Desire is instinctual. It lives deep in our animal selves. Desire wants what it wants, without rationale, often without full awareness. Most of us wrestle throughout our lives with the desires we’ve denied ourselves in order to fit into the “good” box and to be accepted in our family and community.
So how do we stop fearing desire and pursue what we want?
Thanks to the following guests for participating:
Charlotte Fox Weber grew up in Connecticut and Paris and went to the University of Bristol, where she studied English and Philosophy. She did her psychotherapy training at the Tavistock & Portman Trust, the Institute of Psychoanalysis, WPF and Regent’s University.
She is registered and accredited by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), and she is a registered member of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (MBACP). Charlotte founded The School of Life Psychotherapy in 2015, and now works in private practice and is co-founder of Examined Life. She is also a trustee on the board of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. What We Want is her first book for the trade.
Journalist Leslie Bennetts spent 24 years as a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and many other well known publications. She is the author of Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life Loves , Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers and The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?
Writer Marcia DeSanctis, author of the 2022 essay collection, A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life and New York Times travel bestseller 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go.
Grace Guinness is a mother, wife and poet.
Here are some of the resources from the show:
Luke Burgis talks about thick desires and thin desires for the Big Think:
Books looked at this week:
Charlotte Fox Weber: What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires
Luke Burgis: Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life
PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.
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Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.
Welcome to season 2 episode 68 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky topics and skills by reading through the best books out there.
Desire seems to frighten us because it appears to contradict the ideas we have about our lives, each other and the world. We like to believe that reason is king, and all else its subjects. The logic of reason demands dominion over feeling and so also over desire. In the age of reason, desire is expected to conform to the shape of the intellect.
So why do we fear desire and how do we get it back? Here is veteran journalist Leslie Bennetts, who spent 24 years as a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and many other well known publications. She is the author of Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life Loves , Losses, and Liberation of Joan Rivers and The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?
LESLIE BENNETTS: It can be particularly difficult, I think, for women to figure out what they want because they’ve been indoctrinated from birth and gender roles that encourage them to place the highest value on being desired and wanted by a man. It’s the Mr. Wright Prince Charming scenario. Uh, and female ambition tends to be stigmatised, and women are viewed as selfish if they pursue their own individual goals. So often, women commit to marriage and families and do what’s best for their husbands and their children. And it’s not until their kids grow up and they’re 40 or 50 or 60 or even 70, that they start thinking about what they individually want. And sometimes it’s very difficult to figure that out if you’ve never thought about it until that age. And, uh, alternatively, it’s incredibly thrilling and liberating at any stage in life to figure out who you are, what your own potential is, and what you want. But it represents, uh, incredible freedom for women who have not done it until later on, and it’s a very joyful experience.
(Back to host)
Our first book is from psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber with What We Want. Fox Weber grew up in Connecticut and Paris and went to the University of Bristol, where she studied English and Philosophy. She did her psychotherapy training at the Tavistock & Portman Trust, the Institute of Psychoanalysis, WPF and Regent’s University.
She is registered and accredited by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), and she is a registered member of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (MBACP). Charlotte founded The School of Life Psychotherapy in 2015, and now works in private practice and is co-founder of Examined Life. She is also a trustee on the board of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. She was kind enough to speak to me, hence here is a snippet, but find the full interview on http://www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel.
