a place of dizzying delight, addictive perhaps, so don’t think you wouldn’t like it there.
Others, those of a different, more careful nature, only visit their deepest want on rare occasions. The adventurer/angel entity is then unleashed as if by a strange invading army.
You can live a happy life, as much as we are allowed, without uncaged desire. Such a life, however, will have some restraints, a lower ceiling on pleasure. No ecstatic frenzy for you. Almost all of us are conditioned by 5000 years of civilization and nearly as much religious history; by our parents, our teachers, and oceans of indoctrination; by reading, thinking, and all the “thou shalt nots.” The wise ones told us life was about giving up certain parts of ourselves, fair-play, and the pursuit of lofty places and principles: about relinquishment and acceptance and gratitude for a half-cup of coffee. Fifty-percent would be enough, they said. Our sensuality was indicted and shamed.
Most of us call cruising at a lower altitude the triumph of practical wisdom over foolishness. Desire thinks the last statement is a cheat. And if wanting is a large part of one’s nature, surely societal rules pose a greater restriction on them than for tamer souls. The former cannot comfortably be different than they are without denying themselves.
When I was in single-digits I envied my next door neighbor’s toy soldiers. Howie always got better toys than I did. So, I took one, discovering that having the thing was a less satisfying experience than I anticipated. I also felt guilty and, the next time I played at his house, returned the unmissed plastic man-of-war to Howie’s towering pile of tiny inanimate playmates.
My desire wasn’t rational, but mindless. I’d met Freud’s Id inside myself. From that moment, I understood I had this quality in me. Later, I discovered that if you haven’t satisfied your wanting in bed, you haven’t had sex.
Desire still exists post-youth, though buried deep under the weight of responsibility and family; conventional virtue and reputation. No wonder men and women have mid-life crises, do crazy things, dress like they are still young. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants the view from the mountain top occasionally. Some don’t want to descend.
Do you know their names? Count Columbus and Marco Polo among them. Explorers like Scott of the Antarctic. The Homeric heroes, horse-taming Hector and Odysseus, sacker-of-cities. We need such brave dreamers, the ones who want to look behind the door, the ones who will become astronauts.
How much can one live with wanting? How much can one live without? For those high in desire, in risk-taking, free by nature, Icarus is a model to be emulated, a spontaneous young man using his wax wings to reach the sun, not a damned fool crashing to earth when the sun’s heat melts them.
Religion and society try to inoculate us to our baseness, if that’s what it is, but the untamed creature is still present, and may agree to adopting a different form: athletic competition in hope of fulfilling the want of the chase, the win, the trophy, the sensuality and exultation of the vanquished opposition; or, the rat race (because we are part-time rats, climbing over others) and wielding raw power. Perhaps even simple things like buying something you say you “can’t live without.” Here, in this last tame example of desire, is the ultimate domestication of the beast within.
You can’t be a man and a wild animal all the time, but you can’t be a man without greeting the animal you are. The ladies have him inside too, though their historic cultural prohibitions are even greater than for men. They are, therefore, less well-accepted when they exhibit their creaturely side.
If you think of yourself as a virtuous person and actually are pretty good (two different things), you are ripe for someone else’s taking and the awakening of your own wanting. Then it is like an explosion, an irresistible force that can only be resisted by a team of stallions pulling you away.
I’d say most people don’t even know they are missing anything, so accustomed are they to the socialized forms of desire. The creature is drugged to sleep. Why don’t we admit to this? Perhaps because it associates us with the animal world. We want to think we are better, deserving of a heaven that doesn’t even admit pets. We fear losing respect, hesitate to hurt others about whom we care. We fear losing our self, the person we “think” we are, the best self we can be.
Beware. Too much denial is dangerous, too. The precincts of quiet desperation house those who have never lived.
Few can sustain high-wire wanting happily. Craving is never but momentarily satisfying: they go on craving after a period of rest. The constant seekers must find other adventures. The soul is restless, also a part of their nature.
You say you don’t recognize yourself in this? Don’t knock yourself out to search for the unimaginable part. I’m not here to upset your steady, unruffled life. But it is there.
Some of you might call it crazy. If it is, there is a sublime craziness to it, not made for planet earth but some purer, loftier realm, free of judgment. A place where you can eat all the candy you want without losing your taste for more or getting sick; and give away handfuls to your friends, who will love you for sharing your bounty: the bounty in yourself.
Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!
The poster up top is from the famous movie, A Streetcar Named Desire. Next, is Joanbanjo’s photo of a Roman Legion from the Museum of Lead Soldiers in Valencia. Finally, Bruegel’s depiction of The Fall of Icarus. If you can’t find him, Icarus is in the water just below the boat on the right side of the painting. Surely, this placement of the title character is a comment on the indifference of the world to his calamity. The soldiers photo comes from Wikimedia Commons, the Breugal from Wikiart.org/ For those of you curious about exploring an analogous, but not identical person to the one I’ve described, investigate Meyers-Briggs personality configurations on the net, especially the one identified by the initials ENFP.
