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Fumbling Toward the Fulfillment of Our Desires

September 29, 2023

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When I worked as a writer and editor for a university’s communications department, a portion of my job entailed simultaneously stoking desires in potential students while offering the solution to satisfying them: the four-year, traditional college experience. It’s this experience in the advertising industry that causes me to think often about how other brands and organizations do the same to me. Not too long ago, advertising was fairly circumscribed, limited to a TV set, billboard, print magazine, or radio station. Now, advertising’s long, sinewy fingers can reach us at any time or in any place, courtesy of our smartphones, and so we’re always ripe for some new yearning. 

Earlier on my phone, I spotted an ad featuring the image of a rustic villa nestled against an impossibly blue ocean with the command to Book a trip today! I suddenly had to be there. This wasn’t a difficult urge to fight off, mainly because I’m not looking to drop a few grand on such a whim. Still, I wanted it. But it wasn’t long until some new ad distracted me, arresting my attention with that same alluring promise of fulfillment. 

The French intellectual René Girard observed that when it comes to desires beyond our basic needs, we tend to imitate the desires of others. When we spot that image of someone enjoying something—a man flashing an expensive watch, a woman donning a sleek petticoat—we tend to adopt that same longing, be that for a stylish accessory or toned body or fast car or whatever. A desire is born, which we then assume to be innate and fully our own. Luke Burgess has written and spoken extensively on this, offering us a contemporary lens for understanding Girard’s theories within our current cultural milieu.

What are we to make of the types of desires that we often build lives around?

An article in The Atlantic that I recently read—while ignoring several digital ads fomenting all sorts of trivial longings within me—highlights the fragility of our apparent passions and interests. Carol Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford argue that passions aren’t found—as if they slumber within us from birth only to be awakened—but are developed. In their studies, they found that individuals who believed they had the capacity to be interested in new academic disciplines became interested in those new disciplines once exposed to them. Conversely, those who believed they were innately interested in only certain disciplines continued to have somewhat limited interests, even when exposed to new ones. Those in the former group exuded a “growth mindset,” whereas those in the latter a “fixed mindset.” According to the article, we have control over what our “passions” are to a large degree, and we can choose to develop them with the appropriate mindset. The takeaway: we shouldn’t choose our professions based on “passions” that can essentially fall in and out of favor with the aid of new perspective-taking.

It’s an interesting conclusion. If we’re talking about superficial interests—baseball, gluten-free recipes, craft beer, Romantic poetry—then, yes. It seems passions understood in this light fluctuate and aren’t necessarily worth anchoring major life decisions to, such as a career. But I also think there is the danger of swinging too far in the other direction and adopting the metaphorical “blank slate” paradigm—that with the right external conditions and opportunities, we are free to fashion the shape and contour of our own existence as part of the existential project of meaning-making. Such thinking broaches a belief that we have no innate or preordained “essence” and are completely free to craft ourselves into whatever we choose. 

I bring up the notion of mimetic desire as it relates to our exposure to advertising (as well as other forms of popular entertainment and media) and the apparent tenuousness of our purported passions and interests because I wonder what this means about how we use our desires to orient the direction of our lives. Aside from a vast arsenal of transient and fluctuating desires for things like Caribbean resorts, Teslas, or Apple Watches, as well as our malleable interests in chemistry or cooking, what about our more pervasive and substantial desires and passions? What are we to make of the types of desires that we often build lives around, such as the pursuit of our life’s work or commitment to a spouse? Are these desires our own? How can we be sure that these, too, aren’t trivial and impermanent? The answers matter because if some of our desires might not be our own or deeply rooted, then how do we know they’re worth pursuing and will make us happy?

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Such questions invite us to consider whether or not we have at least some innate, preordained desires that are worth fulfilling, or at least seeking to fulfill. Strongly influenced by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas believed our desires always pointed to some good. Even when we commit an evil (robbery, adultery, murder, etc.), we only do so because we anticipate a good coming from it (money, love and pleasure, satisfaction of revenge, etc.). According to this thinking, our fundamental desire for certain goodness is inborn, ultimately revealing our telos. The desire for food and sex leads to physical health and fruitfulness. The desire for companionship and esteem leads to communities and political structures. The desire for perfect justice and truth leads to God, and so on. In Aquinas’ view, as long as our desires are properly ordered (i.e., not in rivalry with our love of God and neighbor), they function as blueprints for humanity’s fulfillment.

Studies in the last couple of decades within the ascendant realm of positive psychology seem to reveal that we also each have innate and unique desires. Martin Seligman, one of the major contributors to the field of positive psychology, was interested in researching what makes human beings flourish and how to foster it (as opposed to only focusing on treating human pathologies, which was the dominant purpose of psychology). Flourishing, according to Seligman, doesn’t simply entail positive feelings or pleasure, which is often equated with happiness, but also a sense of purpose, engagement of enjoyable activities, and the fostering of deep relationships. When Seligman uses the term “engagement,” he means participation in activities that produce a state of “flow.” Flow, a term coined by another psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, refers to a state of concentration or complete absorption in an activity. There is even evidence to support that we’re uniquely gifted with certain strengths—known as “signature strengths”—that we are not only naturally more inclined to exercise but which allow us to reach a state of flow when we do. It’s when our engaging activities are linked to meaning—something that expands beyond egoistic and material fulfillments—that we participate in Seligman’s notion of a flourishing life.

“Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” // Rumi

It seems to suggest to me that we do have some innate and God-given ways of being that are responsible for our personal desires. These types of desires and passions involve our core values, how we express love to others, what type of work gives us the greatest sense of meaning, purpose, flow, and so on. Our inherent desires and passions that, as Seligman understood, lead not only to a flourishing life in the general sense but in a specific way for us as individuals. This isn’t to say external factors do not influence our core values or in what ways we derive meaning, but that our desires to live in ways that foster individual flourishing are deeply rooted and pervasive. 

In a TEDx talk, modern philosopher Alain de Botton challenges his audience to question our desires—to test them and ensure they are actually our own and, if fulfilled, are capable of providing us with true flourishing. The pitfalls of assimilating others’ desires, of course, are many: a deadening and unmeaningful career, unhealthy relationships, a blind obsession with material goods, unrealistic expectations for life, etc. And de Botton soberly reminds us that “it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” 

The poet Rumi once wrote, “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” Unlike the trite “Find your passion” advice that many give to young people or the hedonistic affirmation of doing what feels best at the moment, I think this ancient aphorism acknowledges the existence of innate, permanent desires that, if we allow them, provide signposts for living rightly. The very things or people we find beautiful and worthy of our effort, time, and love—family, friends, important work, ministry, worship, works of art—are what we’re invited to orient our lives toward. It’s these inimitable desires for the sublime, these yearnings for a semblance of truth and goodness that we find perfectly and ultimately in God that embody the type of passions that can’t be dished out to us by brand campaigns or artificially cultivated within us. Rather, they appear to have been with us always, given to us as gifts and waiting to be roused for our true flourishing.