CHARLOTTE FOX WEBER: I think that we’ve been socialised to play, uh, games with desire. So, in a way, it is like Hideandseek, where, uh, we put on a show and we think that we’ll be more likeable if we act like we want certain things and we hide other longings and we’re socialised and conditioned in every culture in different ways. But certainly I don’t even know what culture I’m from. In your introduction, you kind of alluded to my coming from different places and even different trainings for psychotherapy. I feel like having manners requires restraint. But I guess my frustration with therapy was that I’ve always seen therapy as a place for radical candour and for uncovering some of those barriers and roadblocks. So I thought that it could be a space for deep exploration and looking without hesitance at, uh, what is really going on. And I think it is that space. But I think that the therapist I saw and in a way, it’s a microcosm for what goes on. There is a real kind of embarrassment around desire because it just feels problematic. We don’t quite know what to do with it. It feels too much. And there are so many reasons for that. We fear it in ourselves. If we want something that we can’t have, we’re afraid that we’ll find out that we want something that is just unfeasible or that will lose whatever we care about. There’s that kind of vulnerability that comes with longing. I think there’s something really tragic about an unlived life. And I think we all have fantasies of the unlived life. So it’s not about shutting that down. But one of the things that I found in my work is that, uh, uh, we sometimes put our best selves into a kind of storage facility. And it’s like, big yellow storage facility where I actually sometimes can be a hoarder in every sense. And it’s as if we’re keeping our best furniture, our favourite dishes and gems and jewels and saving it for some other existence, and then this life, we can deprive ourselves and hold back. And you don’t want everything that you care about going into storage. So I think it’s really interesting. And that’s where therapy can be a very creative space where these fantasies emerge of the kind of unlived life that you are longing for and dreaming of and actually counting on and I think kind of dipping into that and taking some of those treasures and applying it to your life right now. It’s a beautiful thing. I think if your unlived life is where you really have, uh, meaning, then what’s happening in the life you’re actually living? I think that we’re in motion as long as we’re living creatures. And I think that having identity crises is not a bad thing. I’m actually in favour of them, and they’re uncomfortable. And I don’t think that we should have a crisis at every moment. But a crisis opens up possibility and change in growth. And there are various times when it’s necessary to revise our understanding of who we are and who we’re becoming. And it, uh, connects to your previous question about love that actually our definitions change, the meaning changes and we change. So the instant love that you feel like for a friend, for example, uh, 20 years later, you may have some of that, but also there’s a lot of growth and adjustment. And I think that you have to be flexible and constantly allow for updated versions and definitions and understanding. I think that wanting to win is actually a really complicated longing that we all have and it’s not comfortable. And I am, um, really interested in it because we don’t talk about it that much, even though we acted out all the time. And outside of sports psychology, it doesn’t even come up that much. Like in my psychotherapy training. I don’t remember even really studying it. And when I was doing research on it, again, sports, I’m not particularly athletic. I mean, I’m very impressed by people who are and congratulations, but that’s not where my competitive longings play out. But I’m not alone in having those complicated, unsightly feelings because I used to also pretend not to be competitive. So I would say I’m not the competitive type. Maybe not when it comes to team sports, but in other weird ways, absolutely. And I think it plays out just everywhere. I’m not alone in feeling that conflict. And when you start looking for it, it’s this kind of underbelly in so many dynamics. So I think, uh, it can really get in the way of things because we don’t deal with it. So, of all of the desires, it’s in some ways the most taboo. But I mean, attention is another one that we all want. We all want attention, but we’re pretty bad at saying that out loud unless we’re children.
(Back to host)
In What We Want, Fox Weber says we all have wants, and we’re all conflicted. We show some of our wants, but others we hide, even from our own awareness. We’re afraid of failing and we’re anxious about succeeding. Recognizing and understanding what we want helps us face ourselves without flinching and galvansizes us to live lives that are more fulfilling and joyful.
Unfortunately, she adds that we are socialised to perform and conceal desires. We pretend to want the appropriate things, in the right way. We banish desires that we’re not supposed to have. We put our secret wants into a kind of psychological storage facility – our unlived lives.
Fox Weber believes that people-pleasing and perfectionism can pull us away from daring to have fresh experiences; we spin our wheels in avoidance. Hence the book encourages you to know and accept your desires. It provides an alternative to the sense of shame that patrols and silences our secret longings. The best way out of feeling stuck is to understand our desires, recognize what they mean, and clarify priorities. She pinpoints 12 desires throughout her training and journey as a psychotherapist.
The first is to love and be loved. We search for love, grapple with fantasies, find it impossible, demand it, fear it, destroy it, push it away, yearn for it. Life can be heartbreaking. But love makes life beautiful. One of the biggest obstacles to finding real love can be hanging on to a rigid story about how it’s supposed to be. The stories we tell ourselves about love touch us to the core. They shape our beliefs about human beings, about other people, about ourselves, about life itself. Our stories are usually both painful and pleasurable.
