If ever there were an emotion or state of mind laden with apparent contradictions, it would have to be Desire. For one thing, desire harbors within it the seeds of its own disappointment. And though it’s typically linked to excited anticipation, motivation, and drive, it’s also related to longing, frustration. and disillusionment. Still, in its absence life for most of us would hardly feel worth living. And just getting up each morning might be a real challenge.

So what, finally, should the “correct” attitude toward desire be? And what constitutes the wisest, most instructive, and thought-provoking ideas ever expressed on this so-intriguing, double-edged emotion? This is the question that impelled me to examine close to 1,000 quotations on the subject—as I tried to make some coherent sense out of all the seemingly incompatible opinions that, over the centuries, have been voiced about it. Unquestionably, from the beginning the whole concept of desire has received “mixed reviews.” And although it certainly includes sexual desire (a topic on which I've published extensively), the highly varied perceptions of it vastly transcend mere carnal, or romantic, considerations.

Additionally, in examining the huge assortment of quotes I found on desire, I was obliged to note how illogical, even self-contradictory, many of them were. They seemed simplistic or one-sided, arbitrary, biased, distorted, or overstated and exaggerated to the point that I couldn’t see them as embodying any real truth about the subject at all. Although initially intriguing, finally they just didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Especially the ones that, at first sight, seemed terribly clever and insightful but, on closer scrutiny, seemed to fall apart—weren’t of any practical use in explaining desire's complex dynamic. And then there were the quotes taken from characters in fictional works, which might not reflect their authors’ views at all.

I’ll provide a few select examples (with commentary) of these “failed” quotes:

  • Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired. ~ Robert Frost [definitely witty— but a rather gross oversimplification of a phenomenon that is far more variable and complex than the poet indicates]
  • If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are wicked. ~ Epictetus [a most interesting position, but I couldn’t seriously consider it—for it encompasses such a cynical attitude toward humanity: it doesn’t even entertain the possibility that, by nature, we’re endowed with positive (or pro-social), traits, as well as negative ones]
  • If the desire to write is not accompanied by actual writing, then the desire must be not to write. ~ Hugh Prather [but much more likely, I’d think, in such instances the fear of failing as a writer might well undermine an authentic desire to write]
  • We are all created by desire and we all die because of desire. ~ Santosh Kalwar [certainly has the air of profundity, but upon further inspection seemed more obscure than anything else]
  • Long only for what you have. ~ André Gide [at first blush, this one struck me as paradoxically brilliant, but really, is it anything more than a self-contradiction?—unless, that is, the author were to add at the end, " . . . but can't yet integrate or manifest."]

The Positive Aspects of Desire

Wanting to offer readers a balanced perspective on the various delights, and dismays, of desire, I’ll start by grouping some of the many quotes that regard it positively—as essential in motivating us to strive, overcome obstacles and persevere, so that we may become all we’re capable of being. So consider:

  • Desire is the key to motivation. It is the key to develop a healthy personality and a positive attitude towards oneself and others. ~ Amit Abraham
  • You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose. ~ Abraham Lincoln
  • We are told that talent creates its own opportunities. But it sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents. ~ Eric Hoffer
  • Perseverance is an active principle, and cannot continue to operate but under the influence of desire. ~ William Godwin
  • All movement, of every creature, comes from the desire after something better. ~ Charles Buxton
  • Sad will be the day for any man when he becomes contented with the thoughts he is thinking and the deeds he is doing—where there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger; which he knows he was meant and made to do. ~ Phillips Brooks [and, in this respect, you can envision what one great artist had in mind when he wrote:]
  • I hope that I may always desire more than I can accomplish. ~ Michelangelo
  • Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything. ~ Napoleon Hill
  • When your desires are strong enough, you will appear to possess superhuman powers to achieve. ~ also, Napoleon Hill [and finally, suggesting how the often cited “Law of Attraction” can come into play when desire is strong enough:]
  • When a person truly desires something, all the Universe conspires to help that person realize his dream. ~ Paulo Coelho

Note how these quotes tend to link desire positively with efforts toward self-realization and transcendence. More specifically—though perhaps also more narrowly—the quotes below discuss desire as the key prerequisite to (worldly) success:

  • In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure. ~ Bill Cosby

(And it’s curious that—at least in our culture—so many of the quotes I found defined success in terms of athletic achievement. Consider:)

  • Desire is the key to motivation, but it’s determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal—a commitment to excellence—that will enable you to attain the success you see [but. I might add, are not “determination” and “commitment” themselves dependent on desire?] ~Mario Andretti
  • Desire is the most important factor in the success of any athlete. ~ Bill Shoemaker
  • What you lack in talent can be made up with desire, hustle and giving 110 percent all the time. ~ Don Zimmer

In sum, it would certainly seem that desire is the primal source of all motivation—that it constitutes the one indispensable ingredient of all human accomplishment. But even beyond these lavish tributes, many other quotes proclaim how desire is intrinsic to who we are. They persuasively argue that in the human species it’s ubiquitous, global, even “generic.” It’s what makes us feel truly alive, the very essence of our vitality:

  • When it comes to desiring, we are all experts. If there were an Olympics of desiring, we would all make the team [!]. ~ William Braxton Irvine
  • When we kill our desires we stink like any corpse. ~ Harold Norse
  • It was long since I had longed for anything and the effect on me was horrible. ~ Samuel Beckett
  • Some desire is necessary to keep life in motion, and he whose real wants are supplied must admit those of fancy. ~ Samuel Johnson
  • Desire is the very essence of man. ~ Baruch Spinoza
  • Always there is desire / only the shape / of what is desired shifts. / each love giving way to another. ~ Jane Hirshfield
  • We are desire. It is the essence of the human soul, the secret of our existence. Absolutely nothing of human greatness is ever accomplished without it. Not a symphony has been written, a mountain climbed, an injustice fought, or a love sustained apart from desire. Desire fuels our search for the life we prize. Our desire, if we will listen to it, will save us from committing soul-suicide, the sacrifice of our hearts on the altar of "getting by." The same old thing is not enough. It never will be. ~ John Eldredge

After reviewing all these distinctly positive quotes, it’s hard to imagine that there exist at least as many quotes castigating desire. But that’s definitely the case. Which is why, ultimately, it’s so hard to arrive at any definitive conclusion as to how best to be “guided” by this emotion or mental state.

In Part 2 of this exploration, I’ll focus on what, throughout history, has been said against desire. And, alas, I think you’ll find these observations every bit as convincing (and reflective of your own personal experience) as the positive ones centered on here. Finally, I’ll attempt to "synthesize"—or resolve the discrepancies between—the favorable and unfavorable elements of desire. Hopefully, you’ll then be able to better appreciate the complexities, ambiguities, and paradoxes so deeply embedded in the subject.

NOTE: If you found this post illuminating, I hope you’ll consider sharing it.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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