Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The paradox of desire

So, somehow, in the dark backward and abysm of time, we rather suddenly acquired this imagination, language, culture, and the deep learning that gives us wood framed houses and potted meat products. Wondrous though our brains surely are, they are kludgy creations. Evolution could only create the machinery of our selves by cobbling together the pieces that happened to be lying around already, and the result is far from elegant.

I've spent a lot of time here lamenting and struggling with our relentless tendency to believe stuff that isn't so. Whatever intelligence we have had to adapt stimulus-response type learning -- both from our own direct experience, and social learning -- from the simple associational expectations and habits of other apes to our more elaborate constructs. The result is that we are prone to superstition and folly.

But today I want to talk about a different flaw in our psychic architecture, which is our conflicted relationship with desire and purpose. Now, much of the time we don't get what we want because there just was never any way. Maybe Harvard had to admit so many children of privilege that they just didn't get around to your application while there was still room for you. Maybe your babe done got some other plan.

But very often, we sabotage ourselves. There is a path to the heart's desire, or at least a decent chance to get there, but something in us makes sure we don't walk on it. One reason is the faulty wiring between the more primitive emotional systems and the executive system in the cortex that is much of what makes us distinctly human -- the system that imagines a goal and devises the set of steps to get us there. Desire can be so intense that it just overwhelms us, blows up the plans in a firestorm of urgency and pumping cortisol, scares the people we want to attract, destroys the patience and guile that alone can succeed.

Another is the inevitable consequence of the primitive nature of behavioral learning. Disappointment and rejection can be so painful that our aversion to experiencing them again is stronger than the lure of our heart's desire -- even more so if we might gain our precious object, and then find it after all less than we had imagined. Or perhaps worse, find it as wonderful as we had hoped, but then lose it -- or worse, lose the desire that had given us purpose. Most of the time, we simply have no insight into these processes. We experience disappointment without recognizing that we somehow made sure it would happen.

But, there are second chances in life. The trick is to learn the right lessons, which we aren't quite designed to do.


C. Corax said...

Yeah, I met a guy like that recently. His fawning behavior would be adorable in a puppy, but he's an adult(?) human.

Kidding aside, are you just referring to the desire that leads to reproduction of the species, or more generally to desire as addressed in Buddhism's Four Noble Truths?

robin andrea said...

Yes, CCorax asked the question that I would have, cervantes. Desire happens on many levels, what are we talking about here?

Cervantes said...

I guess I'm talking about all kinds of desire. Sexual desire and even more so, I would say, romantic yearning, can be one of the most intense kinds. I'll just say I may have been thinking specifically, but my remarks were meant more generally, at least as far as you know.

Bix said...

Dr. Dan Gottlieb, a psychologist and quadriplegic from a car accident, in writing about his experience said ... humans have a greater need (desire?) to be understood than to be loved.

I go back and forth with that. Maybe there's no distinction at all.

Cervantes said...

I'd say that understanding is a major asset if you're trying to love. Love can happen along with misunderstanding, of course, but then it may well go awry. To love, we should do our best to understand, put it that way.