Desire. Woman facing the complexity of her desire.

Desire—Understanding our Idealized Lives

I spin worlds where we could be together. I dream you.
For me, imagination and desire are very close.

—Jeanette Winterson

Desire is a funny thing.

It can be the driver for our greatest accomplishments, and it can be the cause of our personal downfalls. It can be a source of strength and courage, and it can be a significant weakness. Many of us will think first of romantic desire, but desire can be many things—some healthy and some not so healthy. Desire is like an amped-up version of “want.” When we desire something, it is more ingrained in ourselves, in our identities.

The origins of desire

Desire comes from somewhere deep within us. It is based on strong emotions and relates to the parts of us that are connected to those emotions. For example, if we desire someone romantically, that feeling may originate from a variety of sources: the necessity of having a life partner, the drive to procreate, the need to affirm our self-worth—there are many possibilities. Some of these drives are healthy and natural, while some may be very unhealthy.

For example, if we are in a committed relationship but we desire someone else, this is a very natural occurrence. Being in a committed relationship doesn’t turn off our awareness of others’ charisma, intelligence, or looks—we are likely to meet many people we are extremely attracted to. But when this attraction turns to desire, we run into problems. We can’t control who we’re attracted to, but we can be aware of the path of our feelings and notice red flags as they come up. We can be aware of the consequences of the words and actions motivated by this desire—the pain or damage we might cause in our relationships and in our lives.

Attachment to the object of our desire

When we desire something intensely, we feel a sense of attachment—a feeling that the connection is destined to be. This feeling of attachment is part of our psychological drive to succeed in obtaining that which we desire. But it can also be a source of suffering and even turn into an unhealthy obsession.

The Second Noble Truth in Buddhist philosophy is that the root of all suffering is attachment—”the attachment to the desire to have (craving) and the desire not to have (aversion).” Some might say that this perspective is not something we should strive for—not just because it isn’t feasible, but because our attachments are part of what gives our lives meaning. But if we can develop a healthy perspective on our attachments, we can eliminate or minimize the suffering in our lives.

There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.

—George Bernard Shaw

There are certainly different paths to meaning in our lives. Removing all attachments might seem a little extreme, but not having attachments doesn’t mean not having relationships—rather, it means having relationships with the realization that they are, like everything else in our lives, impermanent (see In this Moment, Everything is Permanent). It involves reliance on ourselves as a foundation for our connections with others.

Desire in a single moment

When we think of the paths our lives might take, some of these scenarios take on an almost ethereal quality: If I could have that, if I could achieve that, it would be the realization of my dreams. It would bring my life to the next level. It would ensure my happiness. While it may seem that some of the paths in our lives come down to a single moment, it is usually the path that matters, not the moment. If the basis for a relationship is so tenuous—“if only I’d been funnier”—then the relationship had little chance of succeeding anyway.

If we bear this in mind as we pursue our desires, it can take some of the pressure off. If we remember that no outcome is assured and we are more open to whatever comes, this will allow us to appear (and be) more confident and relaxed. When we can be ourselves, our actions will be more natural and have a much greater chance of succeeding.

Understanding our desire can help us incorporate it into our lives in a healthy way.

Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.

―Friedrich Nietzsche

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  • JPPetetson September 14, 2020   Reply →

    Like Nietzsche, Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame said: Wanted something is often more pleasurable than having it.

    • Pete Wiley September 17, 2020   Reply →

      Thanks Jon! I always appreciate the wisdom of Vulcans!!

  • JPPeterson September 15, 2020   Reply →

    I didn’t mean to be flip regarding my comment, above, but, rather, demonstrate the pervasive quality of Neitzsche’s position.

    • Pete Wiley September 17, 2020   Reply →


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