Most of us are at least dimly aware that our thinking and behaviour is influenced in important ways by our social circumstances. We tend, in general terms, to think and act like those we surround ourselves with, those we rub shoulders with daily, those we hang out with on the weekend, those we worship with, those we sit in coffee shops or book clubs with, etc. Over time, our thinking tends to come to resemble the thinking of our social groups. Not in every way, of course. It’s not like every social group is comprised of mindless automatons all regurgitating identical content (although social media might offer a depressing counterexample here…). But most of us would acknowledge that our beliefs about the world are profoundly social both in their origins and in their ongoing maintenance.
What is true of our beliefs is also true of our desires. If we seem to naturally seek out, reinforce, and camp out in ideological microclimates, we do the same thing when it comes to with our wanting selves. So argues University of Antwerp philosophy professor Bence Nenay in a recent article called “Catching Desires” over at Aeon. Human beings are very susceptible to “desire infection,” he says. Our wanting is deeply influenced by what other people want, whether it’s a glass of expensive wine or the meticulously curated Instagram holidays of our friends, or a political vision of the future. Nenay portrays the desires of others as something akin to a virus that we can catch if we’re not vigilant. Much as we might like to think of ourselves as the captain of our own ships when it comes to what we think, believe, do, and desire, the evidence seems to suggest that this is not the case. We are less like rational sovereigns boldly charting our own course than embodied bundles of desire who cling together in herds for security and justification.
Our church is in the midst of a summer worship series on the seven deadly sins and their corresponding virtues. It’s been a fascinating and challenging series so far. We don’t talk about sin very much in our culture or even in our churches. It seems kind of judge-y and being judge-y is probably one of the last remaining, er, sins of our time. But I’ve been struck by the positive feedback so far. We have a need for this mirror to be held up before us, even when what looks back isn’t very flattering. We have a need for the truth of who we are to be told and confessed, even if we’re only barely aware of this and wouldn’t choose it if given the option.
At the root of each of the seven deadly sins is, of course, desire. Whether we’re talking about sex, status, food, recognition, money, leisure, or vengeance, behind each one of them is raw human desire. And you can’t really talk someone out of a desire. I could, I suppose, stand up at the pulpit each Sunday and say, “Well, you see lust and wrath and gluttony are really very bad things and they are corrosive and destructive in so many ways, therefore we must all decide to avoid these things and pursue chastity, love, and temperance instead. Now, roll up your sleeves and go do it!” Aside from being an intolerably dull sermon, it also wouldn’t accomplish much of anything worthwhile. Not many people rationally choose sin as the best among competing options for human flourishing. We sin despite our best intentions not because of them.
So, if sin is at rock bottom the result misdirected or inflamed desire what do we do? How do you change/modify a desire? It’s not easy, obviously. For many, the reordering of desire is a lifelong struggle. But I cannot believe that the answer is, as the article suggests, to try to avoid being infected by the desires of others. This is probably impossible and not even desirable, in my view. We are social creatures to our very core. All of who we are is affected by the people we surround ourselves with. I am reminded of this most poignantly when I visit the jail and hear stories of inmates who often make enormous moral, emotional, and spiritual progress while behind bars and fall apart almost as soon as they’re released. The reason? The only community they have to go back to are the very people who reinforce the wrong habits, assumptions, beliefs, and desires that landed them in jail in the first place.
So, perhaps one of the implications of the social nature of our desiring is simply to try to self-consciously locate ourselves among people whose desires we admire or aspire to. People whose vision of human life and what is for include the virtues of humility, generosity, love, joy. People who long in the right directions, however imperfectly. People whose primary driver doesn’t seem to be the self and all of its projects and projections. People whose desires we want to be infected by. If we are at least leaning in this direction then, together, by the grace of God, we might just be inspired and emboldened to desire in better ways.