Just about every spiritual tradition preaches it; just about every psychological tradition teaches it. So why is it so hard to learn to separate one’s desire from expectations of its fulfillment? Why is it so tempting to give up wanting what doesn’t seem to be forthcoming?
One of my strongest desires is help potentiate a paradigm shift in which things like artistic creativity and justice tempered by love move to the center of our social concerns, instead of remaining out on the margins where they’ve been pushed by the mechanistic, materialistic force that has dominated for far too long. Pursuing that desire, I generate essays, talks, workshops, letters, teachings, polemics, parables, and often, these resonate with the people who receive them.
But resonance doesn’t always initialize action. Even when something has the ring of truth, a countervailing force—a powerful inertia—may impede our will to act on it. It’s expressed in different ways:
“I don’t see anyone in Congress who’s going to sponsor a new WPA right now.“
“Yeah, the old healthcare system isn’t working, but people aren’t going to to change; they’re just too comfortable, too lazy, too easily fooled.“
“Teaching to the tests is poisoning the next generation’s education, but all Washington understands is metrics and optics, so what are you going to do?“
“The entire financial system needs an overhaul or the country is going down. But Wall Street will block it, and people are too stupid or too complacent to make it happen despite their objections.“
All of them add up to the same recipe: the fear of alignment with a lost cause, of failing or looking foolish; the irrational conviction that we know the future and it’s against us; anger and resentment at indifference to injustice; all of that baked into a pièce de résistance that keeps us from trying—thus fulfilling the proposition that trying isn’t worth the effort.
The biggest obstacle to progress I encounter, in myself and others, is a immobilizing disappointment. And every day, I see something more clearly. While we can’t know that our efforts will bring the desired results, this much is clear: the longer we postpone the sustained work of shifting the culture toward humane values because the odds are against us, the longer we will wait for the change to begin.
Everything happening in the external world of politics and culture has its correlate in the little world of the individual and family, of course. Through a quirk of the Hebrew calendar, even though the secular dates are weeks apart, this has been a week of yahrtzeits: the anniversary of my father’s death 53 year ago last Saturday; and of my mother’s death in 1999 today.
There are many people who endured much worse childhoods than mine, who grew up in war zones or detention camps or orphanages, sustaining unimaginable abuse. But my household of social and economic marginality, petty crime, ruthless self-preservation—suffice it to say that when I tell the tale, the unfailing response is surprise, the kind you’d reserve for a child with excellent table-manners who just happened to be raised by wolves.
This year, I suppose because I am at such a crossroads in life, the anniversaries hit me hard. I have been easily activated into anger or despair. It has been easy to tip the stream of my thoughts onto a rocky course, where I see myself as singled out for punishment. Along the stream, familiar objects float and bob: the feeling from childhood that I am being used; my identification with distorted ideas, such as the certainty that what I want will never come to pass. I keep hauling myself out of the water, reminding myself that old feelings are dragging me along, getting snagged on new situations. What with toggling back and forth between the limbic system and the neocortex—between emotional activation and rational thought—my brain in getting a big workout, and it is tiring.
Yesterday, a wise friend told me to look at the sense of entitlement, the narcissism, that was feeding the system. Since I prefer to see myself as an altruist, I didn’t much like the view. “You think because you’ve suffered and worked hard and want it so much,” my friend said, “you should have it. But why? Where is that written?“
My friend reminded me how important it is to break the chain between wanting and the expectation of getting. “Hold your desire. Get up every day and make your best offering. Then surrender. It’s out of your hands.“
I am familiar with the teaching that desire is suffering, but for me, it isn’t true. It’s not the wanting, but the conviction that desire should be fulfilled that brings pain. History is full of lost causes. Some stopped being lost and became real changes. Sometimes it happened in a surprising, tectonic shift, sometimes the change came by almost imperceptible degrees. But when such change arrives, it is always in the company of people who didn’t give up on what they knew just because the odds were against them, people who weren’t afraid to want and work, whether or not their wanting was fulfilled.
Surrendering feels like a big relief. I don’t entirely trust my ability to remember that, but I’m guessing life will provide abundant reminders. And along the way, I hope to get up each day, make my best offering, beam my desire into the world like a homing beacon, and tune out the tyranny of the instantly achievable. Desire, offering, surrender.