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On Liberating Desire

Further to yesterday’s post on the inevitably social nature of human desire, I was fascinated to read the following passage this afternoon in Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann’s book, The Joy of Missing Out. The quote comes in the broad context of an argument that living well requires being willing to settle for less, to not constantly be chasing after the latest experience, product, or achievement, and, specifically, at the end of a discussion of Søren Kierkegaard’s assertion that “purity of heart is to will one thing”:

31GIN-y9UAL._SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Human desires are diverse and changeable, especially in a media and consumer society where we are constantly assailed by temptations and calls to action, and where the mere fact of having a desire makes it legitimate. All of this makes it difficult to distinguish significant desires from insignificant ones. It is hard to make a case for settling for less and difficult to really care about something in a binding, lasting way. Kierkegaard’s talk of purity of heart may sound pompous and alien to modern ears, as we are accustomed to looking inside ourselves to find direction in life and the meaning of things, but perhaps his words can help modern readers to realise that there is a world beyond ourselves, in which something can be good or bad, independently of our wishes and preferences. And perhaps it could be liberating to pursue the good, regardless of potential personal gain. If there is any value in this idea, then the ambition of realising as many of our own desires as possible is far from liberating. On the contrary, in doing so we run the risk of becoming slaves to our desires. To be liberated, we must be prepared to miss out.

I’m not sure how that paragraph sounds to your ears. I was struck by Brinkmann’s critique of our cultural obsession with imagining that our truest and best selves are discovered by looking inward, by his assertion that there is an external world in which the goodness and badness of things is not determined by our preferences, by his claim true freedom involves discipline and constraint, by the unpleasant reminder that we easily grow enslaved by the tyranny of desire. These things all resonate deeply with my observation of the world around me and upon inspection of my own soul’s temptations and tendencies.

But beyond these specifics, it strikes me as more than a little ironic that these things require explicit articulation—and that they are being stated by a professor of psychology in super-progressive, irreligious Scandinavia in the year 2019. The idea that the self is inherently conflicted and not necessarily a reliable guide when it comes to the validity of desire, or that our preferences do not determine reality, or that unshackled desire inevitably enslaves and true freedom requires submission—these are, of course, not exactly modern psychological discoveries, but very old religious convictions. As the apostle Paul put it two thousand years or so ago in a rebuke to those who imagined that freedom and desire ought to be unbounded:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. — 1 Cor. 6:12

It’s nice to see these truths make a reappearance. We still need them, rather obviously.

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