As a psychotherapist, she helps people voice stories, revise them, and understand the meaningful ones. We’re often afraid to really love ourselves. We think we need proof of our lovableness from others before we can let ourselves love fully. The author writes that we are often terrified of making mistakes, and the tyranny of perfectionism locks us into an anxious, frozen state which acts as an obstacle to any pursuit of relationships and experiences out in the world. We both want and fear love. The curtain of rejection – our fear of rejection – holds us back.
When we recognize our basic desires, we can distil the myths from the facts, and the shape of love becomes real and possible. This might mean sitting with our own uncertainty, or realising what we already have. She talks about her patient Tessa in this instance, where she opened up about her life as she lay dying.
Tessa’s story reveals unprocessed regret, which can be a catastrophic troublemaker. Acknowledging regret is a courageous and loving thing to do. It’s an act of love for yourself to recognize that you’d like to have done something differently.
The conflict of desire plays out in relationships, bringing people together and breaking them apart. Justin Lehmiller’s extensive research on sexual fantasies shows the pervasiveness of fantasy (97% of people surveyed fantasize regularly), but we are so easily embarrassed and ashamed of our unspoken desires. Obstacles make it safe for us, in case what we want is unattainable. Desire can come from a sense of lack. We can form desires to compensate for deprivation, loss, emotional pain.
We all struggle at times to respect and own and accept our choices. Desire usually leans towards fantasy, whereas choice leans towards reality. There’s a saying that emotion plus reason equals wisdom. We can apply this to how we make decisions: choices fuelled entirely by desire, or choices devoid of desire, often land us in a space of disappointment. Where possible, think about the underlying desires when you’re making a choice, and what part may be fantasy and what’s realistic. Desire exaggerates and minimises.
Ignoring desires comes at a cost. We tend to protest, resent, displace, or punish others or ourselves. In the words of Socrates: ‘From the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate’.
Fox Weber asked the Yale brain research scientist Amy Arnsten, why do human beings want to feel desire so much in the first place? She said: ‘I think this is a very primitive circuitry that allows an organism to thrive – pleasure in eating, drinking, sex, and being in the right temperature all allow us to be in the correct physiological conditions,’ she said, ‘and to continue our species.’
Another desire she showcases is understanding. Recognizing patterns and acknowledging roles helps us make sense of experiences and find paths forward. When we understand something emotionally, there’s a thread of continuity that brings experiences together in an organizing way. Cultivating a healthy sense of self requires constant fine-tuning and updating.
Understanding is a continual work in progress. Truly understanding who we are, even if we don’t like everything (and how could we?), makes the experience of being in our own skin more comfortable. When we comprehend our true motivations and can sort through our mixed feelings, we can accept and acknowledge contradictions and inconsistencies, both in ourselves and in others.
There’s a mediaeval philosophical term haecceity which means ‘thisness’ – it’s the essence that makes a person singular, like no other person. Who we are isn’t set in stone, and we all have the capacity to change (to a greater or lesser degree), but we can have a kind of internal anchor that keeps us grounded and true while other parts of us expand, change and evolve.
The Ship of Theseus is a famous philosophical question about the metaphysics of identity. Is an object (the ship) that has had, over time, its components replaced, still fundamentally the same object, the same ship? It’s a useful illustration of the idea that there can be a persistent and enduring identity, even as there is growth and loss and change and permutation over time. Self-knowledge is a continual work in progress.
An obvious desire is power. Given that it means influence and authority over others, the blatant pursuit of power often makes us uncomfortable. When we consider what it’s really about, we can make our own choices. Personal empowerment sounds kinder and more modest; it’s power’s slightly softer, more demure sister. Empowerment is about seeking personal responsibility and reclaiming confidence to live one’s own life.
Power is about being in charge, having influence and authority. It’s also about proving significance in the world. Power and control can seem like variations of the same thing, but there are considerable distinctions. There are so many powerful people who are out of control. Controlled and controlling people often don’t actually have a huge amount of power. Self-control, and restraint, are in many ways the ability to marshal
private power over oneself.
