Updated: Jan 27
Please, do yourself, and me, a favor. Think about the things you’ve wanted most in your life. Things you wanted as a child and things you want now. Things that were all-important and things that now seem silly. Desires that quickly passed and those that have stayed with you for a long time. Desires that changed your life and those that, seemingly, had little impact.
You might even want to make a list.
I’ll give you my list in a second. But the point is that this is really important. And that’s because in a fundamental way the story of our lives is the story of desire in our lives: the things we’ve wanted and what happened as a result.
Don’t expect that the things I’ve wanted will look like what’s on your list. We’re different people. But those differences aren’t a big deal. You wanted this, I wanted that. So what? This issue is, what were the story lines that spun out from our desires, big and little, lasting and fleeting?
So here’s my list, partially, of things I’ve wanted, starting from when I was 5, a poor immigrant girl on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, being brought up by a single mother.
A pair of pink shoes. 50 cents. For weeks and weeks I saved up money from scrounging bottles I returned for the deposit. Finally I bought the shoes. They didn’t fit and fell apart within days.
A father. My parents split up when we all left the displaced persons’ camp in Germany. My father and sister went to Israel. I was told he was dead. So hanging out in front of our building in New York with my mother, every time a man walked by who wasn’t a teenager or an old man, I’d say, “Can he be my father?” Finally one day a man walked by, and I asked that and it worked. But he wasn’t a great dad.
Nicer clothes. My clothes were all hand-me-downs or bargains from the 5-cent table in a store on Orchard Street.
School stuff. Jeez, just anything. A pencil box. A three-ring binder. Paper. Those little round re-inforcers you glued around the holes of paper that went into three-ring binders.
A best friend. A companion to love.
Pizzas. We couldn’t have them at home, so I discovered on my own English muffin pizzas with tomato sauce and Munster cheese.
To skip a grade in high school so I could leave home sooner. They said it was impossible, but I did it and, wow, it was so worth it.
To understand things. That’s why I read every minute I could throughout my growing up years. To make something of myself but most of all to understand things.
To not be a grain of sand. That is, to not be a person whose life had no meaning or impact. Instead, to be someone who made a difference.
To love my husband Charles once he appeared in my life. Not so much “to be a good wife,” whatever that means, as to love him and make him feel loved, and for us to share a life and to really be together.
To have a family. Children.
For my husband and I to work together.
To do really great work as a therapist, and to get better and better over time. This has been one of my longest sustained desires.
Reading. Not for pleasure—though it always was a pleasure—but as a way to grow and explore and learn.
Learning. One of my deepest desires. I always have wanted to and still do want to learn. Which includes uncomfortable learning that challenges everything I’ve thought is true.
You can learn a lot from your adventures in desireland.
Cheap pink shoes will break your heart. So will lots of other bright shiny things.
You gotta know what you’re asking for. Asking for an X—a father, let’s say—is asking for a lottery ticket. There are fathers and there are fathers. It’s like asking to be a brain surgeon. Okay, and at the same time there are happy brain surgeons and unhappy brain surgeons. How do you know which bin you’ll fall into?
As for working with your husband. In my case that meant writing books together. There were a lot of great parts to it, but my dream of days of fun, joyful collaboration was naïve delirium. Writing books together is like running a busy lunch counter together. Takes a lot out of you.
Wanting to love my husband, on the other hand, paid off. Relationships won’t pay off without that, but lots don’t work out even with that. Pinning your future on the desire for love is like pinning your future on the desire to sail a leaky boat across a wide and stormy sea. I just got lucky.
The smartest desire you can invest in? Learning. Hands down. 1. You can always learn. 2. Things are always better when you learn. 3. Learning is always either interesting or fun. It’s as simple as that.
Another great desire to invest it? Anything that's proved itself to you to be rewarding. Take adventures. Now I personally don't find adventures--jumping out of planes, running off to unknown cities--to be rewarding. Too much risk of mis-adventure. But plenty of people love that stuff. If any desire has proved its worth to you, and you're not kidding yourself, then go for it.
So now look at your desires. What happened to them? What happened to you as a result of them? If you now think a desire was foolish—like my cheap pink shoes—how did you happen to fall for it, and how can you prevent yourself from falling for it again? Or have you noticed that you keep falling for the same sure-to-disappoint desire over and over? If so, you’re not alone. Even so, maybe it’s time to climb off the merry-go-round to hell.
Are you giving in to desires that you know aren’t good for you? None of us are alone in that, that’s for sure!
Sometimes, though, it’s not that the desire is obviously bad for us but that the outcome is a crapshoot. Like with my wanting a father. If the thing you want—like a successful career in Hollywood—is a longshot, maybe you have to take the risk really seriously.
Having a good relationship with your desires is crucial. It’ll save you from despair, self-hatred, contempt for the world, and a host of other miseries. What it’ll give you is a sense of having had a life worth living, and a hopeful feeling about the future.
But what if you’re a Desire Disaster Fatalist? What’s that? It’s someone who typically says, “Hey, you want what you want. There’s nothing you can do about it. And if things turn out badly, you can’t do anything about that either.”
Whether you mean for that to happen or not, if that’s been the story of your life, then stay tuned. We’ll look deeper into it next time. You deserve better than a life of wanting the wrong things.
The paintings here are Wangari Mathange's The Ascendants XI, 2021; Matisse's Interior with Young Girl, 1906; and Maggi Hambling's Dorothy Hodgkin, 1986. The shoes and the wishbone are stock photos.