The realm of our urges, dreams, and desires is riddled with a lot of fighting. It’s like a three-ring circus where, instead of trapeze and clowns, we have boxers pitted against one another in a never-ending series of 12-round matches. In one ring, our mind fights our body in a very unfair battle that underlies every choice we face in a given day. The mind almost always wins.

Ring #1: Mind Versus Body

For example, you find yourself eating at a nice restaurant and your body already feels full after the appetizer. It signals your mind to stop eating. A choice then emerges. Do you stop eating? Your body says yes. But your mind isn’t interested in what your body says. Whether for pleasure or for social cohesion, it tells you to not stop. And so most of us do just that. We continue eating and the unfair fight between mind and body continues.

Ring #2: Rationality Versus Emotion

In another ring, our rationality is pitted against our emotions. This is the classic fight that I first highlighted from the book Switch. Initially introduced as the elephant and the rider, the trouble here is that it’s another very unfair fight. The elephant is our emotions, enormous and powerful, and the rider is our rationality, feeble compared to the emotions that it rides upon. The struggle between these two is quite old and the outcome is quite predictable. The authors of the book Switch do well to help us understand the dynamic but the idea goes back at least to 400 AD when this brilliant observation was written by Saint Augustine of Hippo:

The mind commands the body and it must obey. The mind commands itself and is resisted.

That last line refers to the fact that the mind ultimately loses to itself when emotions combat rationality, both of which are contained within it. A fine example of this tension is delivered in another of Saint Augustine’s timeless quips:

“Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

Ring #3: Morals Versus Values

There is one more ring with one more fight. It is a wrestling match between our morals and our values. This one is a bit harder to distinguish and it often leads to a much more balanced struggle. We value many things, such as truth, and thus pursue them. But our morals can occasionally contradict with that pursuit.

The “white lie” is a fine example of this. It’s a beautiful thing to know that nearly all humans hold the two morals “never lie” and “never harm”. But along with these morals, we also value our partner’s happiness. So when our partner asks us if they look good in that new (ugly) outfit, the value we hold for their happiness instantly challenges the morals and creates a dilemma.

Do you tell the truth? That they do not look good in the ugly outfit?

Or do you offer up a white lie and say they look great in the ugly outfit?

The choice depends on what you desire most in that given moment.

Desire Is Match Fixer

I recognize that I’m really stretching these metaphors but bear with me for one more:

Boxing has occasionally suffered from a cheating problem. There have been times when a fighter has been approached by some shady group of gamblers who, for a nice payday, have persuaded the fighter to “take a dive” in the ring. That is, to enter the upcoming fight with the full appearance of honest competition but the full intent to allow themselves to lose at a certain time with a certain pre-arranged condition.

In those instances, the boxing match is more like theater. With a prearranged ending and the warriors reduced to mere actors. We think it’s real but it isn’t.

Similarly, there are many times where our desires are so strong, so obvious, that the fight between mind and body, emotions and rationality, or morals and values is just a silly exercise we go through. In this case, Desire just fixes the match. It turns everything into a charade. I imagine the conversation goes something like this:

Desire: “Hey, Rationality. Your going to fight Emotion over the decision to either buy that expensive gadget or not.”

Rationality: “Okay, how do we do this?”

Desire: “You’re going to come in with an argument about diminishing utility and low return-on-investment.”

Rationality: “Yeah, sure. Like I always do.”

Desire: “After you made your case, Emotion is going to come in with arguments of self-worth and the need to live in the moment.”

Rationality: “The usual YOLO argument. Okay.”

Desire: “Right. And once they make that argument, you’re going to take the dive. We’ll be able to show that you really did put up a good case and that we struggled with the decision even though we really didn’t. Dignity will remain intact and we’ll get the expensive gadget, too. Sound good? Good.”

This battle, as silly as it may seem, is waged on so many fronts and in so many fashions that we often find ourselves as nothing more than a stew of conflicting urges scattered across many choices. Some urges win, some lose. Some desires rise. Some fall. A precious few remain constant. Those constant desires are the ones that define us.  

The Constant Desires

There are some things that we just can’t help but want whenever we can get it. Take pizza, for example. Or your biggest habit.

