Delaying Desire: When Tomorrow Never Comes

By Bradley Yam, SY ’21. Bradley is majoring in Ethics, Politics, & Economics and Computer Science.

When John and I sat down under the beautiful beams of Berkeley’s Dining hall to swap stories about our novel and wondrous versions of The Yale Experience™, from talks by celebrity academics on Quantum Computing to otherworldly jazz concerts, we knew we were at the peak of privilege. Our conversation was charged with awe, but also an accompanying anxiety to make the most of our time here. Out of the blue, John asks, “But really, are you satisfied?”

Grateful? Gratified? Bedazzled? Surely all of the above. But satisfaction lies just around the corner. This is the time of our lives, the time to move fast and break things, to make our mistakes. Deans, professors and parents assure us as anxious first-years on the green that we have “made it”, but it seems like the only thing we have made is an opportunity, an opportunity for more. I thought the point of it all was exactly not to be satisfied, but in the fashion of Tennyson’s Ulysses, to seek, to strive, and not to yield to the specter of contentment.

Every year, articles appear in the Yale Daily News critiquing, discussing and reflecting on Yalies’ complicated relationship with work and success. With titles like “The Golden Ticket” and “What’s the Point of a Yale Education?” they strike at the very heart of Yale’s meritocratic ambitions. Working too hard (and often working at a student income contribution too) is often the subject of such critiques. Yale’s workaholism seems to mirror a broader American trend as described in Derek Thompson’s The Atlantic article, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable”. For Yalies and Americans alike, so much of life’s purpose, meaning, and joy seems to depend on work.

But Yalies also recognize that life is not all about work, that our all-consuming desire for success must be mitigated and tempered by caring for our human needs: we seek friendship, love, leisure, or simply good food and a place to chill. The university has responded with mindfulness activities, the Good Life Center, mental health resources and more, which is a classically Yale-way of trying to solve a problem by resourcing it. Nevertheless, we’ve begun to come out of workaholism by realizing that satisfaction in life must be more holistic.

 

Gratification vs Satisfaction?

We might have gratified our desires, our holistic human needs, but it’s questionable whether we’ve gotten to the heart of satisfying them. On average, we find time to go out with friends, eat healthy meals, and attend yoga classes. We are, for the most part, just fine. These “wellness strategies” have helped to reduce burnout, but that can’t be all we hope for in life: to be just functional enough to manage the crazy high stresses of Yale life. Is this all that it means to take care of ourselves?

To answer that, we have to ask: What’s the difference between gratification and satisfaction? Gratification merely appeases desire: it meets desire just enough that we are able to put it out of our minds. Gratification quenches desire with a substitute object. On the other hand, satisfaction does not quench desire, but actually intensifies it; it allows one to revel in the mere fact of having experienced something so desirable and thereby “completes” the desire. Desire that is completed does not vanish, it is transformed. Gratification is to satisfaction what take-out fast food is to a five-course meal; it’s a one-night stand to a life-long loving relationship; it’s “that’ll do” to “that’s exactly what I wanted!”. Desire that is satisfied transforms into a deep and lasting joy, even if its object has come and gone. Satisfaction asks not for desire’s repetition.

“The experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity – like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.” – Perelandra, C.S. Lewis[1]

The ability to delay gratification has been widely shown to correlate to higher educational attainment and general success in life. It seems predictable that Yalies, an extremely selective student body handpicked by a rigorous admissions process, would take this ability to delay gratification to the nth degree: not simply choosing to delay our immediate wants, we attain the ability to delay satisfaction for our ultimate and deepest desires. In the elaborate balancing act that we perform on a daily basis both work and leisure have been instrumentalized for the sake of someday satisfying our desires, while getting by through gratifying some of them now. Satisfaction lies just around the corner.

