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:
The Positive Aspects of Desire
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:
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:
(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:)
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:
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.
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© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.