For Those Who Desire the Unattainable

20 October 2020 Comments Off on For Those Who Desire the Unattainable


You’ve desired a whole lot of different things since the moment you woke up today. We’re so used to desiring that we often don’t even realize what we want, and when. Or at least not until our desires clash with our current situation/values.

Sometimes two of our desires contradict each other; we can’t get both things we want at the same time. And sometimes whatever we think we need may be too distant from the reality of what we can possibly have.

When that happens, psychology calls it “cognitive dissonance.” According to this theory, people do all sorts of things to reduce that dissonance, that conflict, that discrepancy by rationalization or avoidance of really seeing the gap. So, it’s never that easy to manage all of our desires; it’s an ongoing struggle. Buddhism endeavors to teach people how to succeed in that struggle. In Buddhism, desire is the cause of all suffering. The Hindu tradition, in contrast, suggests that desire is a life force, but also warns that we need to control it so that it doesn’t become a destroyer of knowledge.

We also know what happened to Adam and Eve.

But is it really all that bad to desire? On one hand, desiring is adaptive and actually motivates us to 1) survive, and 2) to move on. But on the other, when we reach a desired goal, we then need to find something else to desire, so that we feel like we’re continuing to move forward.

Bernard Shaw once wrote, “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” We all know how the object of desire looks very glamorous while we’re trying to reach it. So I guess Shaw sees the way an illusion disappears when we gain a desire as tragedy.

Here’s the tricky part. Sometimes the object of desire stays glamorous for too long when we know we can’t reach it. The brain’s reward mechanisms support that. We find it more rewarding to try harder when we know we can’t really reach something. Psychological experiments show that we tend to want more what we only sometimes get: this is called “partial reinforcement.” If the object of desire is unpredictable, if we’re not so sure whether we can ever get it, we desire it more.

Although it’s human nature to think like this, we should of course be aware when it becomes a pattern for us: desiring what we can’t seem to get. It can be beneficial to evaluate and reflect on such desires in terms of discovering more about ourselves, asking questions like, “What is the core of that desire I have?” “What do I really need?”

Sometimes the unattainable can teach us a lot about what we’re really looking for. And with that information, we can then hope to find/create new conditions where we can actually attain it. Or at least, that’s how I desire to see it.