Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Desire as a Sign of Spiritual Life

The late Jesuit author William Lynch (1931-2003) suggests in his lovely Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless that it is an inability to wish, or to hope, that is the true mark of anxiety. Frequently, I reckon, we think 'anxiety' means the state of having too many choice, too many options, too many things out of one's reach. Contrary to this, Lynch argues that it is precisely an inability to wish that causes us anxiety. We are at our worst when we can't even articulate what we desire.

Lynch uses the following image to help draw our attention to how the ability to express our desires is to being a living being:
If we find a traveler prostrate in the desert and ask him what he wants, he will say: water. The is the sign of life, that he has such a wish and can name it. (135)
There is something very risky about having the courage to desire, the audacity to wish. How many of us prefer to submit to the will of another, to just go along with others' expectations, rather than naming our deep desires and working to attain them?

How many of us have, as Lynch remarks, a little blackmailing voice within us that threatens: if you are independent and have your own hopes, if you do not fall lockstep into the boss's expectations, the superior's demands, the hierarchy's culture and be a good company man, then you will not be loved. I suspect, with Lynch, that not a few of us have been given the message throughout our lives that independence and love cannot go together, that it is "evil or dangerous to have thoughts or feelings" of one's own (132).

When I was teaching, or even now when I meet with young people, I am appalled when I hear them say things like, "Well, I guess I'll end up majoring in business so that I can get a job." Garbage, thrown into a river, ends up on the shore. Humans ought not to "end up" anywhere.

When pushed about what they are passionate about, it's seldom business. I've heard heard philosophy, English, art history, film, languages, but the number of students who are passionate about business are not so numerous. Yet they have bought into the belief that their desires need to be conventional, practical, and pertain to matters of consequence. Their choices are governed more by fear and a desire for security than their own desire for the adventure of following one's passions.

In a nutshell: I think we have a whole generation of young people who are like the traveler we come upon in the desert. Yet, when we ask, "What do you want?" the answer we get is "A business degree and job security" or "A healthy 401k" rather than what is really desired. If I were to place a bet, I'd say that the staggering instances of depression can be correlated with a decrease in the ability to articulate authentic desire. Even cutting, perhaps a physical manifestation of simply wanting to feel something, betrays the deep longing that doesn't know how to express itself. Better to feel pain than nothing at all. With Lynch, however, I must say:  Know hope, know desire, know life's joys. No hope, no desire, no joy.

You can dismiss me as impractical - I am - but I can tell you this much: I'm a happy man. I may be poor (no 401k), chaste (my bed's cold at night; I'm not the center of any other person's life), and obedient (my life is not under my sole control) and I couldn't think of any other life that would bring me the joy I know. My desire to bring the Good News to a hungry world brings to me unfathomable joy and laughter. Of course, not everyone needs to join the Jesuits (although we could use some more men possessed of great desires and joy). Nevertheless, imagine that, instead of telling our students what they should want, we asked them what they desired. We may have have less young adults with degrees they don't want but who will have embarked upon a life they can call their own. 
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