The Downside of Desire

The first part of this “quoting post” on desire focused on its many positive facets—in fact, its paramount value. With so many quotes persuasively indicating its exceptional power to motivate us—to enable us not simply to aspire to, but also to reach, our most coveted goals—what exactly is its downside? Well, it seems that despite all its favorable aspects, it can also constitute a grave threat to our contentment, freedom, and happiness. In short, values that, ultimately, may represent a higher priority to us than the object(s) of our desire. And the many negative things that have repeatedly been said about this emotion or state of mind should make us take heed of its dangers. At the very least, we may need to question the degree of our attachment to desire.

So, let’s begin to explore some of its negatives. One basic objection to striving to fulfill our desires has to do with the morality, or wisdom, of doing so. For such pursuits frequently involve blindly surrendering to our instincts and impulses. And overpowering our more rational selves, such capitulation inevitably induces us to “forfeit” self-discipline and forsake our higher ideals. Writings critical of this all-too-human tendency to let our desires take control over us include the following:

  • Why is discipline important? Discipline teaches us to operate by principle rather than desire. Saying no to our impulses (even the ones that are not inherently sinful) puts us in control of our appetites rather than vice versa. It deposes our lust and permits truth, virtue, and integrity to rule our minds instead. ~ John F. MacArthur, Jr.
  • The line of life is a ragged diagonal between duty and desire. ~ William R. Alger
  • We always long for the forbidden things, and desire what is denied us. ~ François Rabelais
  • Forbidden pleasures alone are loved immoderately; when lawful, they do not excite desire. ~ Quintilian
  • I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day [!]. ~ E. B. White

The problem with becoming excessively attached to that which we desire—and so unwittingly keeping ourselves from ever experiencing true satisfaction or serenity—is another theme prevalent in the literature:

  • I see nothing wrong with the human trait to desire. In fact, I consider it integral to our success mechanism. Becoming attached [emphasis added] to what we desire is what causes the trouble. If you must have it in order to be happy, then you are denying the happiness of the here and now. ~ Peter McWilliams
  • By identifying with our desires and taking them too seriously, we not only increase our susceptibility to disappointment, we actually create a climate inhospitable to the free and easy fulfillment of those desires. ~ Tom Robbins
  • It is not poverty which produces sorrow, but desire. ~ Epictetus
  • Desire is an enemy to contentment; desire is illness, a feverish brain. Who can be considered healthy who wants? The very word want suggests a lack, an impoverishment, and that is what desire is: an impoverishment of the brain, a flaw, a mistake. ~ Lauren Oliver
  • It is much easier to suppress a first desire than to satisfy those that follow. ~ Benjamin Franklin
  • Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire. ~ Epictetus
  • The power of unfulfilled desires is the root of all man’s slavery. ~ Paramahansa Yogananda

One thing that writers on the subject have repeatedly emphasized is that desires can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill. And even more than this elusiveness, if actually achieved, the results of desire—or desire realized—can be quite as problematic as the desiring itself. Such perplexing issues throw the whole subject into a boiling cauldron of confusion and ambiguity. So writers have noted:

  • It is the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it. ~ Aristotle
  • It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite. ~ Soren Kierkegaard
  • It’s so much better to desire than to have. ~ Anouk Aimee
  • [And perhaps most famously] There are two tragedies in life: one is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it. ~ George Bernard Shaw
  • I got my heart’s desire, and there my troubles began. ~ Lev Grossman
  • He soon felt that the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires. ~ Leo Tolstoy
  • Desire makes everything blossom, possession makes everything wither and fade. ~ Marcel Proust
  • Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love. [Or, paradoxically, desire is not the means, but the end—so there’s no way it could ever be fulfilled.] ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

An Equivocal Conclusion

So if desire—despite its many benefits and advantages (see part 1)—is yet inherently problematic, does that mean we’re caught in an unresolvable dilemma? Consider, for example, the words of the Indian guru Baba Hari Dass:

  • Desire is the creator; desire is the destroyer.

Yet abstaining from desire—leaving the “field of desire” entirely—may not be feasible either. For:

  • The desire to be desire-less is but another desire. The thought that, because this desire purports to be spiritual, it is superior to more mundane desires shows how skilled the mind is at justifying any desire it is attached to. ~ Joel Kramer
  • This author clearly seems to be taking exception to the well-known Buddhist solution of renouncing desire altogether in order to find lasting peace, contentment, and happiness. Which is a position that has been espoused in various ways. For example:
  • Desire nothing, give up all desires and be happy. ~ Swami Sivananda
  • A desire arises in the mind. [Once] it is satisfied, immediately another comes. In the interval which separates two desires, a perfect calm reigns in the mind. It is at this moment freed from all thought, love or hate. Complete peace equally reigns between two mental waves. ~ [also] Swami Sivananda
  • All cravings are the mind seeking salvation or fulfillment in external things and in the future as a substitute for the joy of Being. ~ Eckhard Tolle
  • If we go down into ourselves we find that we possess exactly what we desire. ~ Simone Weil
  • The word desire suggests that there is something we do not have. If we have everything already, then there can be no desire, for there is nothing left to want. I think that what the Buddha may have been trying to tell us is that we have it all, each of us, all the time; therefore, desire is simply unnecessary. ~ Tom Robbins

But is there some middle ground here? Something we can embrace without feeling we’re sacrificing the very thing that enables us to feel ardently, vibrantly alive? If as humans the great majority of us strive to get more, do more, be more, then can we somehow hold onto what makes our lives feel dynamic and meaningful without getting hopelessly caught in the snare of desire?

I think the answer (already suggested in earlier quotes) is in desiring but without becoming so attached to the objects of our desire that we place ourselves in a position that gratuitously causes us to suffer. And, to my mind, Tom Robbins (in his novel Jitterbug Perfume, which has already been cited twice) states it most eloquently in the reflection:

  • If desire causes suffering, it may be because we do not desire wisely, or that we are inexpert at obtaining what we desire. Instead of hiding our heads in a prayer cloth and building walls against temptation, why not get better at fulfilling desire? Salvation is for the feeble, that's what I think. I don't want salvation, I want life, all of life, the miserable as well as the superb. If the gods would tax ecstasy, then I shall pay; however, I shall protest their taxes at each opportunity, and if Woden or Shiva or Buddha or that Christian fellow--what's his name?—cannot respect that, then I'll accept their wrath. At least I will have tasted the banquet that they have spread before me on this rich, round planet, rather than recoiling from it like a toothless bunny. I cannot believe that the most delicious things were placed here merely to test us, to tempt us, to make it the more difficult for us to capture the grand prize: the safety of the void. To fashion of life such a petty game is unworthy of both men and gods.


NOTE: If you found this post (and the one preceding) intriguing, I hope you’ll consider passing them on.

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

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