21st June 2022
16 minutes read
Desire As a Source of Suffering and Progress
translated by Lucie Mikolajková
21st June 2022
16 minutes read
Raise your hand if you have not been drilled from an early age to control, tame, conceal, or completely mortify your desires. From time immemorial, the principle of delayed gratification has been instilled in children since– by family, school, society, and literature. When I was very young, various child-rearing schools of thought in Czechoslovakia actually advised mothers to ignore the wailing infant and let them “cry it out.” Your child is just vying for attention, they said, so ignore their need for closeness, touch and security. Breastfeeding was advised at regular intervals, not when the baby was actually hungry. If the baby wanted to feed in between, tough luck: it had to wait for its craving to be satisfied. Poverty and a generally much more limited resources also helped instill the ethos of delayed gratification. “Good things come to those who wait” was a saying born out of necessity for many generations, and not only in these parts.
Delayed gratification was the principle that helped build up the wealth of the middle class, amassed through small acts of self-denial and gradual accumulation. The ability to deny oneself things in hope of building a better future is considered a sign of maturity. In our early years, we are expected to learn the good habits required to integrate into society, preferably as high up in the social hierarchy as possible; and as burnt-out, disillusioned grownups, we try to painfully unlearn those habits so we can “rediscover ourselves.”
Children who learn to deny themselves even what they don’t have to typically grow up to be anxious or downright neurotic.
In the process of socialization, we are indoctrinated to behave in a way that is beneficial for society, but for ourselves, not so much. As adults, we pay therapists and personal life coaches to tell us to nurture ourselves, pursue our dreams, cultivate self-love and self-care, learn to be selfish and put our own happiness first. Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss” has become the mantra for those of us who have been raised listening to such gems as “Work first, then play,” “Duty before everything” and “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Unfortunately, many of us will never be able to recapture the pure, childlike joy of satisfying our desires that socialization smothered in us.
Our elders and betters may have meant well; they likely wanted to protect us from pain and disappointment. They knew, as Arthur Schopenhauer did, that “Every satisfaction one attains lays the seeds of some new desire,” because desire is infinite but the possibility of its fulfillment limited, and a person swayed by instincts and desires will never find lasting happiness or peace. The ancient Stoics voiced similar sentiments, and Buddhism considers desire to be pernicious. Lust is a poison of the spirit from which the endless cycle of rebirth arises. In Pali, the ancient Indian language in which the many Buddhist teachings were written, the concept of craving or thirst is called taṇhā. It seems to be no coincidence that the Czech word for desire, touha, sounds almost identical. However, its cognates in other Slavic languages, the Bulgarian тъга and Serbian tuga, actually mean sadness, and the Czech word tíha, meaning heaviness or burden, comes from the same root. The Sanskrit word for thirst or lust is trishna. This in turn resembles the Czech word for suffering and torment, trýzeň and trápení. This duality of meaning is not at all unusual. The Latin word passio means passion as well as suffering. The English want means both want and need. The Slovak želanie (wish), Slovenian želja (desire) and the Russian or Bulgarian желание (also desire) are related to the Czech word želet – to grieve or mourn. It seems that longing and wanting have been associated with suffering and grief in Indo-European languages since time immemorial, across all the branches of this vast language family. It must have been a universal human experience, in the Eurasian region at least.
There is a saying in Czech:
“What the eyes cannot see cannot hurt you.”
Ignorance can indeed be bliss: if you don’t know there is something you might want, you need not torment yourself over not having it. Desire comes from the realization that we are lacking something. Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, it was clear to me – and to most people – that there was a lot to long for. Information about life in the Western world trickled through the cracks in the Iron Curtain more and more often. There was no hiding the dearth of consumer goods and the poor quality of domestic products. People living near the southern and western borders were able to tune in to Austrian and German television, so they were more than aware of what they were missing. Even Poland and Hungary, our next-door neighbors, offered a wider range of consumer goods; Hungary allowed concerts by Western musicians. Our childhood rooms were plastered with posters of American, British and German singers and bands whose performances we never got to see live and whose records we had no place to buy. The posters came from magazines like Bravo, which had mysteriously made their way to us across the western border. Circulating among Czechoslovakian households were the thick catalogs West German mail-order stores such as Neckermann and Quelle, from which no one was able to order anything, but the objects of desire displayed on glossy paper took on very concrete forms. There was a special network of stores known as Tuzex in Czechoslovakia; purchases could only be made with vouchers received in exchange for foreign currencies that Czechoslovak citizens had legally earned abroad but were obliged to offer to the state. Those who did not have the opportunity to earn foreign money had to buy the vouchers on the black market. Anyone could visit Tuzex stores, but those who had no means of payment could only watch and suffer. One could buy all sorts of products that never made their way into regular stores: domestic products for export, as well as various goods from the West, ranging from Wrigley’s chewing gum, soda cans and Cadbury’s chocolates, to Benetton clothing, Levi’s jeans and French perfumes, Japanese electronics and Western European cars. And satellite dishes: let’s not forget those. They gave people in the hinterland the chance to catch Western television shows and films, not to mention the ubiquitous commercials. Friends would lend each other bootleg videotapes of Hollywood movies, complete with amateur dubbing. Rambo, Rocky, Dirty Dancing, Chorus Line – those were the hits among my classmates in my last few years of elementary school. Our desire grew. And with it, the feeling that we should be entitled to all the merchandise we saw in Western commercials and Tuzex stores, that we should have the same standard of living we saw in American movies, but we were denied it by an ideology that had long since exhausted itself and was only kept alive by a handful of incompetent, overaged officials who could not even react to the wind of change blowing in from the Soviet Union.