The psychologist Dacher Keltner studied the relationship between empathy and power and discovered that the very qualities that helped people gain power (empathy, fairness, sharing) began to fade once these people became powerful. Grasping for power leaves us with deformed reflections of ourselves. Equality gives us honest mirroring.
Agency, authority and responsibility come into personal empowerment and power. We can have enough awareness to make choices that align with our values.
Attention is a huge part of desire. Wanting attention is utterly human but it’s still stigmatised. ‘That’s so attention-seeking,’ is a common line dispirited adults say when people act out. It gets said of the addict, the anorexic, the self-harmer, the exhibitionist, the drama queen. We often describe people as attention-seeking as a way of justifying our frustration. Underneath attention-seeking behaviour lies a plea to be witnessed, however disguised and painful.
We are less forgiving of grown-ups who crave attention – attention-seeking is the birthright of babies and children. But the desire doesn’t necessarily expire. We just try to banish it. We’re socialised to pretend not to need much attention. We’re supposed to outgrow the desperate need to show off, so we try to show off discreetly instead, caring for others and voicing our concerns about them, in order to be seen ourselves.
The desire to be noticed has always been an essential part of the human condition. But the need to be witnessed can never be fulfilling when it’s compulsive, dependent, and based on exaggerated ego ideals.
People who aren’t getting enough attention often struggle to pay attention. And paying attention can diminish the need for attention. When we find a way to give full focus, whether to a conversation, a book, a project, the need for others to pay attention to us can recede and feel less desperate. Being interested and having the ability to focus are essentials for learning and developing. It’s how we learn to discern, to be observant. We express love and care through attention. Paying attention to one another is how we connect, engage, grow.
Psychiatrist Gurmeet Kanwal told the author ‘It’s a core part of being human, noticing what’s going on. Attention organises our experiences.’ When we don’t feel attended to, we are less likely to want to pay full attention.
Fox Weber says we struggle to continually pay attention to demanding people. In any relationship, we might start out with enthusiastic interest, but after a while, it can feel futile and unrewarding to dedicate attention to repetitive rants. We want to protect ourselves. We pull back and withdraw the very thing most sought-after: our attention. Attention is a form of love and understanding.
Freedom is also hugely important. The desire for freedom often shows itself through protest and rebellion. Esther Perel writes about the conflict: ‘From the moment we are born, we straddle two sets of contradicting needs: the need for security and the need for freedom. They spring from different sources and pull us in different directions.’
If we avoid commitment, that isn’t exactly the same thing as feeling truly free internally if we’re depriving ourselves of the joys of intimacy. But if we overcommit and overextend ourselves, we can feel trapped and at the mercy of obligations and responsibilities.
Existentialists, most notably Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, advocated in a rather extreme, absolute way for freedom in love. De Beauvoir wrote that women are taught that finding love is our only and final destiny, and this is ultimately unfulfilling and not enough. Women must work hard to seek freedom, she wrote, as we have underestimated how difficult and important freedom is for us. What she calls the ‘mutilation of subservience’ is an apt description of what can happen to anyone in a relationship. Whatever our gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, culture, age group – we can all be subsumed by our relationships to the point of forgetting how to be free.
Some of us are intoxicated by the idea of freedom, but when we are strongly attached to anything in life, we cannot be entirely free because we have something to lose. We can trick ourselves into thinking we’re doing as we please, when we’re psychologically tied to voices of authority we’ve internalised. We might partially want independence, but we also revert to the familiarity of being told what to do, and we doubt ourselves.
Awareness of emotional freedom alerts us to opportunities. A degree of internal freedom is almost always available. The problem is that we haven’t been taught how to pursue freedom in healthy dosages, and the meaning and definition of “freedom” is confusing.
Consider the varieties of freedom, and continually ask yourself what kind of freedom you want. Adjust the terms and conditions of your commitments, to make space.
Creativity is also part of desire. Playing is essential to learning, but adults are rarely instructed to do this. If we expand our sense of creativity and what it can mean for how we live our lives, we can add texture and nuance to our daily experience in countless ways.
Perfectionism can store away secret one-day fantasies. We feel blocked. If not internally, we are obstructed by circumstances. We stick with what has reliably failed. Productivity easily fills the space for creativity and play.
