Navigating Desire: A Creative\\Proof Exploration
Welcome to Creative\\Proofing, a space for hopeful, creative people learning to live wisely by asking questions about the good life: what it is, how to design our own, and how to live it well.
I reflect a lot on desire lately: the ways in which we love, want, covet, crave both tangible and invisible things.
I usually focus first on the hungers and thirsts my body makes real to me: whether I want to eat or not, if I'm thirsty. If I'm peckish and able to make a choice, I'm more sophisticated in my hunger: I want this specific dish from that particular restaurant - nothing else will do. We may often think of sex, sexuality in this conversation as well: the physical want of another person, to join bodies and satisfy erotic hunger.
When I'm quiet enough, and honest enough, I consider the more intangible desires that lure or compel me: my ambition to be known for my writing; my longing to become the person I was divinely created to be; my love for others that closes down or opens options in life; my fear of lack and insufficiency that drives me to save and hoard resources against a future, unknown famine. Desire often expresses itself in dissatisfaction: with an outcome, a job, a partner, a house, with our life as it's lived. Desire always wants something else, something other.
Desire seems tied to willpower, too: what we will or won't give in to, what we can or can't resist. To speak of desire, of wanting, seems to speak of something both natural and uneasy: we experience it every day, and yet we often speak about it as something illicit or inappropriate. It might be okay to want things, but for heaven's sake, don't talk about it. Some go in the opposite direction, and make desire the ruling force of their lives: if I want it, I have it. Hence the ascetics and the hedonists of the world.
It's one of those words that often becomes the central focus of religious rhetoric, too, shaping behavior in prescriptive ways. Sometimes we're taught to be ashamed of our desires, both as nouns and as a verb. To want or crave something becomes a deeply selfish, self-centered act that will certainly warp you, if not bring harm to others around you. Best to lock it tight away, then.
But how many of us have known someone, if we haven't been that person, who clearly identifies a single, overwhelming desire, and pursues its manifestation in his or her life with single-minded focus? What could we point to in space and time that isn't the result of someone elevating one clear desire above the rest, and relentlessly making it real?
Right now, I'm less interested in exploring all the (amazing, ridiculous, mysterious) nuances of human desire. Instead, I'm curious about what desire does for and to us. We may be used to thinking of it as an end in itself, a closed loop of want and satisfaction, endlessly repeating. But perhaps desire is more dynamic than that; a movement toward something else, what writer Octavio Paz calls a "shot fired in the direction of the world beyond."
If we step back a bit, tilt our heads, and squint, we notice a key feature in this review of desire so far: it primarily travels along a horizontal axis. By this I mean that such understandings of desire fit within the observable, measurable sphere of experience and comprehension, what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the immanent frame. This frame has slowly built up over the last few hundred years in the West, gradually shutting out supernatural forces, ultimate goals, a grand cosmic order to the universe. Only this-worldly things may be considered important; we build human-centered constructs and systems with little or no concern for divine approval. With the supernatural and the cosmic closed off from us, it falls to each single person to create a unique way of living and being human. It falls to our desires and how we embody them.
Within the immanent frame, desire has no option but to travel horizontally along a closed loop; its ceiling prevents us from making contact with the "world beyond." And yet, I think that the persistence of desire moving toward the realm of the intangible and metaphysical acts as a signal, a doorway into something infinite.
We have been well trained by the previous centuries to look out, side to side, and down, but not up. Desire is a persistent bugger reminding us of that additional axis available to us: the vertical transcendent of something other-than, if we just come awake to the immanent frame enclosing us. Everyone lives beneath it, religious and areligious alike.
And I am trying to punch a hole in the ceiling.
I've been reading others' explorations of desire, too, wondering how we speak of it, how we notice its movement in our lives, and how we might navigate the spaces it creates for and within us. Writer and philosopher James K.A. Smith illuminates the vertical axis of desire: that our hearts naturally and inevitably incline toward a devotion in service of something other. That, in the end, all of our wantings move toward an ultimate end: between the stars and the stones, there stretches a tether connecting the individual to the infinite. Entrepreneur and writer Luke Burgis travels along the horizontal axis, revealing the intricate webs of mimetic desire, the unconscious imitation, competition, and influence that connect individuals together in pursuing the realization of our shared wants.
Both Smith and Burgis lay bare the movement of desire within and between human beings: we are shaped and driven by the loves we know as much as the ones that rest hidden inside our hearts. When read in conversation, both help me see that we cannot escape either trajectory—toward the infinite or toward each other. Indeed, the task is learning to live in the intersection of these vertical and horizontal movements, and I think that desire may be a way by which we navigate that intersection.
As I think about where I might locate desire on the The Liminal Space1 I find that it sits...anywhere. Desire is omnipresent, it lures from any corner, at any stage. It shapes the paths we take, the lights by which we travel between the milestones of our lives. When we rest on the left side of the space, in order, stability, and structure, desire constantly turns our gaze toward the open fields of possibility. When we wander the spaces on the right side of the space, desire helps us choose the elements we carry with us, with which we build new structures, new lives.
Desire takes on the qualities of the ends toward which one moves. What do you want? Where will it take you? How will you build a life out of your desire?
Let's be hopeful, creative, and wise—together.
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