People think they desire to possess things (objects, status, accomplishments, the affection of others) because of some intrinsic quality of those things. We think this object is unique or significant, this woman or man is special or wonderful, these accomplishments or status are important.
But mostly it is we who make them desirable. That is, we are already looking for things to which we can pin our special labels, to make them “worthy” objects of desire.
Once we have established these objects of desire, we live and die by them. We order our lives by their attainment. If I can just afford it… If she just smiles at me… If I can just win their vote…
We believe that once we have gained possession of these things, we will at last experience a deep, lasting, and secure happiness. We will transpose to ourselves the glory of the office, the grandeur of the home, or the grace and beauty of the beloved.
And then we will be truly happy.
But even if we obtain these things, the happiness doesn’t last. And if, as usually happens, we fail to obtain them, then we remain mired in our usual unhappy state.
Why do we do this?
Well, if those things were truly desirable then the answer would be obvious: we pursue love, property, and power because they will make our lives wonderful.
But if these things are not truly desirable – if instead we bestow desirability upon those things in the first place, then the answer is more complex, more mysterious than we realise.
I believe the latter is the case, because I have read and confirmed through my own experience that the apparent desirability of these supposedly wonderful things is not real. The possessions we once craved lose their allure. The people we once deeply admired eventually lose their glow. Status and accomplishments are soon forgotten. We move from one “wonder” on to a fresh one.
So why subject ourselves to this strange ritual?
The answer is itself a little strange.
We do it because we cannot justify being content with what we are.
What do dreaming about the perfect home, wishing for the affection of a beautiful woman or man, and imagining oneself in a position of power and respect have in common?
They all consist of mental projections of ourselves in a state that justifies feeling wonderful.
Their content is less significant than the emotional narrative they share: if I have that, I will be happy, overjoyed, resplendent.
And by implication: I can’t be happy, overjoyed, or resplendent because I don’t have that.
Whatever that is, the feelings associated with it are a kind of negative image of how you see yourself.
If that is the affection of a person, then I’m willing to bet that the qualities you think you see in that person are the qualities you most feel you lack in yourself, or the qualities you feel would redeem whatever faults you might think you have.
The same applies a little less directly to homes, possessions, status and accomplishments but in general how you feel about those things mirrors qualities you wish you had right now.
About twenty years ago I read all of this, and I reached the conclusion that if I could short-circuit this delusional dynamic I could enjoy all the wonderful feelings exactly as I am. In other words, the things I sought in external reality were just proxies for self-acceptance.
I had thought that I could only accept myself if I obtained these proxies. But if I could accept myself directly, then I could feel joy and happiness directly too?
The problem is that I took for granted that the joy and happiness were real, that I should be feeling those feelings, and if I didn’t feel those feelings then I clearly hadn’t accepted myself fully.
In other words, I turned “self-acceptance” into another proxie, something I had to obtain in order to feel joy and happiness.
I’ve come to see that as a really bad move, because if you have to chase self-acceptance it isn’t really self-acceptance. But if you call it by the same name you might not recognise the difference.
So forget about finding joy and happiness. Forget about trying to attain a state that is different from the one you currently inhabit. It’s a paradox, but don’t fall for it.
Instead, let’s ask again why we saw it necessary to seek perfection externally in the first place. How did we reach the conclusion that we need to redeem ourselves?
For a long time I didn’t really understand how the Crucifixion and death of Jesus was supposed to have redeemed anyone. People offer various theological explanations, but I’m especially leery of the argument that God required a sacrifice. At least not in a strong sense of ‘required’.
It makes more sense if we didn’t need to be redeemed, but didn’t know that we didn’t need it.
We can argue the theology but that’s the net effect of Christianity: we can’t redeem ourselves, nor ever could, so please stop trying.
If you want to go sacrificial: here’s one eternal sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.
This strange ‘happiness’ dynamic we’re looking at is just another attempt at redeeming ourselves. Maybe not with God, but at least privately. We believe we’re not good enough, not right, not whole, not perfect. We reject our flaws and faults, because at face value they’re unacceptable to us.
But we’re only unacceptable to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, in the “love your enemies” section, Jesus says:
He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
And just a bit later he concludes:
Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.
What kind of perfection is this? It’s a perfection that does not discriminate between the evil and the good, or the righteous and the unrighteous.
If this strikes a chord, you might see how it links in to themes I’ve raised in other posts.
In Taking what is offered I look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the suggestion that our refusal to accept our reality is what separates us from God, and how the path back to paradise is demonstrated in Christ’s acceptance of God’s will over his own measure of good and evil.
In Pride and the delusion of self I touch on Pride as both the cause of the devil’s fall from Heaven according to tradition, and synonymous with our own delusion of authority and control in our own lives.
Finally, in Better to reign in hell? I examine how we wrongly seek to take responsibility both for our faults and flaws and for our redemption. This sense of responsibility is linked to agency, authority, and control as described in the earlier post on pride.
Bringing this final post to bear on the current theme, it is clear that the faults and flaws for which we seek to take responsibility are the same faults and flaws that motivate the ‘happiness’ dynamic I’ve described here.
It is because we refuse to accept our own faults and flaws, we refuse to let the sun shine on the good and evil in us, or let the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous parts of ourselves, that we seek redemption and righteousness in external things.
We promise ourselves overwhelming joy and happiness, but only if we can win this battle between good and evil within us. We imagine ourselves in ‘paradise’ if only we can achieve or obtain something to outweigh our flaws.
At whatever point in our lives we first became conscious of having flaws, our reality was ripped in two. Our knowledge of good and evil came into effect, and we were bewildered and ashamed to find that the line between the two ran through our own selves.
We still refuse to accept ourselves fully, accept our reality completely. We hold out, seeking to manage, mitigate, and mend ourselves where we can. How could we ever accept the unacceptable? How could we ever accept the parts of us our own minds condemn as faults?
This is why Christianity is called the Way of the Cross, why Christ urged us to “take up your cross and follow me”, and why, in love with God, so many of the saints endured tremendous hardship and suffering.
The cross is not only the suffering imposed on us by the external world, but the suffering and fear we hold for our own hated faults. God wants us to accept our faults.
This is not a superficial message, but a radical one. It doesn’t mean persisting with bad habits, because ultimately bad habits are attempts to hide from or compensate for our hated faults anyway. This is where the Christian motif of dying and being reborn comes into its own. Christ didn’t say “pretend to die so that you could keep on living in pretty much the same way as before”.
On the level of free will and our sense of self, this means recognising that you are not responsible for your faults anymore than you are responsible for your merits. You did not create yourself, and if you get right down to it, your sense of self is just something your mind produces from various thoughts and impressions. To treat it as a separate thing, like a little god ruling over its dominion, is at the heart of what we call pride.