In his new book The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV, the widely-published crime writer David Corbett says:
"Desire is the crucible that forges character because it intrinsically creates conflict. If we want nothing, then nothing stands in our way. Desire puts a character in motion. There may be no more important question to ask of a character than: What does she want in this scene, in this chapter, in this story? Thinking more globally, one should ask what she wants from her life—and has she achieved it? If not, why not? If so, what now?"
In this respect, art imitates life. Desire puts all of us in motion. To be human is to desire what we do not have. Desire motivates us physically (for food, safety, sex), emotionally (for comfort, friendship, love), intellectually (for knowledge and understanding), economically (for work to do and things to possess), and so on. Remove these desires, and human life as we know it would cease to exist.
More to the point, Western culture as we know it would cease to exist. The engine of desire—both the desire to own the rewards of our own labor and the desire to exchange our labor for possessions—drives our economic system of capitalism. The desire to make our own decisions about how we live our lives, as well as to choose those who make governance decisions on our behalf, drives our political system of democracy. And the desire to control our own ultimate destiny as individuals underlies the Protestant tradition (historically, most Americans have been Protestants, although that’s changing), which views salvation as an individual matter between believers and God.
The fifteenth-century Indian mystic Kabir agrees that desire is a good thing, but he insists that our desires need to be focused. Most people have too many desires to pursue any one of them with conviction or dedication, he says. Successful people learn to disregard their desire for possessions that are superficial or experiences that are distracting. They focus on only a few desires—desires that are worthy of serious commitment and that will bring lasting satisfaction.
Given the pervasive focus of our culture on desire, most of us have accumulated a lot of desires, probably too many. My guess is that Kabir would respond by telling us to start crossing things off the list, things we can do without, things that end up distracting us. Eventually we would end up with the few things we can be deeply passionate about and wholly devote ourselves to.
The process of winnowing down our desires to what really matters will make us more committed and more persistent. In his book, David Corbett observes that “a profound, unquenchable longing almost always forces us to do things we normally would never imagine ourselves doing—even things seemingly contradictory to our natures. When confronted with overwhelming obstacles of a kind we've never faced before in pursuit of something we cannot live without, we are forced to change, to adapt, to dig deeper into ourselves for some insight, passion, or strength that will give us the power we need to keep going.”
The inevitable consequence of this transformation is conflict, as Corbett notes. No matter what change you want to make in your life, someone won’t like it. No matter which direction you’re headed, someone won’t want you going there. There will be conflict. Perhaps that’s why Corbett called desire the crucible of character. In the old days, a crucible was a container used to heat metals to high temperatures in order to refine them. The word itself probably came from the Latin word crux, meaning cross. In this sense, a crucible is an experience of severe testing or a daunting trial.
Focus your desires on what matters most, then put yourself in motion. Yes, there will be conflict. But there will be steady progress and enduring satisfaction as well.