Category Archives: Desire Issue

The Promise of Greatness

By Raquel Sequeira, TD ’21. Raquel is majoring in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry.

I do not have imposter syndrome. When faced with a peer’s superior achievement or quicker intellect, a simpering voice in my mind rises to displace the stirring jealousy. “Remember,” it always whispers, “you are special.” It doesn’t tell me why I am special or what special internal quality transcends my external mediocrity. Still, whenever I examine the roots of motivations and my self-worth, I find this vague notion of a unique destiny that sets me apart. My deepest desire is to achieve that destiny, the greatness I feel sure I was born to achieve. My deepest fear, barely silenced by the whispering voice within, is that I really am not special at all.

I suspect that mine is not a universal response to feelings of inadequacy. Nevertheless, many of us, perhaps especially when we feel inadequate, harbor a longing for “greatness” in some area we are passionate about. “Greatness” is the goal, the distant mountain peak that we strive for, and which we are capable of reaching because of some “greatness” already within us–or so we hope. The greatness we desire, the peak we pursue, may be admirable. A scientist wants to believe that her research will eventually contribute to medical advancements that will save countless lives. A student agonizes over choosing a major that will prepare him to “make a difference in the world”. We want the significance of our lives to extend beyond ourselves—a seemingly selfless desire that nevertheless creates self-conscious anxiety.

Many of my friends and I worry to the point of obsession about what we will do after we graduate. We look on our four years at Yale as a precious chance to find a niche in this enormous world where we can maximize our skills and passions. As it happens, resource optimization is a Christian virtue as much as a capitalist one: through a story often called “The Parable of the Talents” (a fittingly-named ancient currency), Jesus illustrated the duty to actively invest one’s economic and human capital to get a return (Matthew 25, Luke 19). However, the desire to maximize the investments made in me—by my parents, by society, by God—becomes a crippling anxiety when I acknowledge the hugeness of that investment. The thought of my Yale tuition alone makes me feel guilty for the time I spend on courses and extracurriculars I know I will never excel in. Whether or not I am destined for greatness, I owe it.

But is that greatness inherent inside of me, like a sculpture latent in a stone, or is it a goal for me to reach, like scaling a mountain? In myself, I see both. My passions and talents drive me towards a “better world” that only I can bring about, and that vision of the future drives me towards full self-realization. But if the desire to make a difference in the world becomes a means to this end of self-realization, then my striving is ultimately selfish. It is for the sake of my own legacy rather than the good I can do.

Sure enough, when I examine my heart, I know that I don’t just want to be the best I can be. I want to be the best at something. And I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something I was made to do, a niche only I can fill. But then a week comes when the failures hit too fast and too hard for me to rally the conviction that somehow, by some metric, I am exceptional. A semester comes when I feel like I’ve gone too far down a path that will not allow me to make the most of my life. The statue within is cracked, and mediocrity hits me in the face like a truck. I am a jack of all trades and a master of none, and I am headed nowhere.

Yet somehow, even when I am fully convinced of my own mediocrity and non-exceptionality, my sense of destiny stubbornly persists. My existential anxiety is worse because I still feel some external purpose drawing me. The mountain I seek is no less real and beautiful just because I feel like I can never reach it. And I’m right–I can’t. None of us can. Even if we find our fields of comparative advantage–the niches we are sculpted to fill–we are left with one job: to keep increasing our productivity until we die. Our society sees specialization as the way to reach the peak of greatness; in reality, it is a never-ending climb. I will never reach the top, but I will always fear falling. Yet though the peak is unreachable, my desire to reach it–indeed, my belief that I am meant to–is strangely unwavering and must be reckoned with.

It may be that my desire for greatness is merely a biological drive: my sense of destiny a trick of the brain to propel me forward in the struggle for survival and dominance. Or, my desire might mean something true about reality and myself.[1] There might be a different kind of greatness. To believe this requires an act of faith; but the alternative, that my desire is random and leads nowhere, I can only accept as absurd or tragic then be paralyzed by pointlessness. Embracing meaning (and rejecting absurdity) is the only way to move with the hope of a destination. What if my innate desires for destiny and greatness–the sculpture and the mountain peak, as I imagine them–are a promise from one who knows exactly who I am and where I am headed?

If a God exists who knows every aspect of the self I am trying to maximize–not only my limits but also greatness in dimensions that I never contemplated–then the way forward is by a commandment so simple and so difficult that it never made it onto a stone tablet: “Follow me.” If I believe God’s promise that my destiny will be fulfilled, then I should relinquish the illusion of control over that destiny, and with it my near-sighted striving. Relinquishing control over our lives can feel impossible; yet I believe that this is the way not only to true greatness, but to deep, abiding rest and freedom from the anxiety of legacy and self-maximization. Moreover, it is ultimately a joyful task because it is based on relationship and trust, not individualism and competition.