My generation knew little about prisoners of conscience, about the dissent, the political trials and executions of the 1950s, or the Soviet invasion of 1968 and its consequences. Charter 77 was a whispered incantation that no one knew the meaning of; almost no one knew what the document actually contained and who its signatories were. As teenage children in the summer of 1989, we used to whisper about people who had signed the petition “A Few Sentences” calling for the democratization of the regime, and secretly listened to crackling bootleg tapes of banned singers from the 1960s. We had no idea why they were not allowed to perform, where they lived now, and if they were even still alive. We didn’t understand why their music could not be played if there was nothing subversive about it. Spared the horrific experiences of previous generations, we no longer considered the socialist regime dangerous, merely outdated and cumbersome. Politicians inspired no fear, only ridicule. Many products were of such poor quality that they became the butt of countless jokes. And when a production outage caused a nationwide shortage of toilet paper and feminine hygiene products, people laughed out loud; but there was bitterness and anger in the laughter. Interestingly, if something like that had happened twenty or thirty years earlier, no one would have been outraged; people might not even have noticed. Previous generations still routinely used shredded newspapers as toilet paper and instead of disposable pads or tampons, women wore specially made menstrual belts, which could be repeatedly washed and dried in the sun. But luxuries are easy to get used to, and so in the 1980s, people felt wronged for the lack of sanitary products; the wanting provoked resentment. We demanded more. We wanted a higher standard of living; we hungered for things.
Our mothers poured ordinary, domestically produced products into empty, Western branded shampoo bottles.
Locally produced toiletries weren’t necessarily inferior, but Western packaging was much prettier and since all bathrooms in communist housing estates looked the same, women at least wanted to put pretty bottles on the shelves. Society was still nominally egalitarian, but even small differences in living standards mattered.
We wanted to travel. Czechoslovakians had few options, largely limited to countries from the Soviet bloc, and the ideal among them was a seaside holiday in Yugoslavia. With their meager foreign currency rations, Czechs and Slovaks could not afford to spend as lavishly as the West Germans who would come there. Even an unemployed person on the dole from the West can live and spend like a king in a socialist country, Czechs whispered jealously. Studying in the West was unthinkable. Were we envious? Of course we were. Did it hurt? So much. Our unfulfilled desires were a source of much suffering.
But there was another side to those lean years: the pleasure people felt whenever they managed to obtain at least some of the objects they so desired. It made them appreciate even the smallest achievement. It must have been much more satisfying to finally be assigned a cooperative apartment after years on a waiting list than to get your own place right away but keep paying off a mortgage for the rest of your life. Saving for years to finally be able to buy a car—automobiles were only produced in limited numbers in the over-regulated economy—must have felt like a much greater personal achievement than simply walking into a dealership and signing a lease. When we longed for the latest toys, acquiring them required much more than simply going to a store and pulling out a wallet. It took immense effort and ingenuity to get one’s hands on those scarce, imported items. Our parents had to stand in lines for hours, navigate a complicated maze of favors and bribes, and even commit minor transgressions and misdemeanors. Somehow, nearly all the girls in my class managed to have a Barbie doll or one of those Monchhichi monkey toys that were so popular at the time.
It was this kind of desire that brought thousands of East Germans to Prague in the fall of 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, to seek asylum on the grounds of the West German embassy. They left behind more than a thousand cars in the streets of old Prague: mostly Trabants, which by then had already become a symbol of the socialist bloc economies’ backwardness. Were the people from GDR driven to the West by a noble desire for freedom and a reunion with relatives across the border of divided Germany, or by a simple greed to exchange an East German Trabant for a West German Volkswagen, BMW, or Mercedes?
It is said that every time we long for something, it’s like letting out a puff of steam.
The steam collects somewhere high up in the sky, it thickens and becomes heavier, until it forms a cloud; and if we keep yearning for something often and long enough, a rain will fall from the cloud one day.
Perhaps this also works for collective wishes and desires. Perhaps the nations of the Eastern Bloc wished for so long to have what their Western neighbors had that finally one day, without much effort, rain began falling from the cloud of their accumulated desires.
