“All suffering originates from craving, from attachment, from desire.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
We are born, and then we die, and in between, we desire.
Desire is in all of us. The desire for food and water, the desire for health, the desire for love, family, and community, for a home, the desire for beauty, for knowledge, for money, success, and fame that lasts beyond our days. We desire power and control. We desire perfection.
We desire to be good, and sometimes we desire to be bad too. We desire the bodies of others, the lives of others, to be other than what we are. We desire pain upon the ones who have wronged us. We desire the destruction of those who possess what we desire most.
We desire people, things, and results. We crave, we covet, we yearn, and we long for. We are desperate. We’re excited by the very thought of having our hearts desire. Our every move is to be nearer to the thing we want most. We wish, we hope we toil, plot, and scheme endlessly, and we are never fulfilled.
There is none among us who can say they are beyond desire. Even the enlightened had to desire to move beyond such base needs as these to attain such a state, and for this reason, I believe we all, even the so-called enlightened, suffer in this world.
To be human is to live with a black hole of need inside of you that can never be filled. This is simply who we are. We want more than another other creature on this planet, and this is why we have come so far, conquered so much, and destroyed everything we have touched. Not even the best of us can say they are utterly beyond the owning and devouring of their home and their fellow humans. Each of us has felt some incessant need, and each of us has headed its call.
Each of us has suffered for it too.
“Why was I holding on to something that would never be mine? But isn’t that what people do?”
― Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park
To want is not inherently bad. Desire wakes us up, it moves us to imagine and act, but desire without thought, self-control, or direction can mean disaster. We have good and bad desires, and the pursuit of fulfillment is a positive and negative too.
We may long for a world with more peace, justice, and prosperity of all humans. We may desire awareness, equality, and wisdom for ourselves and others. We may desire that other people will have what they desire and that what they desire might be as positive too, but wanting is still wanting, and the world, for good or bad, will always fall short and leave us frustrated, anxious, and depressed.
Desire denied is the cause of suffering but desire denied is simply our reality. In all our longing and dreaming we never stop to consider the inherent imperfection and impermanence of reality.
What you want just does not exist. The woman you want, she has flaws. The relationship you long for will be fraught with disagreement and misunderstanding. That job won’t pay you enough and will ask more of you than you will have to give. That house will fall apart, and you will find you hate yard work. Your children will not love nor respect you as much as you wish. Something will always be missing. Some part of your world will not live up to what you had imagined it would be, and you will go on trying to get it. You won’t be able to stop yourself.
Even if for a moment you get ahold of what you desire you will still be left unsatisfied because everything is always changing. The world changes, we change, the things own, control, and covet change too. Nothing is permanent, consistent, or fixed. Nothing lasts exactly as it is in any moment and your failure to accept this fact leads to your frustration and sorrow. Life changes and your desires must change with it. You will not have everything you want and what you will have will not be as you want it.
So how do you find peace? How do you let go of all this wanting? The short answer, you can’t. The long answer, desire is always in you, but it is nothing to repress or be ashamed of. Desire is in you for a reason. To be human is to want. You should not want to rid yourself of desire, you should want to observe, understand, and direct it.
“It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it.”
― Aristotle, Politics
It is beneficial for human survival that desire be put, for the most part, beyond consciousness. The body needs the mind to work for it, for food, for water, for shelter, for family and community, and desire is what keeps us working. Desire makes machines of us. If the mind cannot easily stop wanting it can’t easily stop achieving and in turn benefitting the biological needs. Evolution found a way to trick us all by giving us a drive we couldn’t turn off and if we tried we would feel uneasy, bored, depressed, useless, and stressed.
Sometimes we want things we cannot understand. The meaning and origin of the goals we set often beyond our comprehension and control. We can have desires we aren’t even aware of and act to fulfill needs and achieve goals that make no sense to us. Worse still, our desires can be manipulated. Our desires for love, happy homes, attention, belonging, and material things are twisted, warped, and redirected every day by politicians, social media companies, and ad agencies. Wherever we go want are told to want something but no matter where we turn, by natures accident or by human design we are taunted and never given release or peace.
Desire denied or unfulfilled makes us feel unsettled, uncomfortable, and often, angry. Who hasn’t lashed out or acted in cruel or shameful ways to get what they wanted. What compromises have you made with your soul and with society to fulfill your desires? What have you done to others and let them do to you to fill a need? What do you give up, what do you put yourself through? What have you pretended to be? Who among us can say they haven’t operated under less than honorable standards to manipulate or force a person, an object, or an outcome?
“Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Still, I reject that all desire is detrimental. Desire is what got us this far. What is detrimental is desire unchecked, desire undirected, and desire misplaced. I say only that you must choose your desires wisely.
Work to understand your desires and be aware of the price you pay to chase them. Consider what you might be missing about the objects, people, and an outcome you yearn for and ask yourself what flaws, unforeseen stresses, and frustrations might come with achievement. Ask yourself why you want what you want and what benefit anyone might have in convincing you that you want it?
Most of all, be aware that being human means never being satisfied. Humans want what they can’t have and in their quest devour and destroy everything they live including what they progress to love and long for, including themselves, but the truth is, the desire to live without desires is futile.
Freedom from desire is not possible, and even if it were, it might not be what you want. Wanting is part of who we are, and attachment is key to our happiness. To stop desiring would require you to cut yourself off from your humanity. It is through longing and wanting that we strive to be better, build better, and learn all that we can. Your desires do not make you weak or evil. Your desires give your life meaning and lead you through growth to wisdom. Your search for happiness—no matter how futile—is what your life is made of.
“Though surely to avoid attachments for fear of loss is to avoid life.”
― Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin
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