There is no objectively complete proof that faith in my desire as a  promise is well-founded, that the mountain and the sculpture I envision are real. Nevertheless, I have personally found compelling evidence in literature, in art, and in my role-models. It seems to me that lives of true greatness—of self-maximization, external impact, and sometimes even lasting legacy—are lives of sacrifice. I don’t mean that greatness is in the sacrifice itself; I mean that greatness requires relinquishing our desire for the destiny we envision, sacrificing our will in obedience, in order to pursue and receive a greater destiny than we could have imagined. Just as every destiny is unique, the act of relinquishing that is asked of each person will be different. And paradoxically, by serving others above oneself, one’s longed-for destiny is ultimately realized in unexpected ways.[2] We may find that investments of our time and resources that seem to be taking us in the wrong direction–extracurriculars or classes that don’t add to our resume, time carved out from study hours to grieve or laugh with a friend—will shape us in ways we don’t expect.

“The one who pursues righteousness and love finds life, bounty, and honor” (Prov. 21:22, ESV). I believe that God will fulfill the promise; God took on flesh to fulfill it. We will reach the mountain on this earth because it is our home. The sculpture will take beautiful, recognizable shape (at least in part) “here in this life,” as Kierkegaard writes. However, our greatness will not be defined by a life-saving innovation or discovery, a paradigm-shifting model, or a transformative work of art. Even if we achieve such things, they will only be refractions of greater truth, greater beauty, greater love. Our true, unearned yet destined greatness, achieved by relinquishing control and embracing faith, will be a unique and unconditional identity, an overflowing return on the investment of our talents for others, and an unimaginably abundant life. I desire that greatness more than anything.

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

    to the house of the God of Jacob,

that He may teach us His ways

    and that we may walk in His paths.”

Isaiah 2:3

[1] In her novel Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s title character asks a preacher, “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” Belief in meaning itself is at the heart of Christianity.

[2] The power of stories is that they expand our “moral imagination” to recognize the promises fulfilled. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio tells how Abraham expected God to provide a lamb to sacrifice in place of Isaac, but God sent a ram; in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a king expects to see a statue of his wife as she was when she died, but finds that the “statue” has aged as he has. Each must have the eyes to see that this really is the miracle he has been waiting for.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

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.

The Distance from Here to Paradise: Restoring Community

By Sharla Moody, BK ’22. Sharla is majoring in English.

What is – “Paradise” – by Emily Dickinson

What is –  “Paradise” –

Who live there –

Are they “Farmers” –

Do they “hoe” –

Do they know that this is “Amherst” –

And that I –  am coming –  too –

Do they wear “new shoes” –  in “Eden” –

Is it always pleasant –  there –

Won’t they scold us –  when we’re hungry –

Or tell God –  how cross we are –

You are sure there’s such a person

As “a Father” –  in the sky –

So if I get lost –  there –  ever –

Or do what the Nurse calls “die” –

I shan’t walk the “Jasper” –  barefoot –

Ransomed folks –  won’t laugh at me –

Maybe –  “Eden” a’n’t so lonesome

As New England used to be!


“What is — ‘Paradise’ — [?]” asks Emily Dickinson in the first line of one of her many poems. Today, her question resounds. All of us, whether religious or not, have formed an idea of Paradise in our minds. Paradise is a place where justice reigns, where we have a home, where we are content–the world is in order and all of our desires have been met.

Our design for Paradise, though, is often shaped by what we lack in our present conditions. Dickinson centers her poem on this sentiment and longs for a Paradise that alleviates the pains of her present circumstances. For the jobless, Paradise is a state of stable employment; for the ignorant, Paradise is knowledge; for the lonely, Paradise is community. While idealized versions of Paradise may differ from person to person, their roots remain the same: Paradise is a place where all our present negatives are turned positive.

Dickinson divides the poem into three different settings: the past, represented by Eden, the present, depicted by Amherst, and the future, presented as Paradise. This temporal structure presents Paradise as a place where desire is fulfilled. “Eden” evokes the memory of perfection. In our own lives we often idealize the distant past and childhood as seasons of perfect contentedness. Yet when ruminating on childhood recently with my brother and expressing a wish that I could return to that “better” time, he reminded me that I had faced my own share of problems then, though I did not fully understand their gravity or perhaps lacked the skills to process them. Our pasts are seldom truly “simpler times”, are often more difficult than the idealized versions we have created in our minds. This recognition should impress on us that what we consider important is often unique to our present moment, not fundamental to who we are. How quickly we forget the temporal specificity of ourselves! How emptily we define identity according to whether our wants are met.

