What is it that you want most, right now?
Maybe you want a sandwich. Maybe you want a raise. Let’s say it’s a raise. OK: if it came down to a choice between you either giving up the raise or your spouse leaving you, which would it be?
You see where this is going. Whether or not you change your answer, I’m going to keep throwing new choices at you until we find out what it is you want the most. I’m not saying the answer is always going to be profound or amazing either. Maybe you just really like sandwiches.
You’re already playing this exercise out, over the course of your life. What do you want more: to sleep in, or to keep your job? To own a house, or live nomadically? Of course you don’t always know what you want. And what you want changes over time. Sometimes pursuing something you think you want makes you realize that you actually want something else more.
But either way, at every turn, you always — always — make the choice that, as far as you can tell, gets you closer to what you want — or what you think you want — the most.
You can’t not do it.
Don’t believe me? Fine, prove it. Go do something that horrifies you — something that would actually have real consequences for your desires. Go rob a gas station, or insult your child, or burn down your house. Of course you might be the kind of person who actually would do those things, right this minute; but still, you’d only be able to choose to do them because of your own particular set of desires.
(Side note: have you ever been in a room full of people and thought, What is really keeping me from jumping up on the table and yelling and ripping my shirt off right this very second? And yet there’s (very likely) no way you could make yourself do it. Well now you know: your own desires are keeping you from doing it. You can’t do it because it brings you closer to none of your desires, and further away from most of them.)
As a human, you have a very complicated set of desires. You want food, affection, sex, shelter, status, comfort. You want your kid to get a good education, maybe, and your new boyfriend to feel included with your other friends. You want good leaders elected. You want a new washing machine and a shorter commute. You want to finish your project. You want a sandwich. You want to kill the man who assaulted your sister.
Your desires are like layers of colour. Some of them are much, much stronger than others. Some are minor points of interest; others are hidden or hard to discern, and may form the whole backdrop of your life.
Most people try to order their lives, as much as possible, so their desires don’t conflict — so that they’re not constantly having to choose between the things they want.
But we do all sooner or later face hard choices — which are hard, not so much because there are many unknown factors, but because we just have to pick between two possibilities that we want very much. The job, or the spouse’s happiness? Keeping the apartment, or filling your kid’s prescription?
In these moments of difficult and forced decision, we are never struck by the freedom of our will. We are struck by the sheer constraint placed on us by our own desires. It is in these moments that we find out what we think we really want more, a moment of clarity that may come either before or long after the decision.
The great problem with desires is that you can’t really choose which ones to have. Think about it: if you could choose to just give up one of your desires, this choice would itself be enabled only by a still-greater desire.
You can, of course, choose to suppress a desire, if you happen to have others that are at least as strong. (Social consequences are great for this.) But absent any greater desire, you can’t just choose to nix a particular other desire out of your life altogether, not all on your own. It will continue to linger there, influencing your decisions, until your circumstances change.
Again: if you don’t believe me, try it sometime. Pick something you want in life and just decide to stop wanting it for no reason. You can’t do it.
And this leads us to an interesting insight. Your own mix of desires in any moment is just as much an uncontrolled circumstance as anything else in your life.
I would say that you have a thing called free will, although what I mean by that is much more practical than the theoretical toy most people have in mind when they talk about “free will”. I simply mean you have the ability to consciously consider and control your impulses.
Your free will always operates at the bright intersection of your outward circumstances (which you can’t control) and your own mix of desires (the deepest, most motivating layers of which you can’t control). So your free will may not be as important as you think it is. Your own mix of desires is far, far more important in defining you as a person and in determining your course in life.
And you ultimately have no say in what your deepest desires are; you can only express them.
Given a particular set of starting circumstances, and a particular starting mix of desires, a human life unfolds unstoppably in the direction of those desires. It continues to do so until the moment it ends.
Each person’s mix of desires evolves in response to circumstances; these desires drive action to influence those circumstances; and the feedback loop continues.
And, according as that loop is strong — that is, as long as a person’s desires can drive action that changes her circumstances — she inevitably becomes more and more herself. Her desires and her circumstances cohere into a definite quality of personality, a known trajectory. This trajectory might be in harmony with those of others nearby, or it might be quietly — or violently — opposed to them.
Often, people are placed so that their desires have little to no effect on their circumstances; the person is subjugated to the point of becoming not so much a person as a thing. The effect is an erasure, an un-naming of the person.
You might be overbearing towards certain people around you, and you might think it’s for their own good; but you are still erasing them.
And this always, always ends badly. Because it turns out, the single deepest most fundamental desire of every human, no matter how damaged or enfeebled, is the desire not to be erased. Note that by “erased” I don’t mean anything so simple as a sacrificial death, or any kind of death; I mean being forced to live as a complete blank. Death is in fact far preferable to erasure.
So far as we feel threatened by this possibility, we will give up everything to prevent or forestall it: every desire, every relationship.
A person who emerges from many years in solitary confinement will seem to us utterly changed. He may have lost any ambition, or his ambitions will seem to have been radically redirected. But whatever that change, the same basic, deepest desire is still there, driving all.