All right, I admit it. I was only joking. Actually, I’m perfectly content with just being extraordinarily good-looking. I just wanted to give an example of one of the thousands of wishes, yearnings, desires, cravings, longings, and wants that pop into our minds during the day. Desire is part of life. Among the things hoped for are riches, power, fame, comfort, thrills, or revenge. Desire is a catalyst and provides motivation. It is a cause of action. It can be helpful or harmful. It can uplift us or degrade us.
Should we revile or relish a raging fire? If it were a conflagration sweeping down a mountainside and heading for a village, we would be horrified. But if it were in a furnace that provided energy or heat, we would welcome it. And what about water? When it comes as a disastrous flood, it is the source of suffering. Yet, when it is channeled and provides electricity, it is a source of comfort. So it is with our passions and wishes. They can empower us or devour us. They can enable us or cripple us.
Because of their enormous potential to help or hurt us, we need to take control of our desires. We lose control when we live our lives on autopilot. When we blindly follow our urges, we will have as much control over our destination as a blossom cast about by the wind. How do we regain control over our destiny? Two simple steps will help.
1. Remain aware. You cannot control what you are unaware of, so remain alert. Be on the lookout for urges rising to the surface. As soon as you are aware of one, move on to the next step.
2. Ask yourself whether the urge is helpful or harmful. Then act accordingly. Here are two examples.
Example one (harmful desire). I’m driving on the highway and someone cuts in front of me. The driver then slows down, well below the speed limit. I feel an urge arising. I’m tempted to honk my horn, tailgate, flash my lights, make an obscene gesture, or cut in front of him and slow down. If I were to do any of the above, would it help? How can choosing anger, resentment, and revenge over peace of mind and happiness be helpful? If I insist on striking back at every bad driver, I condemn myself to lifelong unhappiness. After all, there will always be bad drivers. Therefore, I will always be upset. That isn’t a smart choice, is it? Far better to accept, without complaint, a world of imperfect people. If others can put up with me, why can’t I be equally gracious?
Example two (helpful desire). Let’s say, I have an urge to teach an adult education course. If I decide to follow through on this wish, I will gain knowledge, experience, confidence, and satisfaction, as well as make new friends. So, this is a desire worth pursuing. Positive desires are aspirations. When cultivated, they become the wings that take us to new heights. When we combine a positive desire with a willingness to make the necessary effort, we have hit upon a winning formula.
One of the biggest mistakes some people make is to acquiesce to their many desires for possessions. They make purchase after purchase with the hope of feeling good. They forget that our appetite is insatiable. It can never be fulfilled. In fact, the more we own, the less we enjoy what we have. Lusting after some new product prevents you from enjoying what you already have. When we want something we can do without, we should act quickly and nip the desire in the bud. Left unattended, it grows in strength. And once we get the object of our desire, the flame of satisfaction quickly goes out and is replaced by a new desire.
British philosopher, John Balguy (1686 ~ 1748) wrote on the fruitlessness of chasing after an endless chain of desires: "When a man’s desires are boundless, his labors are endless. — They will set him a task he can never go through, and cut him out work he can never finish. — The satisfaction he seeks is always absent, and the happiness he aims at is ever at a distance."
Appreciating what we have dispels whimsical desires for more. Father Joseph Roux, French parish priest and writer (1834 - 1886), reflected on the importance of gratitude when he wrote, "I look at what I have not and think myself unhappy; others look at what I have and think me happy." Do you wish to be rich? The only way to do so is to be satisfied with what you have. For those who are unsatisfied, regardless of the size of their bank account, are poor indeed.
We can eliminate many problems by focusing on BEING instead of HAVING. If I work on BEING a better person, I will gain an asset that cannot be lost or stolen. Also, it is easier to share my BEING with others than my possessions. When I am in the company of others, I can BE kinder, more compassionate, and more accepting. That is something of far greater value than a couch, dusty book, or CD player.
If we wish to avoid trouble, we need to avoid temptations that lead to trouble. Marital infidelity may add some temporary excitement to life, but if it is the cause of a broken marriage and broken hearts, legal and child support bills, the wrecked lives of children, and the pain of betrayal and remorse, is it worth it? This question, and others like it, needs to be asked before we act, not after the fact. That’s why we must remember to be aware of our desires, question their value, and act suitably.
Happiness and liberty go hand in hand. There are no happy slaves. So, if we value our happiness, it makes sense to reject harmful desires. For today’s ‘innocent’ diversion can, if frequently repeated, change into an insidious habit. What is merely a temptation today can grow into an addiction, obsession, compulsion, or other form of enslavement tomorrow. Life is tough enough, why make it more difficult by walking into a bear trap?
Spontaneity is good, but impulsiveness is bad, and the difference between the two is thinking before one acts. In what other way can we become masters of our fate than by controlling our passions? For as Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 ~ 1892) wrote, "The happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions." And perhaps such mastery will reveal to us that happiness comes from loving people and using things rather than using people and loving things.