Tag Archives: Desire

Desiring Unity: Reflections on Protest and Protestantism

By Sharmaine Koh, SM ’22. Sharmaine is majoring is Statistics & Data Science and History.

– Protest-

Open your G-cals. Type in “Yale Campus Protest” sometime in the next semester. We can probably log a protest into our fingertip calendars with more certainty than we can schedule that let’s-grab-a-meal meal.

Part of this certainty arises from the constancy and regularity of the Yale Protest. The image of a colourful crowd ringed by tanned gothic walls is all too familiar and frequent. There are fresh faces from walked-out-of lectures. There are lips shaped like “O”s for shouts and “o”s for boos (and “ok boomer”). There are fingers clenched white around signs and loudhailers. In their time-stopping, cop-defying resistance, the passionate motley compels the world to stop and listen.

As I look at the faces of peers just like me — poised to shout a slogan, stony in defiance, or alight in hopeful laughter — a deep sense of empowerment I can’t quite describe bubbles up within me. But even as my heart swells with the slogans, and I scavenge for the will raise my fist, I doubt. Suddenly their banners and fists seem vacuous and performative, misguided and divisive. I confront the dissention of my classmates with a conflicting allergic discomfort.I walk away confused and disappointed with myself, wondering why and how to grapple with a simultaneous rapture and repugnance towards this spectacle.

As I delve deeper into this inner conundrum, I recognise the shutters with which I consider protest. Where I come from, unlicensed public demonstrations are illegal. In Singapore, we are raised to be hyper-conscious of vulnerability, suspicious of dissent, and protective of order. Afraid of fracture, we sweep inconvenient alternative truths under the carpet because to confront them, we must struggle amongst ourselves. Underneath the suave confidence of a small state, there is a nagging fear that there is little else left for us without the ability to agree among just 6 million people. We have come to accept our absence of protest culture as a necessary sacrifice. And there is fruit in this “unity”, too. There is no doubt that internal stability — whether artificially imposed by a heavy-handed state or not — is part of what has allowed us to grow and thrive. We look to crippling protests and restive disunity in our neighbourhood with wary eyes and give thanks that “it doesn’t happen here.”

But surely, I think, this settling for a limited unity bodes only an empty house. Behind the cheery facade, feuds simmer under saccharine smiles, its members go to sleep with unresolved disagreements, elephants in rooms are ignored. As things fall apart, it seems insufficient to hush protests and trample on truths in a desperate attempt to just hold it all together. An aversion to trouble is not a desire for unity.  You do not want to live under the roof of a house you no longer believe in. You couldn’t ask a Hong Kong citizen to stay acquiescent to what they see as Chinese hegemony in the interest of “unity”. You couldn’t expect Ho Chi Minh or Gandhi to place independence on the backburner for imperial “unity”. You couldn’t envision student activists at Yale being “complicit” with the administration’s investments in fossil fuels for some campus “unity”.

Therefore, I see on the other hand the need for protest. I recognise the fruit in its struggle for a vision of truth, for the traumas of the last century have produced a character more insidious that the rabble-rousing protestor — the bystander. Writing after the fall of Nazi Germany, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller penned a poetic confession concerning the cowardice of the Protestant clergy, the German intellectuals, and himself:

First they came for the  socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

—  Martin Niemöller, “First they came …” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Today, we have cultivated a Niemöllerean aversion to this passive submission. There is no pride in the guilt from all sides, Germans and Christians alike. In the face of feverish national unity, Niemöller held his tongue. As Hitler justified anti-semitism with the writings of Luther, Christian fellows preserved their peace. Swept up in the currents of right-wing nationalism, people watched Germany unite under a swastika and murder millions of Jews. Sure, in the mass mobilisation of Total War, Naziism united the nation. Nobody protested. But today, nobody praises Nazi Germany for its unity during the war. Today, nobody praises the many around the world who stood passive in the face of genocide. They were not united. They were complicit.

– Protestantism –

Martin Niemöller reminds me of another German Lutheran. Four centuries earlier, this other  German Lutheran Martin —  Martin Luther himself — took a decidedly  different approach. Luther was a monk responsible for starting the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church. Appraising the state of the Catholic Church in 1517, Luther saw its corruption, objected to the excesses of papal authority, and published a substantial thesis detailing 95 points of practical and doctrinal disagreements. Protestants today are named for Luther’s revolutionary protest.