Creative expression can shine a light on our fantasies and help us deal with reality. Fox Weber says see if you can note some of the ways your mind creates theatre, so you can appreciate the colour of your inner world without being at its mercy such as when you feel jealous or you catastrophize.
Feeling like you belong is a deep desire for many. The social psychologist Abraham Maslow placed belongingness in the pyramid of needs; we’re social creatures and we like to be part of groups, at least sometimes. Community gives us support, protection, sometimes purpose. We’re bolstered by endorsement and acceptance. But there’s a darkness to the reality of what it’s like for people who don’t belong. Promoting a sense of belongingness doesn’t address the crisis of not belonging.
The yearning to belong can be compensation for earlier experiences of exclusion. Sometimes it’s deferred obedience to the oppressive culture, or a desire to individuate. It shows up as feeling of alienation. Not belonging can be a crisis, a catastrophic feeling of loneliness and despair, and it’s stigmatised.
Systems and cultures are flawed in so many ways. We can’t always control how we’re defined, how we’re typecast and portrayed, and there’s deep injustice and unfairness in life. James Baldwin made this fascinating remark in 1971 in a conversation with the anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.’
At times, you might feel alienated and at odds – with your own sense of self, and with the people around you – but if you can feel comfortable in being all that are, you can experience not belonging with more ease, even with delight at times. Remember fitting in often goes against belonging. It’s self-presentation, performative, often insincere. Belonging is genuine.
The desire to win can be crafty and contradictory. Winning motivates us to learn and grow, even without our full awareness, so many relationships have a crust of rivalry. Alfred Adler coined the terms ‘inferiority complex’ and ‘superiority complex’. Adler maintained that we start life feeling inferior, and we spend our lives trying to prove our superiority. How ironic that neither Adler nor Sigmund Freud seemed to have insight or equanimity about their years of rivalry.
Our wish to win is one way we try to cope with inequality and scarcity. We may be responding to limited supplies of parental love, money, opportunities. But even when we do have equality, we can still feel the threat of a rival that disturbs our sense of equilibrium, safety, and abundance. We compete with ourselves too – the contest between the life we’re actually living and our fantasised life of imagined possibilities.
We can get drawn into thinking we need to prove ourselves, no matter how small the stakes, and it can go on for decades. We’re inconsistent about what we actually want from our rivals, and we’re often competing with phantoms from the past along with what’s at hand. When relationships become hostile zones of combat, the threat of mutually assured destruction increases. Decide for yourself when you want to exit a duel, or bow out of a rivalry. After all winning does not shield us from loss. Compersion is the lovely antidote to Schadenfreude. Joy in someone else’s success. To get to compersion, we might have to work through our own darkness.
Our desire to connect is central to human existence. Without connection, it’s hard to know how we could think of ourselves. Our desire for connection is about the dichotomy of separateness and unity. Attention and connection are about feeling seen and heard. But shouting may get attention without forging a connection. Connecting is about joining in a shared experience. Connecting with others and with parts of ourselves brings fragmented bits of experience into an intelligible, coherent narrative.
Connections usually come from a variety of sources. No one gets all their needs met through one person, whether that’s oneself or another human being. When we take a flexible, expansive view of life, we’re receptive to connections from a bigger range. Allow for diverse sources. Be discerning. Don’t try to connect with everyone you meet.
Like power, control is a complicated desire. The desire for control is about safety and mastery. We like to think that we can oversee what happens, and we want the security of a sense of certainty. No matter how in charge we think we are, we are constantly dealing with the threat of loss that surrounds us.
Our second book is from Luke Burgis with Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life. Burgis is an entrepreneur who founded and ran four startup companies before changing tack and travelling abroad. Here he is
LUKE BURGIS: Man is the creature that doesn’t know what to desire. So we look to other people in order to know we’re very different than any animals. Animals have instinctual responses. They’re hungry, they eat. If they’re cold, they look for warmth. And we have those instinctual drives too. But how we’re different is that we have this whole universe of abstract desires that we don’t have any kind of internal radar for. We don’t have a mechanism for choosing between these objects of desire. Desire requires forces that are bigger than ourselves. If we could snap our fingers and want anything, then the world would be a very different place. But it’s not the way that desire works. So what is mimetic desire? To say that desire is mimetic is to say that it’s imitative. We look to models of desire, people that help show us what is worth wanting. There’s kind of a certain humility needed to understand that I’m the product of other people’s desires, starting with my parents, starting with the friends that I had when I was a kid. We continue that process of mimetic desire well into adulthood, where it goes underground and becomes a lot more hidden than it is when we’re children.
