Desiring, Wishing, and Willing Out of Control

Desires and wishes can run riot.

Posted Mar 18, 2016

Desiring, wishing, and willing are all things we humans regularly do. Each of these activities can be fun and rewarding when done to the right degree and in the right direction. They can also be damaging and destructive when undertaken too vigorously or pursued in wrong directions. They can veer into dangerous waters when we over- and under-estimate what is in our control. We can end up not just frustrated but profoundly disoriented and even alienated in our own lives. For help understanding these activities in order to avoid their more destructive forms, I turn to American philosopher/psychologist William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890). James was a keen observer of human nature in all its marvelous complexities.

James defines desire as wanting to feel, to have, or to do what presently is not felt, had, or done. Desires can be about anything. We desire material goods like cars, houses, a good meal, etc. We also desire immaterial goods such as relationships with others, acceptance, happiness, success, etc. The line between material and immaterial is not always hard and fast; one may physically desire another person in large part because of the love she has for him or her. Physical desire may also increase love. Desire can increase when we want more than we presently have and it can decrease when we no longer want what we have.

James’s point about desire is there’s always a gap between the wanting and the having. While in many cases the gap between wanting and having is traversable, the gap can increase when one is not attentive enough to both the strength and direction of desires and how those desires fit with what one already has. Paying more attention to what one wants rather than what one has may lead to a dissatisfaction that may only continue to grow.

According to James, we wish when what we desire is accompanied by a sense that it cannot be attained or achieved. Wishing is defined by the sense that one cannot realize her desires. There are all sorts of reasons why someone’s desires cannot be met and those reasons are not created equal. I wish I had won the $2 billion lottery drawing, but the odds were astronomically staked against me.  Wishes like this are not bad or dangerous and in fact can provide a welcome flight of fancy. Who didn’t wish they’d have the opportunity to quit a job, pay off debt, help friends, etc?

Problems begin when the reasons for something not being met or achieved have to do with me or what’s in my control. I can wish until the cows come home that I will get the promotion at work. I can wish that tomorrow I will stop drinking or using drugs. I can wish to the point of pining for the partner of my dreams.

Great troubles may follow when my wishes become wrapped in expectation. When expectation takes over, my focus becomes less on what I am doing and more on what I deserve. Putting on the “I deserve” lenses entails we are unable to clearly see the relationship between our inactions and our desires not being met. There’s a good reason why many people in recovery define an expectation as a future resentment. That resentment is almost always directed at other people or more vaguely, “society.” We fail to recognize that our inactions in many cases play an important role in our desires not being met.

James claims that we will when we believe we can achieve what we desire and we take action. Willing necessarily requires action. This is what distinguishes wishing from willing. When a person wills, she recognizes that she is in a position to actualize something that she desires. In most cases, willing is a necessary condition for us to realize our desires. If I want the promotion, then I better work hard and finish my projects by the specified deadlines. If I want to stop drinking or using, then I need to take some action such as driving home a different way to avoid the liquor store or place where I usually buy drugs.

Willing is a necessary but not sufficient condition to realize desires. Each of us has plenty of examples of acting in ways to realize our desires that fall short, go haywire, or bring about the exact opposite of what we want. It simply is not a matter of my will alone that I will get a promotion. Too many other factors are at play that are beyond my control. There may be equally hard working people vying for the promotion or the job description is not a match for my experience.  Stopping drinking and using is not fully a matter of my will; I may need medications to curb cravings.

When I assume that realizing my desires is completely a matter of my will, frustration and overflowing resentment usually follow. If I am convinced that I am doing everything right and still I am not getting what I desire, then I might just keep pushing myself to do the same thing only harder every time. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results. I may start to resent those same results and the people who seem to get different results from doing the same things I am.

When we will too much and try to force the world to bend or we will in the wrong direction—say at controlling that which is so far beyond our control--we will be unhappy. The solution is not to stop willing since that throws us back to the unhappiness that comes from unrealized wishes. Rather, we need to recognize what is in our control and what is not and then calibrate our expectations and act accordingly. That’s simpler said than done.