Reminds me of that exciting “spontaneous child” within. Nice.
Thank you, Lois.
I like this. It’s very frightening though…… I feel there’s a ‘creature’ within me, needing to burst out. But I don’t know what it is…..frustrating. Usually, though, this creature is selfish, only ‘wanting’; which isn’t good. We are called to be humble, loving, patient, kind, giving…… So the question does remain….is it wise to unleash the beast? Maybe just quietly pray to be content.
Thank you, Suzuki. If it isn’t in your nature and/or not something you have permitted to emerge, the creature is overwhelming when unleashed. This isn’t for everyone and isn’t in everyone to the same degree. Moderation in all things has long been a watchword of wisdom. Your choice.
Dr. Stein, you always have something interesting to say! This was one of my favorites because it gets at what we really want, at who we really are – I think. If I were to erase all of what I was told I should want, of all I should be, then I would probably crave these things: The desire to wonder, travel, invent, and discover. The ability to fly. The feeling that I’m on top of the world and can be and do anything I want to do. The freedom to be without fear. The ability to be strong and a hero at heart. Magical powers, and the ability to shapeshift. And many other things my inner child or id or whatever they’re so named inside me want. I tame these things, for the most part, but when I want them to come out, I read a book, do art, watch a movie, listen to music (and sometimes sing or dance in secret), decorate parts of my home that remind me of these things, daydream, write creatively, journal, pretend and/or imagine, etc. It’s my definition of what others might call “weird” or “strange,” and why I love weird and strange. These are a list of my true wants. (And it is okay if you laugh, roll your eyes, react in disgust, tell your self “oh my,” or simply, “hey, I can relate to many of these things.”) It’s my truth, and this is so cool to finally express and know what it is now. It’s my inner wants, the things I’ve always desired since I was a young kid. It makes me feel youthful in my 40s. It’s cool! Thanks so much for this post.
You are welcome, PP. Glad you enjoyed it. No laughter at my end, just delight, and happiness you’ve found a part of yourself.
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I can and cannot relate to this response, but I can say “peace penguin” knows me well enough to accept that I sometimes feel uncomfortable with acknowledging most of those things. I forgot that I had already read this before (note to self).
I love the straightforwardness and pragmatism of your post, though the thought of all this uncontrollable wanting lurking in everyone around me already scares me senseless.
On another note: what is the point of wanting when there is no fulfilment to be had? Wanting to be held by your therapist, for example, a desire that doesn’t feel remotely adult, because it is not. The time for the fulfilment of that want is not now, it was then. That ship has sailed. If it was never fulfilled then, it’s too late. So what are we to do with wants that can (and should) never be satisfied?
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Since I am not the arbiter of the world’s morality or behavior, I have no answer beyond the conventional ones about grieving. The world doesn’t, in my judgement, permit us to have everything in one life. We’d need maybe one hundred. Perhaps it might be helpful to look at this from that perspective. In a sense, we have been put into an impossible situation as mortal creatures with limited possibilities. On the other hand, we must find what can be satisfying and be grateful. I will end by saying only this. You are not alone in this dilemma.
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Tell me what you fear, and I’ll tell you who you are.
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In 12 words you have taken the 1500 word giant of a thing and thrown him to the mat. You must be trained in judo. Your reframing and the economy of your words gave me a smile.
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I don’t get it. I can’t make sense of what you’ve written. I want to but I guess I need the Cliff Notes.
But I also know that within 12 hours of returning from a fantastic trip to Chicago, my whole world was flipped upside down. Right now here’s all that I want: I want to go back to last Sunday night before fire took away so many homes and businesses nearby. Over 3,000 families in Santa Roa alone (so not including the adjacent towns of Sonoma and Napa) lost their homes and, at last count, 31 lost their lives. More will be found in the ashes. The air is heavy, very heavy with smoke and residents walk around with face masks. I have six good friends who are now homeless and more than 20 friends of friends who are homeless. The town is reeling from its losses, both personal and business. I don’t get this either. Two weeks ago it was random murders in Las Vegas, a month ago it was destruction in Puerto Rico (and the subsequent lack of support for those people) and before that hurricanes in TX and FL.
People here are stunned. If you still have a home, you are desperate to make a difference to those who don’t. People everywhere are walking around on the edge of tears. On the positive side, first responders are recognized as hometown heroes and Compassion and Generosity are throwing out life lines to anyone who is drowning in sadness and anxiety.
I know my words have little to do with what you wrote. But I can’t figure out what you wrote so I wrote about what is the total sum of my reality right now. I can’t understand why life has to be so messy and so complex. How is it that one day you think you know what the day will be like and in one brief moment, the day is no longer clear? How is it possible that so many people here and all over the world have to have such hardship? No answers are forthcoming , I know. Stupid mystery. What are the pluses of a mystery?