(Back to host)
In the mid-twentieth century, French academic René Girard was hired by a US university to teach a number of literature courses whose texts were unfamiliar to him.
While reading through the assigned texts, Girard noticed a curious pattern: characters in the novels he was reading never seemed to desire anything spontaneously. Instead, they always relied on other characters to show them what they should want.
Girard developed this observation into his theory of mimetic desire. The theory states that our desires aren’t intrinsic; rather we learn what to want, just like we learn how to speak a language.
The term mimetic draws from the Greek word mimesthai, which means to imitate. So, as you might expect, mimetic desire is the hidden force that causes us to imitate others secretly in all areas of life, including love, friendship, and business.
What’s the problem with that? Well, for one thing, mimetic desire compels sameness. In driving us all to be the same, it also causes intense rivalry.
The author says social media is perhaps the greatest engine of mimesis ever invented. Sites like Facebook and Instagram provide billions of models for us, accessible at all times right in the palms of our hands. These platforms are based on showing us what other people have and want – and ultimately, dictating what we have and want.
Mimesis exists on scales large and small. One of the first and most important ways you can diminish its power over you is by identifying and shedding light on your models.
Often, businesses take advantage of mimesis in order to sell us things. One particularly skilled user of mimesis was Edward Bernays, a twentieth-century PR guru. In one instance, he asked a doctor friend to write to other doctors, urging them to recommend that people eat bacon and eggs for breakfast. Why? Because Bernays was working for a company that sold pork, and he knew that doctors are effective models – especially if they don’t appear to be selling you anything.
One great tip for identifying some of your models? Think about the people you least want to see succeed. You’re probably engaged in a mimetic rivalry with them.
Who are you more jealous of: Jeff Bezos, or a coworker whose job is similar to yours but whose salary is higher? Bezos is a resident of what the author calls Celebristan. This is an abstract space in which models are separated from us by time, space, or social status. The coworker, on the other hand, resides in Freshmanistan – a place where our models are in direct competition with us, causing intense rivalry and strife.
Models who live in Celebristan are considered external mediators of desire because they exist outside of our social sphere. We understand that we have no ability to compete directly with them; something about them is unattainable. As a result, we don’t feel threatened by them.
Models who live in Freshmanistan, on the other hand, model desire from inside our social world – they’re internal mediators of desire. And their proximity to us makes them feel like threats.
Freshmanistan is where most of us live, and in it, we’re subject to a wide range of distortions. One major distortion is the negative cycle of reflexivity. Reflexivity creates self-defeating cycles – for instance, we worry about how people will react to what we’re going to say, which makes us change what we say.
Enzo Ferrari and Ferrucio Lamborghini, some of the greatest automobile tycoons, have equally an interesting rivalry. However, Lamborghini stopped short at making a racing car. Because Lamborghini renounced his rivalry with Ferrari, the crisis never spiralled out of control.
Hence if you’re engaged in a mimetic rivalry with someone, he says head to your social media accounts, unfollow that person, and stop checking up on them. Eventually, you’ll stop viewing them as a threat, and wind up much happier.
Mimesis spreads like energy from person to person, building as it goes. This causes rivalry, conflict, and, eventually, crisis. All the tension must somehow be released – and that’s where the scapegoating mechanism comes in. In some situations, it defers tension.
However, we see the foolishness of using a scapegoat, and we’re hyper-aware of injustice against innocent victims.
Burgis says that mimetic systems bind us to artificial, unfulfilling goals. He described the story of Michelin star chef Sebastien Bras, who got into the business through his father. He believed the Michelin star system was toxic, no longer driving him to succeed but making him conform to a set of specific rules. So he asked to be removed from the guide.