More than thirty years have passed since then. We may still be poorer than our Western neighbors, but the collective desires of the 1980s have long since been satisfied. We have also received many other things we did not really want. For many, the reality of capitalism is much harsher than it once looked from the pages of catalogs and TV commercials. A certain part of the population yearns for the return of the security granted by state socialism. Even the reality of living in a democracy often does not match our expectations, and many people wish we had better politicians than we do. The longing for material things that my generation grew up with is of course still there; the objects of our desires are there for all to see. The difference is that almost everything is readily available: experiences, goods, education, a more attractive body – and if money is an object, even that can be solved by a few clicks. However, if we were to look for some universal, collective desire, we would be hard put to find one.
Now that we have what we wanted, as a society we are looking for new things to strive for. Let me quote Schopenhauer again: “Want is the scourge of mankind. But the few who have been spared it succumb to another affliction: boredom. A week with six days of toil and a seventh day of boredom is an apt reflection of our lives.” Even after two hundred years, the philosopher’s words still apply. Abundance in the Western world is so ostentatious that it often amounts to wastefulness. The younger generations often resort to voluntary asceticism in protest. They deny themselves everything their parents once craved: meat, exotic imported food, brand new, fashionable clothes every season, all wrapped in layers of attractive packaging. They find asceticism appealing because they have never known involuntary, forced frugality.
Desire is said to be at the root of all suffering, which is why some teachings advise to divest oneself of it altogether. There is a catch, though. Trying to get rid of desire is actually a desire in itself – a desire not to desire. The vicious circle of longing continues. Some claim that the most effective way to get rid of a craving is to overindulge: to become so sated that the craving becomes unnecessary. Nikola Tesla’s mother was so wise that she understood this. She knew that you cannot reform people, only love them, and so she confronted her son’s gambling addiction by offering him the entire family fortune to squander. From that moment on, Nikola claimed to have never gambled again, nor smoked tobacco. He was able to reach into the depths of his soul and tear out his desires at the root. We all know someone who is an ascetic by nature, and they may not always be a kind and selfless person. Asceticism, if expressed as a disdain for abundance, is in itself a form of immodesty and self-indulgence.
Starvation for the sake of beauty is vanity.
Even asceticism and self-denial may be ostentatious and hedonistic; the mortification of desire can be a heady feeling.
Like any strong emotion, desire is deeply ambivalent. And as much as it can be a source of suffering, it is also the agent of all action. Life is a cycle of desire and its fulfillment. We are all born out of desire. Desire is a life-giving energy; without it, nothing can materialize, nothing can be achieved. Without desire there is no evolution. It is said that even reptiles developed wings because they longed to see the world from above.
Our desires are unique, just like our talents; they make us who we are. They compel us to develop our talents and realize our potential. There is a tension between the reality that we live and the reality that could be, and it is this tension that drives us forward, like an electric charge. Whatever we do, we do it with the notion that we will be better off once we accomplish it, and we desire that result. We long for something that is absent, and we employ reason to make it manifest. Desire creates a problem, but the problem itself implies the solution. It is thanks to this formula that we have science, technology, art, and all the achievements of civilization, even if such progress often has a darker side.
Once a desire is fulfilled, it leaves behind a void. Let me borrow one last quote from Arthur Schopenhauer: “If Petrarch’s passion had been gratified, his song would have become silent from that moment, as that of the birds as soon as the eggs are laid.” Are we also in danger of becoming silent when the fulfilment of so many of our desires is within reach? Fulfilling one’s desires used to be a lifelong effort; sometimes it even took generations to achieve. In today’s society, the interval between a desire and its fulfilment has shortened or disappeared altogether. Self-restraint, self-denial and delayed gratification have become meaningless. Having everything within reach is like getting paid for a job upfront. We lose motivation, we have nothing to look forward to, nothing to expect. Once there is nothing to aspire to, we lose direction and purpose, both as individuals and as a society.
The easy availability of gratification has deprived many of us of the energy generated by desire. Satisfaction is not nearly as satisfying if it does not come as a reward for a sacrifice we made, for hard work we put in, or for things we have to give up along the way.
Desire does not only bring anguish; it is also the source of excitement and exhilaration.
The result often fails to measure up to what we imagined. Desire can be a reward, a value in itself, even without fulfilment.
Thinking about all this, I realized that I have probably already fulfilled all of my personal dreams (though I put some of them off for so long that they seem to have simply fizzled out). Still, I find myself missing something after all. I yearn for desire, I long for craving, I hunger for greed, I thirst for temptation, and I pine for wanting. I take comfort in the fact that I am certainly not alone in this, for everything has been said, written and thought about desire, and my experience is quite ordinary and has been lived many times, for human nature does not change and there is nothing new under the sun, only endless iterations of the same.