This was apparent when we explored Robert Greene’s book Mastery. One of the articles pondered the question: Is Mastery A Choice? I argued that it isn’t, citing a fascinating article about the popular author Stephen King. This is a perfect expression of those desires that we cannot stop, cannot select, and that carry over time:

Stephen King is addicted to writing. It isn’t a matter of liking to write or even loving it. He needs it, chemically, the way years ago he needed his cocaine and his beer, sometimes a case a day. ‘’Writing is just this great big conduit, this outflow pipe that keeps the pressure nice and even,’’ he says. ‘’It just pours all this [expletive] out. All the insecurities come out, all the fears — and also, it’s a great way to pass the time.’’

And if he hadn’t been able to make a career of it?

‘’Oh, I’d be dead. I would have drunk myself to death or drugged myself to death or committed suicide or some goddamn thing.’’

King has a constant desire to write. Clearly. And I’m glad he does. A constant desire to write appears to be good for many people in many ways.

Do the rest of us have constant desires of this same magnitude? Absolutely. Yesterday’s article introduced Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and those sets of needs generate many constant desires. But the framework only addresses those needs on the terminal level. There is still the devilish work of figuring out the instrumental desire.

So when we observe that Stephen King has a constant desire to write, we should remember that writing, itself, is an activity. It is an instrumental desire. Beneath this act is the terminal desire for something far more universal.

Few people on the planet want to write as much as Stephen King does. But his terminal desires (i.e. deep reasons) for the writing are shared by virtually everyone on the Maslow Hierarchy.

Wrestling for Control

The key here, I think, is that passion is not uncommon. We all have them. Focused passion, however, is very rare and very powerful. A terrific psychologist and author, Daniel Gilbert, explains it in the following way:

The problem isn’t that you can’t always get what you want; it’s that you can’t always know what you want.

This comes from his book Stumbling On Happiness. We’ll feature it another day. But for this week’s feature book, On Desire by William B. Irvine, we have the following brilliant point that must be shared:

We figure out our own desires the way we figure out the desires of other people; by observing our behaviors and drawing inferences from it.

If you think you lack passion, take a look at the past ten years of your life. There will be a common thread of some constant desire. Even if it’s merely a desire to play videogames or watch television, that desire maps onto the Maslow Hierarchy and translates into a terminal desire. In fact, you have more than one, I’m sure.

From Wikimedia Commons

But let’s take television as an example. At the start, you can say “Wow, in the past ten years, I watched a lot of television.”

That’s because you had a terminal desire of some kind. Perhaps a desire for escape from stressful work. Or a desire for connection with characters in stories. If it were me, the desire is something along those lines.

But if you have a competing desire for self-actualization (i.e. be the best you can be), then this instrumental desire for television should be reconsidered. Perhaps instead of watching television, you could transition that to another instrumental desire that helps not only with the need for love/belonging and self-esteem (a’la Maslow) but also personal growth.

This feels obvious, right? Everyone has thought of this in some form or fashion. “I should join the local theater group instead of just watching television all day.”

The trouble, of course, is that Desire—that shady match fixer—wants you to just pretend the wrestle with the decision. There is a status quo lethargy that it wants to hold you to. A fear, too.

So when you think to yourself “I should stop watching drama and start acting/filming/directing drama instead,” you know deep down that you don’t really mean it. Because this is a battle of rationality versus emotion. And your emotions, as the elephant, is going to win.  

In that one-on-one fight, the elephant always wins. Desire makes it so.

So introduce a tag team match. Bring in the physical needs of your body, the mental needs of your mind, the core needs of your value system, and perhaps even some moral imperative as well. In other words, turn that three-ring circus of boxing matches into a single cage match where every fighter piles onto your emotions.

“I watched way too much television. I need to get out and be a part of something instead. It’s good for me, my body, my mind, and I might be afraid or frustrated but I know it will be better than this. I’ll get what I want.”

That last sentence “I’ll get what I want” is of vital importance. We have to understand what we want, via an observation of our past behavior, and then use than to understand how it has manifested in certain instrumental desires (television) and how it can be replaced with other instrumental desires (the theater troupe).

Doing so allows for the tag-team, 5v1 gang fight to occur. This might just be enough to wrestle our emotions and allow us to succeed. Reason, alone, can’t do it. Neither can any other component of our decision-making system. To borrow from our author,

It is only when reason is coupled with a value system—with a feeling that something is worth having—that reason can motivate behavior.

In closing, the question of how one suppresses and redirects desires is answered by first understanding the desires, what we want and why, the ways they manifest based on past behavior, and how to make future instrumental desires more appealing to your mind, body, rationality, morals, and values. Emotions be damned.

It’s hard work. But that’s what makes it great. And as Irvine’s beautiful book has taught me, it’s the most important thing we can do.