Sunday, March 11, 2007

On desire

"He who binds himself to a joy
Does the winged life destroy."

- William Blake

Ginny asked me, simply, "What more could you want?"

If only the answer were as easy as the question, because lately I've been thinking a lot about the things I want. Out of life, out of myself, out of a relationship.

Desire is not an occupation, but it's a helluva way to pass the time; a search for some grail that will have us - not immortal - but keenly wishing for something else.

And that's where it gets us: the wishing. The "what-ifs." The damned desire.

It never seems to spawn anything worthwhile (except for, rarely, love). Look at the poor, doomed Angels of the Old Testament. They saw the Women of Earth, prostrate, and desired them completely. God doesn't allow his first-born the benefits of sex in Heaven, so they fall to Earth, have their way, and get banished for their efforts.

The result? Giants who terrorize the ancient world.

Recently I've experienced my own misgivings with what I want. I think about how much time I spend thinking about some sort of "plan" for my life, and what would make me happy, and it all feels like such a waste of effort. What good can all that thinking do for me? Can I really run my life through my thoughts?

Mr. Keillor put it pretty well a few weeks ago, speaking about the sneakiness of desire, and how simple it can be:

I am an American in headlong pursuit of happiness and here was a lady expressing an older and earthier philosophy that my aunts would not have disagreed with: Better than happiness is acceptance, a gift of God. You wake up every morning and pull on your jeans and make coffee and look at the newspaper and pour bran flakes and milk in the bowl, and as time goes by you realize that this is preferable to what you once imagined would make you happy.

Madame Larina was quite pleased with the line "Instead of happiness, heaven sends us habit." And she sang it several times. I put my hand on my wife's knee. She was sitting next to me in the dark. It was snowing in Minnesota, a gray blustery Russian sort of day, and when we walked into the theater, a multiplex in the suburbs, we were in the mood to see "Eugene Onegin" live on high-definition TV from the Met, starring soprano RenĂˆe Fleming and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Keillor notices that, surely, our sense of want and need for plans change over time, like everything else. Simple is usually better, he finds. But his advice is lacking for a twenty-something guy who feels like he's on the edge of...something. Teetering, just waiting to fall, or land safely. Especially when he tells the story of the play he's watching:

It simply was the most moving thing I've seen at the movies in a very long time. Mr. Hvorostovsky is tall, cool, handsome and everything that Elvis was hoping to be, and Miss Fleming's bare left shoulder is more erotic than Madonna naked and when she puts her hand to her bodice, she makes my nostrils twitch. She plays Tatiana, who goes crazy for Onegin and writes him a letter and agonizes over it and plucks at her bodice and finally sends it to him.

He coolly rejects her. He doesn't believe in marriage. He is in search of happiness, not the life of habit and dailiness. The chorus gets to sing and dance, and he shoots and kills the tenor, which I suppose we've all wanted to do now and then, and years later he meets her again -- she is married, and now he is wild for her, and after a passionate duet, him on his knees, tugging at her, pleading, sobbing, pulling her down on the floor, she decides to be faithful to her husband and walks away, leaving Onegin tortured with regret.

...For three hours on a Saturday afternoon, everything that had been on our minds faded to black and we lived as in a dream with a handsome man in search of happiness and a beautiful woman who found satisfaction, and then we walked out into the snow and started our cars.

The search for happiness. The torture of regret. It seems like those raw emotions make life what it is. But to experience them firsthand, in the now, makes you long for something else. There's that desire creeping up again.

What is desire? Imagine there's a hole in your spirit. Now imagine you want to do something to fill the whole. What do you do? What do you fill it with?

For Christians, they say it's a God-shaped hole. Fill it with Jesus, and you're set. Buddhists say the hole is self-shaped. Be content with your self (or yourself), and your desire will end. After all, we have limited control over our environment, so why not settle our mind and emotions - the few things in life we can control?

But what happens when you try to fill the hole with other things, like alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or relationships, or material things, or money, or power, or knowledge? Most say it's folly. Stuff can never fill our hole, but we try anyway.

And maybe that stuff does make us happy, at least some of the time. I know nothing in this world makes life come into sharp focus more than a hot cup of coffee.

But suffering comes from the realization that those moments are fleeting. What can last forever? What shape is your hole? William Blake knew what he was talking about: enjoy the fleeting moments of joy (since, really, who can fault you for it?), but try to chain the joy to desire, and it's not going to be much fun at all. No sir.

Just letting things happen. Ever try that? It seems like a sure-fire way to beat the big D, but it's harder in practice. I'm learning, though. There's little in this world I - or you, or anyone - can actually control.

Why not focus on those things you can control, and let the rest...just happen. Shit, why not?

It sure beats the tortured regret and all that nonsense.

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