Don’t suppress your desires, says Nicole Law. Just aim them better.
I was doing research for an upcoming book study session I was hosting and encountered the topic of ‘desire’. At first, I understood desire as the act of wanting or wishing for something, much like how one would write down a list of wishes in one’s diary or blurt out the three proverbial wishes when faced with a genie à la Aladdin.
The act of wanting something is familiar to many of us. In fact, it can be said we are motivated to action primarily due to desire. Our desire for food motivates us to get off the couch and head to the kitchen. Our desire for closeness motivates us to get out of our houses and meet up with friends.
Desire itself is generative, it brings forth action and sometimes, greater desire. Yet, the book we were examining challenged me to consider what we typically do with these desires as they rise to the surface. Sure, we may desire, for example, a loving relationship and even marriage. Yet, in my own experience I have seen many friends choosing to brush aside or suppress their desires.
There is a deep sense of restlessness beneath the surface of calm when we start to realise that ignoring our desires is, in fact, unhealthy. The better path involves a sorting out of these desires. Not a mere sorting into neat categories of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but a deeper re-examination of the root of these desires and the effects they have on us.
There is much value in being attentive to the desires we have and responding to them. This response entails a lot of self-awareness and courage.
When asked ‘why’ we want something so much, most of us struggle to come up with a defensible answer and instead point to how other people around us have already ‘succeeded’ in that aspect of life. Herein lies the rotten fruit of comparison and competitiveness.
This sort of desire is ‘contagious’: the feelings “I want what you have” and “I can’t be happy until I have it or more” are like ravenous beasts which are not easily satisfied.
In the era of social media the joyous announcements of a recent promotion or engagement or newborn child can bristle even the best of us. We start to want ‘that thing’, not for the inherent goodness of it, but because we do not want to be seen as ‘falling behind’.
In these cases, I can attest that wanting for the sake of possessing or mere comparison brings little comfort or consolation and instead leaves one ever hungrier for more. We turn into insatiable beings set on owning, possessing and consuming, for the sake of our own personal pleasure. And this is rooted in a desire for self over others. Such self-centered prioritising is the sort of desire which gives rise to greed, violence and destruction.
Knowing when our desires are inherently disordered enables us to examine them with greater critical distance.
Instead of being consumed by them, we start to see them as the enablers and catalysts they are. If we do not feed our desires, they will not grow beyond our control. If, though, we choose to acknowledge their effect on our thoughts and actions and redirect them towards a more positive end, we regain agency.
Embracing our desires is the first step to honouring the ‘fire’ which burns inside us. We do not need to put out the flame but we can learn to control its size.
How? We could follow the wisdom of asceticism, in which we practise self-control. It is more than adjusting your portion size when eating. It encompasses everything from taking time away from social media to reducing your interactions with people with whom you have an unhealthy relationship.
Adjusting the emotional knobs allows us to get a little closer to what a more profound sense of freedom actually feels like. The ability to be sufficiently detached from our desires does not require completely removing the ‘fire’ but rather learning to function well with or without it. St Ignatius called this ‘equal-mindedness’, a spirit of openness to all possible outcomes and even a relinquishing of our desires.
The goal in fact is not to desire less but rather to desire more and better.
Rather than wasting our desires on petty pleasures or compensations, they expand to seek after greater goals. For a man or woman of faith, ultimately only God is a worthy object of desire, as only he is infinite.
But whether one is a believer or not, we should expand not shrink our desires, aspiring to be better, more virtuous people ourselves so as to better serve society and effect the positive change we can. These are worth our desire and are far more rewarding than mimicking what someone else is wearing.
Our desires are powerful in moving us to act and speak. They can inspire us to passion and creativity as we write songs of love and devotion. They can also lead us down the path of obsession and possessiveness. The challenge then remains for us to find the order in the disorder. To find the deeper meaning within the things we hold dear.
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