I consider all of this with conflicted fallibility, navigating the complexities of my own Catholic identity. In Luther’s protest, I recognise the courage that Niemöller lacked. In Luther’s eyes, it would be a greater sin to stay silent and preserve a superficial unity, than to resist the corruption of his Catholic contemporaries. But I also see the painful legacy of division that the Reformation bred — 500 years of flurried mitosis that leaves us with more than 38,000 denominations today.

So I struggle as the Catholic Church struggles to discard the indignant hurt that the Reformation has bred. I struggle with an acquired moral authority that comes with believing we were the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” fighting against the legacy of a protest that was “heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth” (Pope Leo X, 1520).  I am saddened that even as I find love and joy in exploring my faith with my Protestant brothers and sisters, on Sundays we still worship at different churches. My desire for reconciliation and Christian unity is restrained by an obligatory counter-protest to Luther’s protest.

“The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the body of Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?” [emphasis added]

Ut unum sint, Pope John Paul II (The Vatican website)[1]

Such is Christianity’s tragic desire for unity. Martins and John Pauls, Protestants and Catholics, protestors and protested-against, even if seemingly opposed, don’t actually disagree on this fundamental thing. They recognise that true unity needs to be founded on truth. The problem then, is confronting our different version of truth.

St. Augustine provides a nice analogy for the necessity of truth to unity.

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law and agreed on.”

The City of God, Book IV, St. Augustine (Trans. Marcus Dodds, 1950, Modern Library ed.)

If we assume that kingdoms stand on the side of justice and have apprehended some form of truth, this big band of men is respected for its unity. But unity among a band of robbers can hardly be celebrated — it seems absurd to respect men for uniting around unjust deeds.

Thus, I realise that protest in and of itself is not the problem, but the solution. Underlying the spirit of protest and protestantism is a desire for both truth and unity. When the rabble is roused and the banners are raised, we are alerted to the fact that the truth around which we might once have united has gone awry. If unity needs truth, disunity signals that truth has not been attained. Society has gotten something wrong, and protest points it out. We must keep looking and keep struggling.Therefore, protest — ostensibly divisive, arguably polarising — is paradoxically what will realise our desire for truth and unity. With this, I resolve my discomfort with the protester, recognising that there is good in them.

But if protest is the solution, why have we not resolved anything? I consider the Yale protest again. Every semester, with the regularity of moon cycles, Yale protesters gather in front of Salovey’s office and yell at his impervious windows. Every semester, Yale administrators pace about their offices, draw the blinders to survey the chanting crowd, then sit down to send a school-wide email. Every semester, the protesters and the provosts go home after a day of protesting and listening to protests, pat themselves on the back for yelling and listening to the yells respectively, and fall asleep to the musical sounds of free speech and healthy discourse.

Perhaps we continue to sleep at night because the permission of protest has ironically become a flimsy band-aid for our cowardice. Underlying a tolerance for protest is a learned respect for the equality of opinions, however different. But these differences also worry us because we doubt whether they  can actually be reconciled. As religion encounters atheism, as conservatives encounter liberals, as Yale protestors encounter Peter Salovey, they recognise in each other sometimes fundamentally contrary positions. The right to protest becomes our response to this uncomfortable difference. Protest simply becomes a ritual to remind ourselves that we agree to disagree.  But we stay in the little kingdoms of people who agree with us. Now and then, we open the windows to let in the noises that other kingdoms are making in our backyard, and we pat ourselves on the back for even opening the windows. The noise, however, is merely ambient. We don’t really listen to each other.

– Beyond Protest –

The words of another Martin Luther come to mind.

“At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this […] The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.,  in a Q&A session at Western Michigan University, December 18 1963 (God and Culture, 2010)

Speaking in Jim Crow America, King lamented the Church’s failure to uphold its responsibility as “the moral guardian of community” by not starting a movement of desegregation. The Civil Rights leader spoke specifically of racial division, but his words are hauntingly relevant to the unity of the Church as a whole today.

What happens after the protest? In the context of the Church, we built separate churches. We worshipped in separate places on Sundays. We settled for unity within our individual denominations. But in some other ways, we moved forward. In 1999,  after extensive ecumenical dialogue, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The revolutionary doctrine professed “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”, the doctrinal point at the very root of the initial conflict. In 2015, Catholics and Protestants jointly held a prayer service in Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It has taken us 500 years, but today, the movement towards ecumenism, or Christian unity, is a hopeful détente of sorts.