Nevertheless, the sentiment of a simpler time is a seductive one that clearly captivates Dickinson. For her speaker, Eden represents a time of perfection, when the problems of the present do not yet exist. Eden is “pleasant”, juxtaposed with Amherst, which is “lonesome” and unfriendly, where people “laugh at me”, “scold us”, and are “cross”. The personal past always appears perfect, at least in hindsight clouded by the dilemmas of today. We forget the harsh realities from days prior when we live in harsh realities today. To really consider a place like Eden, whose nature is perfection, is so far beyond our realm of understanding that we label some distant past as perfect. This glossing-over of history, though, implies a craving to experience real perfection. Our memories are misleading: We are not satisfied in our current states. Either our past desires were never fulfilled, leading to dissatisfaction, or those desires have been fulfilled but were so momentary that they bring us no enduring joy. In high school, my English teacher tasked us with writing letters to our future selves, to be received at graduation. I remember being so dumbfounded by what I had written, that sophomore-year-Sharla had been so concerned with a quiz coming up. This quiz didn’t really matter in the long run, and so many desires are similarly highly temporal; of a worry for such an infinitesimal fraction of life that we wonder why they really bothered us.

At the time I’m writing this article, my present concerns are making sure that I finish my p-set by the end of the week and figuring out my transportation to the airport for the next break. Resolving these problems will not have a lasting effect on my long-term future or on my happiness, and this is often true of our desires. This relative insignificance may be hard to discern in the present, as every concern ultimately does impact us: If I fail to turn in my p-set at all, I may do poorly in my class and face consequences related to jobs later, or if I miss my flight I may have a miserable time arranging other accommodations. The fulfillment of present desires only creates a vacuum for future ones: I desire to finish the p-set so that I can then desire to get a good job, and I desire to catch my flight so I can then desire to spend my entire break with my family.

For some reason, we still hope that the fulfillment of present desires will finally bring us to Paradise, even though we can see that the fruition of past desires has not tangibly affected us in the present. But why? Paradise is a place where our desires are eternally fulfilled, but if our desires are so temporal that this is impossible, what’s the point? We will always seek better things, even if the best things are slightly out of reach. For Dickinson’s speaker, the present is “Amherst”, a place described in relation to the speaker’s hopes for the future. The speaker’s questions about Paradise center on how it differs from Amherst. The lines “Is it always pleasant — there — / Won’t they scold us — when we’re hungry — / Or tell God how cross we are —” reveal that the opposites are true of the speaker’s present experience: It is unpleasant, someone scolds the speaker for being hungry, and authority figures are not receptive of the speaker. Most telling, Dickinson includes, “Maybe — ‘Eden’ a’n’t so lonesome / As New England used to be!”, indicating that the speaker presently faces loneliness. This painful present defines the speaker’s desires for her future. The speaker longs for fulfillment in relational community.

New England in the 1840’s seemed to promise the relational  Paradise Dickinson ached for through communalism, notably attempted with the communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands in Massachusetts during Dickinson’s lifetime. Communalism sought Paradise through intentionally-structured community, but failed. Throughout all of history, humans have striven for Paradise on earth–through capitalism, communism, different monarchies, and every other system imaginable. Today, on campus, we similarly seem to believe in human-won Paradise. But communalism couldn’t fill every pain in New England. Nor have capitalism, communism, monarchies, or other systems cured the world of its maladies. We’ve seemingly exhausted all the possible routes on our quest to return to Eden, and none of them take us back home.

We cannot get back to Eden. We have been shut out of the possibility of real utopia on earth. History has proven that humans are inherently selfish and faulty, perhaps to varying degrees, but universally. And even at our best, our desires are unique to us as individuals and largely circumstantial. With this in mind, we can never realize what is perfect and good for us in the long-term, let alone for other people. Instead, we need a common thread to bind us together in unity, while entailing a setting aside of ourselves; that thread needs to be a firm and immutable truth.

When we think about wanting Paradise, we ask, “How can we make the world better?” We acknowledge its faults. I humbly suggest that Christianity addresses the entire conundrum of Paradise: the faults of the world, the implausibility of finding Paradise due to fractured humanity, and our inability to pinpoint what exactly is good for us. But it also offers a way to reach Paradise, though not through human endeavors toward the past or future. Christianity offers the consistency of a loving God who lives in infinity, steadfast despite the changing tides of time. Christianity is not mere wish fulfillment, but rather a better solution than communalism, communism, capitalism, or any other system imaginable. It provides better, truer, steadfast desires that will lead us to Eden. For Dickinson’s speaker, this is the answer to her questions of Paradise. It seems that the speaker dies in the final stanza of the poem, marked by change in verb tense–“shan’t” and “won’t” become “ain’t”, and now New England is in the past. The ambiguity of “Maybe –” suggests that perhaps she finds herself in restored relationship with others and in satisfying community. A good God desires good things for His creation. And unlike people, who are fickle and wayward and woefully imperfect, God is all-seeing, constant, and above all else, good.

Is Paradise for ourselves and for our campus just around the corner, after the next protest, after the next wellness discussion? Perhaps. But perhaps our desires for justice, home, and contentedness, though extraordinarily noble pursuits, are too temporal to sustain us and too blurry around the edges to formulate in a way that is good for everyone. It often feels we will never succeed in our aspirations. Every day we hunger for Paradise, but the answer is in plain view. Thinking externally of ourselves, outside of the finite timeline that binds us to specific moments, and thinking outside of our own desires, we reach for it. So we stretch our hands towards Paradise.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.