Thanks for giving me a place to vent.
LOVED Chicago. Even with limited funds, I could not have asked for a better trip. Sure, there was a wild rainstorm on Saturday late afternoon / early evening but that was only part of the experience. I was SO impressed with how kind and helpful every single person we encountered was. The architechture and art were stunning. Lake Michigan was remarkable. No words for the Art Institute. So awe inspiring. I can’t wait to come back.
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This is heartbreaking, JT. I’m so sorry. Those of us in safe places, the places that could be turned upside down by the movement of Fortune’s wheel in one second, have an easy time. We can write a check, look away, distract ourselves, count our blessings, and sleep at night. One can take this as an indictment of God or more reason to believe in a perfect afterlife where everything will make sense and seem just. You know where I stand on this, I think.
I’m glad you wrote that you didn’t understand the essay. I suspect you’ve got lots of company. Perhaps one needs some personal experience, not easily obtained, to “get” some things about the people in the world that cannot otherwise be understood without that experience. I was lucky in doing therapy for so long, evaluating almost three-thousand others, in witnessing second-hand more possible ways of being than only other therapists might have or those who have lived through extreme situations which I have not. But, not to give up on your understanding, take a look at this. It is not identical to the kind of person I described, but maybe this will get you closer to a part of what I’m getting at in the post: https://www.16personalities.com/enfp-personality
In the meantime, my condolences. I’m glad you got a chance to enjoy the city, before taking a blow from the hand of fate. Chicago would be lucky to have you again as a visitor.
Ah, Dr. Stein, I want so much for myself and my loved ones, but have settled for what’s possible!
I hold onto your comment: “Desire wants only joy. Sharing of joy to multiply it, too.” I want an end to our wars and inequality in all of its manifestations. What joy that would be 🙂
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The world needs more like you, Rosaliene.
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How kind of you, Dr. Stein ❤
When it comes to desire, what if what you want is to know why she dumped you 34 years ago?
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Analysis of a 34-year-old event is quite a stretch, Joseph. Memory within those involved has almost certainly changed the event from what one might have observed and experienced a the time. If it were I, I might question those who recall it nonetheless and anything in the way of love letters. I might enter therapy. I might talk to good and VERY honest friends who could tell me about myself. And, most of all, I’d try to make the best of the possibilities in my present life. Good luck, Joseph.
oh my, my, my Dr G, with this one you climbed up onto the bar and showed us your air guitar routine, those riffs achingly dripping with such inner child need for release from the bonds of being adult, we all want to change the world, we all want to go back and spell check our yesterday’s, we all want the today’s we’re standing in now to be different, we all want to walk into a fearless tomorrow. It is deep within the anticipation of want that we find our greatest, truest answers and we are so focused on getting the want that we miss out on the teachings of anticipation, because we are all made to believe that getting something is the reward, it is only valuable if we can hold it or be held. I want more and more so I can plunge deep into the bubbling anticipation and roll around inhibition naked wearing my purple sparkly tutu, wrinkly tights, too big high heeled red stilettos, make-up all smeared and using my pearls to lasso wild dragons so we can fly off into worlds made of warm choc chip biscuits, where it’s okay to build sandcastles and scream as the tide tickles your toes, where freedom is spelled out in hoof beats thundering through the surf, where you really can fly. The glass is not half empty, neither is it half full, it’s refillable with whatever you choose to fill it with, no matter your age or the age of your inner kids – let ’em loose – cheers Dr G, to rock n roll and drippy ice creams and just the simple anticipation of today’s treasure chest whether we get what we want or not – we lived, isn’t that enough?
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Ah, Rosie. You always take my words and make Icarus look like a slacker! In my imagination, I can see a few of us engaging in writing games, rather like the theater and improv games in which one person starts a story, then passes it to another, then that one passes it to another still to continue the tale, etc. Thanks, as always, for the dizzying and illuminating ride.
The things I desired in my youth were buried by “You cannot, shall not, aren’t bright enough, aren’t rich enough, aren’t good enough, and aren’t worthy enough” I have learned to be the friendly, quiet, people pleaser in order to avoid recriminations, and the desires of my youth are so buried, I no longer desire them….only a pang every now and then as a reminder when I witness someone else pursuing a similar dream with abandon.
Thank you, Nancy, for your heartfelt recollections. You are clearly more than all the cruel and erroneous judgements. That you have made a good life in spite of them is a tribute to you.
You are very kind Dr. Stein, and I imagine an excellent therapist!
Thanks, Nancy. Your use of the word “kind,” summons up the fact that my mother, a very witty woman, used to say (about herself), “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”
I want to not want.
You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t want.
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Some days I wish I were not human. I am trying to be okay with wanting. It is not easy for some.