Any time we want something, we enter into a paradox.
To want something is to imagine having it, and to take pleasure in that vision. It is to pull our attention away from the present and direct it towards a future circumstance containing a reward. When our attention then returns to the present, we become keenly aware of the absence of what we want. The repeated process of seeing our desire fulfilled in fantasy, but unfulfilled in reality, creates a sense of loss – it makes us feel dissatisfied with our situation as it is. And so, if wanting something involves a positive expectation of the future, it also involves a negative assessment of the present. To want something is to feel unhappy with the circumstance of not having it, and even to feel fear at the thought of not getting it.
The paradox of desire is that we conceive it as a path to fulfillment – we treat our yearnings as guides that should lead us to satisfaction – we think we’ll finally be happy when we obtain what we seek – but desire can lead us away from the true source of satisfaction in life, which is appreciation, the state of savoring what we currently have.
The paradox of desire is not that disappointment can occur – it’s not that we might misunderstand value, pursuing a thing which turns out to be less satisfying than we imagined – though of course this happens all the time. The paradox, rather, is that in working to achieve a certain objective, we might train ourselves to be unfulfilled no matter what. We might cultivate a habit of seeing our present situation as incomplete, and this habit might be difficult to break even if we get what we want. No matter whether the object of our desire has the potential to fulfill us, we might lose the capacity for fulfillment through the very process of seeking that thing. Even if we do experience fulfillment in the end, how many moments of unfulfillment did our desire create along the way? How much possible contentment did we sacrifice to the idea that we needed something we did not have?
It would be nice if we could experience the upside of desire without the downside – if we could only feel joyful about the prospect of attaining a wonderful object without feeling a sense of incompleteness or disappointment in the situation of not having that object. They say that a way to live a good life is to follow your dreams and never give up, but they also say that a way to live a good life is to learn to enjoy the moment and not worry too much about the past or the future. It would be nice if we could do both at the same time, following our dreams with excitement and purpose while also feeling gratitude for anything we do have, anything we can find a way to see as favorable in our current situation.
Practically, it can be a challenge to reconcile these two approaches, to be full of ambition and full of gratitude at the same time. That is because actualizing an ambition requires work, and work requires motivation, and motivation can be fickle.
To surmount the many obstacles that separate our current reality from the one we want, we might find that positive motivation – our excitement about a destination – is not sufficient to make us endure the pain of the journey there, so we must rely on negative motivation as well, harnessing one kind of pain to push us through another kind. We might draw upon the pain of not having what we want to help us to endure the pain of acquiring it.
By looking for fault in our current circumstances, by magnifying our dissatisfaction with things as they are, we think we’ll intensify our motivation to improve, to excel, to reach our goal. It’s not just that ambition can breed dissatisfaction by making us constantly compare “what is” with “what could be.” It’s that our ambition might seem to depend on dissatisfaction as its fuel.
Consider the process of learning to play an instrument. Our anticipation of the future joy we’ll have, once we’ve gained sufficient skill, might get us started with practice. The satisfaction of incremental progress might keep us going. But these things might not propel us through the months or years of difficult study required. To buttress our motivation, we might look at all the shortcomings in our current ability, noticing everything we can’t do and trying to derive motivation from the frustration of not being able to do it. If we think our abilities fall short, we might tell ourselves that mediocrity is unacceptable so we’ll commit to achieving excellence. In so doing, we place our self-worth on the line. Now we need to get better in order to demonstrate our merit and to make good on our investments to date. But in cultivating this need, we’ve also removed the possibility of fulfillment. A person who has trained themselves to feel unsatisfied with their current abilities does not suddenly become whole when those abilities improve.
Another pitfall of ambition is the way it distorts our view of life at large. The fear of not reaching a goal can lead us to take defensive measures throughout our life, and while these may be rational and necessary, they can backfire. For example, we might face conflicting demands on our time. We know that if we are to achieve our ambition, we must protect our work from encroachment by distractions and tangential obligations. So we might come to categorize every event, every situation in our life according to a binary framework: there are things that further our quest, and things that hinder it or steal attention from it, things that help us and things that harm us. To increase our chances of success, we might try to “optimize” our schedule, focusing on the first category of things that move us closer to our goal, and eliminating as many distractions in the second category as possible.
But if our goal is a big one then we are effectively running a marathon, not a sprint, and the way we manage our energy is critical to success. If we become “laser-focused” on our goal, seeing everything tangential to the goal as an impediment, then we have placed ourself in a state of struggle against the bulk of our life — the mundane vastness of it. We simply cannot be doing productive work towards a long-term goal one-hundred percent of the time. To stay in the game, it’s critical that our downtime, our moments of low productivity, our moments of distraction, our moments of “blah” can leave us with some sense of refreshment. But if we see all these moments as unworthy or unfortunate, they can only leave us feeling stressed.
When we try to optimize our lives in service of a goal, we might be setting ourselves up for exhaustion in way that ultimately harms our prospects. If we’re constantly having the thought that we should be working right now, or we should be working faster right now, or we should have avoided a distraction, turned down a social event, cancelled an unnecessary trip that took us away from our task, then we’re not appreciating the moment. But it is precisely in that appreciation of the moment, in that acceptance of “what is,” in that willingness to find value in our waking experience – whatever it happens to be – that we could attain the calm and the mental freshness that we would need to keep going on our journey.
The paradox of desire is perhaps one that we can escape, not by relinquishing desire altogether, but by returning to positive motivations whenever possible, and by seeing appreciation – an intention and a willingness to find satisfaction in our current reality – not as something that might deflate our quest for a better one, but as an essential source of the energy we’ll need to get there.
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