Our longing for love, for novelty, for well-being is gratified rather than satisfied. We have accepted that for now, gratification is acceptable, for now, we’ll settle for pleasantries instead of conversation, for now, we’ll have a quick lunch instead of a feast. But delaying satisfaction comes at a cost. Gratification may conceal a compulsivity, a perfectionism, even a workaholism, just by keeping us sane and functional. It may also conceal something more important and more terrifying: the answer to Slavoj Žižek’s question, “How do we know what we desire?”[2]

 

Delaying Satisfaction

Delaying satisfaction is insidious because it allows us to perpetually put off the true quest for the heart’s desire. The way this works is apparent when compared to delayed gratification. Delaying gratification has a clearly defined end, and once that end is fulfilled, our wants can be gratified. For instance, I’m not going to watch The Good Place on Hulu because I need to finish this article in time for print. But once the article is done, I can binge watch all the Hulu and Netflix I want. In contrast, delayed satisfaction has no clearly defined end because the question of satisfaction is itself the question “What are my true ends?” Delaying satisfaction means never confronting our deepest desires.

The combination of delayed satisfaction (always putting off the big questions) with the profound resources of gratification (doing just enough to take care of ourselves) makes for a potent trap. It makes us feel purposeful and functional, but it makes it too easy to never truly interrogate our desires, to go along with the flow, to assume that the objects of our all-consuming desire (however nebulous they may be, don’t worry, we are told, we will “figure it out”) will – must – satisfy us. Eventually.

I am no stranger to this maze. I convinced myself that working 100-hour weeks was feasible and necessary for the sake of getting a meaningful and fulfilling job. I made sure I blocked out meal times with friends, a weekend or two for get-aways and buffets at Sushi Palace, and I tried to adopt daily routines of prayer and a yearly fast during Lent. These were all undoubtedly positive things, but the spirit of delayed satisfaction and optimization ruled me entirely. I was meeting my most important present wants, I was gratifying my desires, but satisfaction was always looming tomorrow. I was always hoping that I would go to bed and wake up and find that I had somehow, magically, arrived. But I never asked myself where I hoped to arrive at. John asked, “But really, are you satisfied?”, then our lunch hour was up. But his question haunted me.

What if tomorrow never comes? What if the act of placing our hope for deepest joy and truest happiness–for satisfaction–in some ambiguous future state is surely to sabotage and condemn that satisfaction?

 

The Christian “Impatience”

It comes as no surprise that the resources that Yale offers to counterbalance workaholism involve practices with spiritual roots, for the issue of satisfaction is traditionally and ultimately a spiritual question. This is an essential quality of true self-care that is lost in the process of secularization.

The Christian spirituality and doctrine regarding satisfaction is strange, but refreshing. It demands that we pursue our highest goods immediately, impudently, almost impatiently, like a child might stamp his feet for his mother or father. It defies the doctrine of delayed satisfaction. The Christian is commanded to ask and then be answered, to knock and for the door to be opened, to seek expecting to find, and she’s asked to do it all right now.

This only makes sense in light of the Christian truth that our highest good cannot be achieved, it can only be received, and it must be received today and every day. Hence we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.”[3] Jesus tells his disciples an amusing story about an impatient friend. A man knocks incessantly at his friend’s door, late in the middle of night, to get some food for his guests. His friend gets up, obviously annoyed, but satisfies his request–not because of their friendship, but because of the urgent and unceasing knocking!

I believe that the demand Christianity makes on all of us is to seek the satisfaction of the heart’s deepest desire, and to seek it now. This is a surprisingly reasonable demand. Only Christianity insists that our satisfactions must be sought now, even if all our desires may not be immediately fulfilled. It asks us to confront the tragedy of desiring deeply and perhaps being disappointed, but being sure of what we truly desire. The proper name for this kind of satisfaction and simultaneous dissatisfaction is joy. Joy persists whether desires are fulfilled or delayed. The call of Christ on the cross is not one of immediate satisfaction, and not one of delayed satisfaction, but a call to bravely, humanely, and sensitively face the tragedy of our lost longings, our inconsolable desires, our most powerful pinings. Only in our present yearnings can we discover what we truly, truly desire.

[1] Lewis, C. S. 1968. Perelandra; a novel. New York: Macmillan.

[2] CHICAGO

[3] Matthew 6:11, New International Version.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

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