At heart, desire is pretty simple: we want pleasure and we don’t want pain. To act on our desire is just as simple. It doesn’t take any effort to delight in the laughter of a child or to spit out a mouthful of sour milk. But pleasure and pain are not always so immediate and unmixed. Some pain is bittersweet; some pleasure burns. Over time, we pass from dislike to like or from love to fear. We willingly endure some sufferings for the sake of another or as means to a desired end. Or we may be bound up in unavoidable pain in a relationship or a job, or living with physical illness and deterioration. The varieties of desire that inspire our acts become more complex – and offer greater opportunity for error – but there’s still a coherent connection.
So what does it mean when we find ourselves persistently doing what we don’t want to do? Or not doing what we want to do, when we certainly could? What of those times when my deeds and my desire – surely one’s hallmarks as an individual – seem to divide “me” against “myself”?
We could talk about this conflict in terms of sin, or addictions, or drives – but let’s not, and see how far we get. Why not, you ask? I could appeal to the scientific principle known as “Occam’s razor”, that “one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything” (i.e. keep it simple). But, more importantly, these explanations tend to exacerbate the inherent violence of being at war with oneself. “I just can’t help myself… I don’t know what comes over me… I hate myself when I…”
If I believe that I have both an angelic and a beastly nature and that one must be master over the other, or that I’m possessed by something foreign or hidden to me that must be exorcised or exposed, I can either become a kind of crusader against myself, or else abandon myself. Is this compulsory? I don’t think so. When the basic experience is I don’t like what I’m doing, I also have two basic ways to make peace with/in myself: either stop doing it or stop disliking it. Either change my behaviour or admit the complexity of desire it expresses.
To recognise our behaviour as an expression of desire first of all respects and preserves our autonomy. And the very naturalness of understanding desire as action-directing suggests that we might stop these self-divisive acts as readily as spitting out sour milk, without violence or great drama. Metanoia is a Greek term for the kind of spiritual remorse or sensible realisation that causes one to simply stop and to turn away from an old way of living.
Realise. Stop. And turn.
(For sure, the first step is a doozy.)