***Please note: After spending some time thinking through what I wanted this blog to offer, I have recently changed the name of this blog from “Scott’s Thoughts” to “The Wisdom Initiative” in order to give a more thorough explanation of what I hope becomes a larger conversation about the necessity for wisdom and virtue in the modern age. You can find out more on the newly created “Home” page. As always, I look forward to the conversation! Now, on to the post!
So many of you connected with the previous post on “The Cult of Desire” that I thought it best to spend some more time elaborating on what I think is a fundamental element of the human condition, longing, and how it gets corrupted by another, baser element, desire. In my previous post, I alluded to the fact that, so often, what gets inflamed are our “inordinate” and “vain” desires–desires for things Freud would label “pleasure principles,” those principles that drive our need for immediate gratification (sex, hunger, thirst, Black Friday 🙂 for example).
But I believe we also have deeper drives, what I will henceforth call longings, and that what trips us up is when we feed our desires thinking that will satisfy our longings. For example, I long for safe shelter, but I might feed that longing with the desire for a larger house than I need. Or, I long for belonging, but I might feed that with the unhealthy desire for relationships at any cost. When we sacrifice our longings at the altar of our desires, we find ourselves losing both the thing longed for and the pleasure derived from the desire.
This is the point at which most of us get tripped up. I know that every personal failing I have experienced has come when I have tried to satisfy a deep longing with a temporary desire. The problem is, it takes great work to fulfill a longing, while a desire can be satisfied immediately.
Take health, for example. If I long to be healthy in my body, it takes exercise, diet, commitment, sacrifice, eating certain kinds of foods and avoiding other, etc., but I can satisfy my desires with anything at hand: fast food, donuts, cookies, chips, etc. In other words, it takes great effort to satisfy my longing, but very little to feed my desire.
Aristotle talks about this in his The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle
when he writes that, “The many, the most vulgar, would seem to conceive happiness as pleasure, and hence they also like the life of gratification. In this they appear completely slavish, since the life they decide on is a life for grazing animals.” He counters this bestial existence by saying that the highest human good “proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and indeed with the best and most complete virtue.” He goes on to say that, “happiness requires both complete virtue and a complete life.”
The problem, again, is that this pursuit of virtue takes great effort, especially when our culture offers us so many easy ways to satisfy our desires at every turn. What is needed is a cultural shift away from fulfilling desires to satisfying longings. And what is it that we long for? A short list might include belonging, safety, intimacy, love, respect, understanding, health, connections, value, dignity, etc. My question is, do we see these deep longings being supported or perverted by our culture?
Let me leave you with one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis. In this book, Lewis makes his way from hell to heaven. Once he arrives in heaven, he finds that he is not yet acclimated to its Reality, and he must journey inwards with the help of a guide to become “Heavenly”.
As he is on his way, he comes upon a man with a terrible lizard whose claws are buried deep in the man’s shoulder. There is an angel softly urging the man to offer the lizard up so that the man may at least become whole. All this time, the lizard is twitching and whispering in the man’s ear, reminding him of the great pleasures the lizard allowed the man to have. The man is desperate to be rid of the lizard, but cannot quite make himself give it up. He knows that doing so will break him, and the beast’s claws are in deep.
At last, weeping on his knees, the man begs the angel to take the lizard. The angel does, ripping the claws from the man’s shoulder, leaving a trial of blood and flesh behind. The angel throws the lizard upon the ground, breaking its back.
Then the great transformation begins!
The man rises, whole for the first time in his life, a true man, but what is really telling is what becomes of the lizard. As Lewis watches, the writhing beast has become a beautifully winged stallion that the man, now shining in virtuous splendor, rides off into the deep mountains of heaven.
When Lewis questions his guide about what he has just seen, the guide says, “Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy which will arise when lust has been killed. Nothing can go on as it now is.”
May we have the strength to slay the lizards of desire that they might be transformed at last into longings fulfilled, satisfied, and made whole.