Most of us can identify something that we believe would make us feel whole and complete if we could obtain it.
We don’t always think about it this directly. Sometimes we just have a vague sense of a set of things and circumstances we are striving for. We may not explicitly say we are motivated by a pursuit of happiness, but usually, the object of our desire is something that we believe to be the key to our wholeness.
It might be the ideal of a perfect house in the right location that will finally allow us to put roots down and feel a sense of home. Or maybe we feel like we are one promotion away from finally feeling settled. Maybe its the dream of finding a job that perfectly draws upon our unique skills, temperament, and gifts that will finally allow us to feel a sigh of relief.
The problem is that actually getting what we want does not deliver. Sometimes it makes things worse because once we have what we’ve been striving for, we lose the cause of desire.
If we got what we wanted, we’d lose the thing that gave us our sense of drive, ingenuity, and creativity in the first place.
Not Having What You Want Makes You, You
This can sometimes happen with startups and small break-through businesses. They tend to bring something completely unique to the table, think outside of common frameworks, and operate in innovative ways.
Once they achieve the goal they’ve been working so hard for, however, their success sometimes causes them to lose the spark that got them where they were. Gimlet media’s podcast Without Fail is full of stories like this.
Every interesting, inspiring, and marvelous story is essentially about someone not getting what they want and the struggle between their desire and not having the object of their desire. The journey of the in-between is what makes life interesting and authentic.
A story about someone who got everything they wanted, exactly when they wanted it, would never be retold. The main character of such a story would be tremendously dull and the sequence of events so matter-of-fact it would bear no purpose to repeat.
People who get what they want, in as much as that is possible, are only happy for a little while. Eventually, however, they become unsatisfied again and a new object of desire arises. This new desire must be sought after and obtained to suppress the new lack that has emerged.
One approach is to view desire as bad and pursue the elimination of desire, which supposedly eliminates the suffering created by not having what you think you want.
The problem with this, however, is that desire is so central to the human condition that it is nearly impossible to imagine human existence without it. A lack of desire is one of the symptoms of depression, for example.
Furthermore, the pursuit to eliminate desire from one’s life is a desire in itself.
So Do Nothing Then?
If getting rid of all desire isn’t realistic (nor is it desirable in of itself) and if getting what you want results in the perpetuation of our unhappiness: what is the answer?
In short, there is no answer — but there is a different way of being with the tension. Instead of trying to get rid of the lack, we can accept it and embrace it.
When we accept that we cannot have what we want, nor refuse to let go of it either, we can live in the everyday unhappiness of the struggle. In doing this we rob the everyday unhappiness of its misery. We rob the suffering of its power over our life. As crazy as it sounds, we can actually enjoy this tension, be inspired by it, and use it to fuel further progress and development in our lives.¹
When I was in high school, I picked up the 1999 Saves the Day album called Through Being Cool. The cover art featured the band members all sitting on a couch looking bored and uninterested in the party going on behind them.
To me, they were making the conscious decision to forgo the whole process of trying to be cool. They were embracing the lack and opting out of the desire to resolve that lack. Something about this image empowered me as a young adolescent.
It was the first time I realized that there were alternatives to the status quo. Being cool or not cool were no longer categories of concern because I could forgo the system altogether and embrace the tension of looking at it from the outside. It was liberating!
Opting out of the pursuit of being cool disarmed that system of its power over me and my actions. I didn’t have the language to talk about it in the way I am now, but looking back on that period of my life I can see that is precisely what was happening.
Now I better understand why that was such a formative and liberating experience for me.
Dragons Are Real and Want To Be Noticed
Freud once famously noted,
‘Much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness.’
When we accept the lack at the core of life’s experience, we accept the common, everyday unhappiness at the core of human existence. Denying the lack only gives it greater power over our life, turning it into misery.
Jack Kent’s book There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon can be read as a fascinating metaphor of this idea.
- One day, Billy Bixbee wakes up to find a dragon in his room. (That is, he discovers the lack.)
- When he tries to tell his mother about it, she declares that there is no such thing as a dragon. (She denies the lack and pretends it isn’t really there.)
- The dragon grows day-by-day, obviously impacting life in the Bixbee household, but everyone continues to deny the reality of it.
- Life eventually becomes dysfunctional as the dragon eats Billy’s food, grows so large it takes over the entire house, and eventually runs off with the house itself. (The lack becomes misery.)
- Mr. Bixbee comes home to find his home and family gone and wonders how something like this could have happened. Billy cannot maintain his denial any longer and says it was all because of the dragon.
- Before his mother can deny the existence of the dragon again, Billy insists that there IS a dragon and pats it on the head.
- As the dragon is acknowledged and patted on the head, it shrinks down to the size of a kitten. (Misery becomes manageable everyday unhappiness.)
- Mrs. Bixbee acknowledges that a dragon this size isn’t so bad and wonders why the dragon had to get so big. Billy replies that he thinks its because the dragon only wanted to be noticed. (Facing the lack robbed it of its control over their lives.)
So the more the family tried to ignore the lack in their lives, the more pronounced the lack became until it turned into full-on misery. Once they accepted and embraced the lack, it no longer overwhelmed them and became a manageable part of their lives.
Pat Your Dragon and Embrace the Third Way
The more we seek happiness to satisfy our lack, the more happiness evades us. The more we deny the lack, the stronger its hold becomes. Not getting what we want is actually what makes us unique, authentic, and creative.
To get what we want, when we want it, is to live a story not worth retelling — and the only thing we really have in life is our story.
When we insist that the lack is real and fondly pat it on the head — it begins to shrink down from misery to common unhappiness. The act of naming it and facing it robs it of the dominance it previously had.
When we embrace the lack, we are no longer controlled by our desire to satiate the lack and are free to find a new way of being — a third way beyond the old either/or options.
When we noticed a rising desire to try and fulfill our lack by chasing after an object promising happiness and satisfaction, we can boldly echo Meville’s character Bartleby and declare, “I would prefer not to.”
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¹I’m paraphrasing the philosopher/thinker/theologian Peter Rollins.
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