Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | July 14, 2010

Wanting

What would an approach to understanding life look like if we started with wanting? What if we validated desire, legitimized longing, and granted ourselves an uncontested right to want?

It is little short of mind-boggling to see how timorous we are with our own desires. We seem to universally hold certain assumptions:

1. We have no right to want anything unless we can show good cause.

2. Our wants are at best suspect and at worst the cause of all the problems and evil in the world.

3. There is no accounting for our wants, especially the problematic ones. In other words, they are rooted in irrationality, even insanity.

4. Shame is our default attitude towards our deepest personal desires, especially those secret ones.

Our philosophers and religious leaders have been cowards. Rather than do what could have been helpful and constructive, they each in their respective ways defined our real problems out of the question, then proceeded to offer solutions to “problems” that ranged from irrelevant to fictitious.

Our scientists have distracted us with wonderful things. Especially in the last few decades, we have learned so much about the workings of biology, in particular the brain and the rest of the nervous system, that we began to hope that science will one day help us understand our own tendencies, maybe even improve the human condition. Somehow we missed the fact that science never claimed that it could do this. Better houses, better food, better transportation, better entertainment, better information? Sure. Better attitudes, better aspirations and desires, better thinking and behavior, better lives, better people? Come now, please. The hope that we project onto science constitutes a faith more wishful and blind than anything our religions ever produced. At least our religions actually promised the things that many of us blindly believed. Our faith in science far overextends, reaching well beyond any legitimate promise of science and, in fact, flies in the face of science’s own disclaimers.

What if our real problem turned out to be that we have denied ourselves what we want or, more accurately, that we have denied our right to want anything? We have accepted a policy of disempowering ourselves without cause and often without awareness. We disavow what we always had, the legitimacy of our desires. Now divested, disempowered, we invest our energies in justifying and proving our right to what we just threw away. This is our “objectivity” and it has nothing to do with knowledge. Our institutions fully support this voluntary divestment of our own power and rights. They encourage it. They profit from it. They perpetuate it, offering us carrots of privilege: opportunity and knowledge that they promise will enable us to reacquire what we discarded, on condition that we accept their authority and follow their prescriptions.

Our philosophies are predicated on this voluntary divestment. We doubt first without cause, then grope and labor to find justifications that will help us overcome the doubt. How can justifications remedy a situation that we freely imposed on ourselves without justification?

Our scientists reinforce this divestment by donning blinders in order to see what is “really” there, disavowing all aspects of life except the least interesting one: the physical. We pretend that their blinders, like our wants, are inconsequential. We believe that somehow science will provide us with keys to the very aspects of life that it explicitly disavows, and most scientists allow us to continue in that delusion.

Our religions exacerbate this divestment. It isn’t enough that we threw away our right to want, we must regard wanting itself as sin or deception. Our “faiths” shut us out by means of guilt and fear in order to show us doors by which we can enter again and be saved from the shame of our nakedness. But who told us that we were naked?

It would be interesting to explore the prospects of affirming our right to want and living thus empowered. Maybe just as interesting is the irrational, unjustified, and powerful reaction that the very idea evokes in us. When was the last time that you believed that you deserved to get what you wanted simply because you wanted it, not for any other reason? Not because you earned the right to it. Not because of your office, your position, or your role. Not because you belong to a class or caste or elite, privileged group, whatever it might be and however you became a part of it. Not because you are entitled by something or by anything. Just because you wanted it. The idea might strike you as foreign, as nonsense, gibberish, as hopelessly Utopian, or even as something dangerous. It can prompt us to commit a beginner’s fallacy like a knee-jerk: given that bad people follow this rule, (do they really?) any who follow this rule must be bad people. Is this the rub? Do we have no more sense of self and our own goodwill than to be dictated by appearances? Do we not know who we are?

Just try suggesting the notion that wanting is good, that we have an innate right to want anything we choose and to choose anything we want, and that the world would be a better place if everyone were empowered to do just that. At first the idea will get brushed off like some silly, pesky gnat. However, if people get the impression that you are making a serious suggestion, watch the sparks fly and the guns come out. Pay attention to the guns that come out and realize, first of all, that they are guns. They come out only to shoot down the notion, which has suddenly graduated from gnat to stinging, noxious pest, big enough to warrant shooting. What are you, anyway, a bohemian, a pagan, a subverter? We must have law! There must be order! Morals are essential! Notice how rarely anyone will show the slightest interest in understanding the notion well enough to judge its merit. Notice how quickly someone will raise the problem that the notion would empower bad people. Their argument is, in effect, that good people should remain disempowered in order to keep bad people at bay. It would seem that bad people are a more important concern.

Why is wanting such a powerful and intimidating proposition? Why can merely suggesting that we should affirm our right to want push such hot buttons? Does the notion elicit considered responses, those of rational, thinking people, or something more like vague senses of threat, of the alien, of aggression and a need for defense, of a slippery slope into chaos? Taken seriously, the notion triggers something in us akin to dread, even terror. That is probably why most people refuse to take it seriously.

One thing is for sure: there is power here.

Legend has it that Martin Luther told a group of his students, “Love God with all your heart, then do whatever your heart desires.” I suggest that Martin Luther had it backwards. Instead, do whatever your heart desires, then maybe you will learn to love. What is love, anyway, if it isn’t a desire from the heart that we act on? It isn’t love if it originates elsewhere. It is pretense if it serves to cover and hide the things which are in our hearts, those deep, secret things that we are afraid to let ourselves do or even admit. Are we secretly afraid that we are monsters at the core? If we permit ourselves to look and be honest about what lies deep in our hearts, maybe we will find out that it isn’t so bad there, down there where we want.

Before we reject an idea, I think that we should at least give it a fair hearing, even give it a try. When people refuse to do either, there are reasons. It just makes the idea all the more interesting.

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