Image credit: grr9 (Deviant Art)
The earthly desires men cherish are shadows. There is no true happiness in fulfilling them. Why, then, do we continue to pursue joys without substance? Because the pursuit itself has become our only substitute for joy. Unable to rest in anything we achieve, we determine to forget our discontent in a ceaseless quest for new satisfactions. In this pursuit, desire itself becomes our chief satisfaction. The goods that so disappoint us when they are in our grasp can still stimulate our interest when they elude us in the present or in the past. - Thomas Merton
In his book The Ascent to Truth, Thomas Merton makes this brilliantly insightful observation about the nature of human desire. It isn’t just that we want things - it’s that we want to want things. For many of us, it is desire itself that becomes our addiction. This is why getting the things we say we desire rarely satisfies in the way we imagine.
Discontent is a drug, and it does a remarkably good job at keeping us coming back for more, because negativity feeds on more negativity. The problem is, we don’t often see it as negative. For example, the consumerism of the “American Dream” is fueled by discontent - it’s just in disguise, hiding under aliases such as goals and aspirations, job promotions, pay raises, and “upgrades” to your house, car, furniture, or electronics of all shapes and sizes.
When it comes down to it, almost all of us want exactly the same thing: more. It’s not the actual things we say we want that we really, really want. Although there are rare moments of clarity where we recognize this - usually prompted when we get depressed and despondent after another achievement leaves us unsatisfied - it usually lurks deep down in our subconscious. The problem is that the “new car smell” wears off really quickly; and that metaphor applies to a lot more than just automobiles. Once it’s gone, there’s always another accomplishment or shiny new toy to shoot for. Desire - especially in a consumerist culture - is a moving horizon, and “getting there” is always followed by a new “there” to get to.
Even World of Warcraft gets it
Game designers know this perfectly well. The thing that made World of Warcraft (and the whole genre of games it kickstarted) so successful was its leveling and gear system.* Nothing was as satisfying as leveling up and being able to take new quests, go to new areas, and fight new monsters; but the careful placement of higher-leveled quests and areas right on the horizon meant that the satisfaction quickly wore off and fueled a desire to get the next level. It’s true, the gameplay got a bit more complex and intense as you learned to manage new spells and abilities, but in reality it didn’t actually change fundamentally. Gameplay and combat at level 30 wasn’t very different from level 20, because the monsters were still scaled to your level - yet getting there produced both great satisfaction and a voracious desire to advance even more. It’s the same with the gear system. Other than the numbers getting bigger, there was no real difference between one sword and the next, better sword - and the difference didn’t actually matter because once you were strong enough to get the next one, the strength of the enemies was scaling at a similar level. But again, there was a mixture of achievement and desire for more when you got your first special green-tier item, followed only by a hunger for a blue-tier, and so on.
Similarly, introducing achievement badges to games that didn’t really need them was a genius move by game makers. I really don’t ever play games on my phone or computer, but occasionally I play a strategy game called Company of Heroes. The achievement list here (as on so many games) is kind of absurdly silly. The gameplay itself is fun enough. Who cares if I killed 40 Panzergrenadiers with a specific type of unit over the course of my entire career playing the game? Or if I blew up a German tank one time using a German artillery gun? Or if I won a match without using a mortar unit? I wouldn’t even think about these things, but the fact that they’ve been converted to achievement badges means that I get a gratifying feeling when I get one, promptly followed by a desire to check the list of other badges and play the game even more so I can check off the list. Really, it’s genius.
The moving horizon
These metaphors might seem far removed from our day-to-day life, but I think they are telling of the general attitude of consumerism. After all, where did these games learn their techniques from? And how did they know that those techniques would be absolutely perfect to keep their audiences coming back for more? The moving horizon is remarkably addictive and effective, because it’s already in our blood. It seems to be what we really, really want - but we don’t often tell it to anyone, much less the Spice Girls. (Please forgive the ‘90s reference.)
Merton cites Blaise Pascal’s parable of the gambler as another illustration. Although the theme here is a bit different, it just sheds more light on another facet of consumerism:
A man can pass his whole life without boredom, merely by gambling each day with a modest sum. Give him, each morning, the amount of money he might be able to win in a day, on condition that he must not gamble: you will make him miserable! You may say that what he seeks is the amusement of gaming, not the winnings. All right, let him play for nothing. There will be no excitement. He will be bored to death! So it is not just amusement that he seeks. An amusement that is tame, without passion, only bores him. He wants to get worked up and to delude himself that he is going to be happy if he wins a sum that he would actually refuse if it were given him on condition that he must not gamble.
The real challenge
Here’s the thing: the challenge here isn’t to understand and recognize these ideas as valid. I’m not saying anything radically new that most of us haven’t thought a million times or witnessed in a million books and films. So many good stories have the character getting what they want only to be let down and finding that it isn’t all they thought it would be, then becoming disillusioned with how much value they put on it in the first place. The challenge is for us to look inward and see where it applies to our own lives. It’s terribly easy for us to nod our heads, say amen, and think about the greed of “other” people while keeping our own dysfunctions in the shadows.
The thing is, there is one moving horizon that is worth chasing; and it is the ongoing process of maturity and growth to become healthy, whole, integrated, and loving people. The biggest - and most difficult - part of pursuing this path is learning to ask ourselves these kinds of tough questions. What do I really desire right now? Why do I desire it? Would I be truly satisfied if I got it, or is it only a stepping stone to something else? Is it possible that I desire it only for the way it will look to other people, and not actually how it will bring me joy?
The path to maturity requires dealing with our desires - which means becoming aware of them, evaluating them, understanding them, and then making intentional choices to regulate them and even let go of them. Remember that whatever desires you hold onto also have a hold on you, and that many of them don’t really deserve either of those things. There are indeed some things worth desiring and even worth dying for, but they’re often the easiest ones to lose sight of.
It can feel overwhelming, but step one is always simple: stop and ask yourself, and then really listen to yourself instead of trying to shut out things that you don’t want to hear because they scare you or threaten you. If you learn to do this well, all the rest will follow naturally.
*I realize I’m going to make some people mad with my evaluation of WoW, and I’m sure there will be plenty of call-ins telling me how difficult the late-game quests and missions are, but that’s not really my point here. Just speaking from my own experience of playing a few MMOs and, admittedly, not getting to a very high level. Just remember this is a metaphor, not a game review.