Everyone is immersed in some kind of mimetic system that has them wanting to achieve some kind of badge of honour, award, or mark of prestige. Fortunately, you can combat the influence these systems have over you and make choices that actually leave you fulfilled.
To do that, you’ll need to put your desires to the test. How? Well, before making a decision, try projecting yourself onto your deathbed. How does each choice make you feel? Which one leaves you feeling fulfilled at the hypothetical end of your life, and which one inspires feelings of regret or agitation? Transport yourself there in your imagination – before it’s too late.
Why is empathy so powerful? Because it allows us to understand another person’s experiences without becoming that person. In a mimetic crisis, everyone starts to feel and want the same things as everyone else. But when we empathise, we can maintain our individuality while still connecting with someone on a deep level.
One great way to cultivate empathy is by listening to your colleagues’, friends’, or classmates’ most fulfilling experiences – their fulfilment stories. These are stories in which a person does something well, and that brings that person a sense of fulfilment. This kick-start a positive mimetic cycle.
It also helps us refocus on our thick desires as opposed to our thin ones. Thick desires are those we never want to stop fulfilling, the core parts of our being – the desire to spend more time with our kids or to explore life’s big questions. Thin desires are the shallow ones – our cravings for awards, accolades, or money. Thick desires are our armour, our protection against mimesis. By centering them in our hearts and minds, we gain the freedom to oppose destructive desires.
American culture is growing more and more mimetic. Tensions are rising while innovation stagnates. Instead of creating new and interesting art, we rehash the same old material with sequels and remakes. We monetize YouTube videos of people reacting to other YouTube videos instead of incentivizing people to build tools that will better serve humanity.
Much of this the author blames on the big four tech companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple – engineering our desires. By mining and using our data, these companies are creating a system that tells us what to want. It’s important for us not to let them do that. Instead, we must transform desire by changing our relationships to each other and to ourselves.
Engineering desire feeds our thin desires for status, money, and objects. Transforming desire, on the other hand, feeds our thick desires – and those are the ones we’ll need to create a better future.
To that end, we need to start placing great emphasis on healthy relationships, particularly with our children. We should encourage them, for instance, to read books with fictional heroes who can model thick desires for them. Of course, we should also work on transforming desire within ourselves, which means we need to work actively to purge ourselves of thin desires. To do that, identify your greatest desire – just one. Then let all of your lesser desires transform into ways of serving that one, greatest desire.
This isn’t an easy process. So find the right models in the form of books, a love, humanitarians and good leaders, and allow it to transform you.
So to sum up:
Fox Weber says in What We Want that understanding what we want and what we don’t want gives us clarity about our choices. We can select and prioritise from an assortment of desires. We can live our lives with more ease and joy. It’s difficult and essential to ask ourselves what we want, and to keep asking. Allow yourself to participate fully in your life.
Burgis says in Wanting that desire is shaped by mimesis, a kind of imitation that causes us to want the things other people – our models – want. Sometimes, our models come from mimetic systems, which create arbitrary artificial goals and standards that create stress and ultimately leave us feeling unfulfilled. Instead of pursuing these negative, flimsy desires, we must reorient ourselves toward our core desires and carefully choose better, healthier models.
Desire is tricky, we’ve been told there’s something wrong with having desire, but it’s always okay to want. Please join in on the conversation by following @howtobe247 on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and subscribe on the podcast, which can be found via http://www.howtobe247.com.
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Just before we go, we get to hear from writer Marcia DeSanctis, author of the 2022 essay collection, A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life and New York Times travel bestseller 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, and Grace Guinness, a mother, wife and poet. See you in two week’s time.
MARCIA DESANCTIS: What do I desire? I desire to walk through the world feeling really confident and to be able to say what I mean and what I feel, and to not be so compliant or deferential or solicitous or overly kind, or always feeling like I have to be nice, worried that I’ll disappoint someone, worried that they’ll be mad at me. I want to just toughen up a bit and to say what I feel. And most of all, to be able to say no once in a while.
GRACE GUINNESS: So I guess my main desire is just to be able to stand up for myself rather than just like, quickly giving in and agreeing to do something I’m not really happy to do.