Part of the reason why Christian unity is so urgent and necessary is because we recognise that the Church was not meant to be divided in this way. In Colossians 3:15, Paul writes: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” Because of this intended wholeness in Christ, there is widespread recognition that Christians have a responsibility to mend divisions in the Church that has for a long time festered in its fallen state.

But outside of the Church, the desire for unity feels somewhat more muted. Somehow, it feels as though the world has stopped believing that it is better together. Underlying semesterly protests, political unrests, and international strife, is a bewildering paradox. The resistance clings to a desperate hope that their protest will change things, but at the same time doesn’t believe that the other side will ever “get it”. In a bitter loss of trust and faith, protestors keep up the yelling to be heard.

So what happens after the protest? In the context of Yale and the world, the protesters pack up and go home. They come back again tomorrow, next week, or next semester. The protest starts again, and the cycle continues ad infinitum.  Or, if the belligerents choose non-confrontation, the resistance breaks away, lives a separate existence, spawns an alternative culture. If they choose revolution, history has often proven it to be bloody and tragic. Either way, the relationship is essentially antagonistic, and we stop daring for radical reconciliation because it seems so unattainable.

As I consider Luther’s contest and the Yalies’ protests, their legacies make the desire for unity seem like a tragic one, for the desire for unity really is a desire for truth, for a common ground to stand on. As hope in truth dissolves in the post-modern world, that grounding is increasingly hard to find. But straddling my cosmopolitan and Catholic identities, I wonder if the Church’s own experience with division might hold kernels of wisdom that the wider world can look towards. Surveying the history of Catholic tension with Protestants has been surprisingly and remarkably hope-giving.  It has taken us 500 years, but in those years we have revised our respective positions, we have learned to listen, and we have actively sought out areas of agreement, while holding fast to certain principles that distinguish us. It is some proof that a desire for unity, a tempered patience, a passage of time, and a deep faith to lean on God, will bear fruit.

One thing Christianity does well is daring to posit and pursue an absolute Truth. No matter how vehemently Methodists disagree with Mormons or Seventh-Day Adventists, they all assert that God, at the very least, is Truth. In the plurality of today’s world, this profession that truth is absolute has fallen out of fashion. Relativism — the belief (ironically) that “truth is relative” — has often served as a conservative and cautious cop-out to the overwhelming number of beliefs in our world.

But we do ourselves no justice by asserting that truth is relative and using that as a justification for separate existences, veiling it as “mutual respect”. For nobody takes to the streets to protest or counter-protest a truth that they think is relative. Seeing different beliefs as “relative truths” is not respectful, but patronising. We are simply duplicitous fence-sitters that declare “everyone is right, subjectively”, while really believing that we are more right. Relativism’s moralising, self-contradicting ambivalence makes us no different from the silent Niemöllerean bystander. It is a defence mechanism that really veils a deep-seated insecurity of having one’s own beliefs challenged. The protester or the protested-against, in contrast, fare better when they boldly posit that they believe their perspective better approximates the absolute truth. And it stops short of bigotry if they open up this belief to challenge from opponents, in humble conversation with others as co-searchers for truth.

Thus, the pursuit of unity must start with the desire for truth that underlies the instinct to take an absolute stand and protest. When communities start to fray and fall apart, protest endeavours to revitalise unity by signalling that truth has lost its way. But with each act of protest, we are in danger of exchanging our artificial unity for a convenient disunity, where a limited sense of agreement is easier established in smaller and smaller groups. We have to go further. The desire for unity must be carried through beyond the protest.  All sides must dare to believe in reunification.

The Christian case is a hopeful one, because God has revealed to us the necessity of our unity in Him. No matter the disagreement, our concomitant desire for truth is founded in Christ. Charged with a teleological mission, we are convicted to strive towards Truth Himself. In the endeavour’s seeming unattainability, we have God to lean on and faith that His will be done on earth as in heaven. Outside of God, the picture is rather different. Yet no matter what form secularism’s absolute Truth takes, belief in its fundamental attainability and the necessity of unity charges the secular establishment and the secular activist with a greater urgency and moral responsibility to keep striving. If not faith in God, progress at least requires faith in the humanity of the other side. If we really hold such faith, maybe our G-cals might look a little different next semester. Maybe we can grab a meal with Salovey. We can only hope.

[1] Ut unum sint, “That they may be one”, is a 1995 encyclical by Pope John Paul II on the Catholic Church’s relations with the Orthodox churches and other Christian ecclesiastal communities. An authoritative document on the Catholic church’s ecumenical commitment, it reinforces the need for unity in the Church, and further dialogue with Protestants.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.

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.