Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Constructed Desires

Recently, a certain question has surfaced in a number of different ways. It's a perplexing question and not an easy one to answer. In many ways it is a very human question, which relies heavily upon epistemology. In setting up this question, it's important to note a few things. First of all, like it or not, we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, a product of our culture. We do not exist in a vacuum, but receive constant feedback and suggestions from others. Second, we are highly susceptible to suggestion, especially of the pervasive and consistent sort. Given these two things, how can any individual determine which desires of his are natural, and which are artificially constructed?

In the modern world, there exist entire career fields that are devoted to convincing people that they desire certain things. Your life is incomplete without a sleek, new car. Your beauty is seriously lacking unless you have the latest makeup products. You aren't sufficiently cultured unless you've read this book or seen that movie. If only you did this, bought that or lived there you would be happy and content. Of course, it's all a cleverly-contructed lie. But, it works. Because of the constant stream of things we're told, we begin to internalize some of these constructed desires. It's not especially hard to know what you desire. You might think, "I wish I had a different job." Or perhaps its, "I would be happier with a more attractive girlfriend/boyfriend." Maybe it's more innocuous like, "I really want a Pepsi." In most cases, you probably do actually desire whatever you think you desire. But, would you desire whatever it is, if you were simply left to your own devices? Another way to ask it is, it your desire a genuine and natural one, or an artificial and constructed one?

The easiest answer is simply to say that all desires are natural. I want a Pepsi because I actually enjoy it immensely. I want a high-paying job at a good company because that would actually satisfy me. I want to wear nice clothes because I enjoy dressing well. But, this answer can't be quite right. After all, both individual tastes and collective tastes are subjective. What is considered a good job varies from person to person, and even varies in its social status perception from one group to the next. To some, being a Hollywood actor is a very prestigious and desirable job. To others, Hollywood actors, while an understandable part of society, are a bit of a joke; they are viewed as people to be pitied rather than envied. Often our individual preferences conform fairly consistently to the preferences of our various social groups. You avoid certain activities, brands or items because of what your peers would think. You tend towards certain activities, brands or items because they are positively perceived by your peers. Obviously, there are a good many desires that are socially-constructed or socially-modified, rather than being natural.

Contrarily, it is similarly clear that not all desires are socially-constructed. Even when doublethink occurs, there is always some underlying natural desire. Though feminism may teach that women can be quite happy and satisfied in pursuing a career-centric life and eschewing relationships, the innate hard-wired desire of women to raise a family and find meaning through a romantic relationship is something that will inescapably emerge, either when there is still hope or too late. Though relentless advertising may have subconsciously linked thirst with a desire for soft drinks, the underlying thirst is still a natural desire. Though the latest technological fads may seem to promise to be the final gadget you'll need to be happy, a promise which it will not fulfill, the desires for satisfaction and happiness are natural ones. Though many natural desires are diverted or distorted, they still exist on some level and, in their purest form, are completely valid.

It is quite evident that, for the modern person, their desires are a convoluted mixture of natural and artificial desires. The artificial desires almost always promise more than they can deliver. This perpetuates an endless chain of striving, while the dangling lure of satisfaction always remains just barely out of reach. They are deceitful desires. Yet, because of social indoctrination and exposure to the ceaseless barrage of lies, we either falsely hope that the next thing will deliver the satisfaction we seek, or we despair in believing that there is no satisfaction to be found. Blind pursuit or hopeless resignation are not the answer. If there is to be freedom and contentment it must come from cutting through the lies and clinging to the truth. That is no easy task, but it is a necessary discipline if we wish to have contentment and happiness.

In order to be free from the culturally-contructed discontent that permeates our minds, we must be able to separate our natural desires from our artificial ones. We must deny the false belief that having newer or better things, people or circumstances in our lives will bring contentment. Contentment is found only in a consistently practiced attitude of gratitude and in the spiritual discipline of resisting the impulse towards self-gratification. Only once we intentionally climb down off the hedonic treadmill and stopping concerning ourselves with social acclaim and approval will it be possible to be content. It's not an easy task, but it is the only way to be freed from the overwhelming drive towards the next thing that promises meaning and satisfaction. A prettier girl, a new hobby, a bigger house or more vacation hours won't really bring the happiness they promise. Contentment will. But it's a discipline, and quite a challenging one at that. It's one that I struggle with daily.


  1. And once you attain some level of liberty from the systemic materialism, you will forever be fending off barbs and doubts from those with no desire to disentangle from, or awareness of, these base superficial desires.

    "You drive that?"
    "You live here?"
    "You do that?"
    "Aren't you lonely?"

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