Posted by: Dan | February 21, 2016

Desire, Contentment, and Dispossession

Part of what makes desire interesting is that it cannot ever be satisfied. Perhaps we can momentarily satisfy certain cravings (for some kind of human contact, for a bigger TV, for a warmer coat), but we inevitably find ourselves wanting something else or something more. This is where the Lacanian notion of the objet petit a comes from. The objet petit a is the unobtainable object-cause of desire. It is that which would ultimately and completely satisfy our desire once and for all — which is why it is unobtainable.
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Mostly, we all realize this at some point — that we will continue to want and that nothing will ever be able to completely fill this hole of want inside ourselves. So, despite the eternal discontent of desire, we find ourselves desiring to be content. We desire against desire and imagine if we do not want anything, we will attain happiness.

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However, we do not want to travel some kind of ascetic road of material renunciations in order to purge ourselves of desire. Rather, we want to be content with what we have — and for many in our context this means learning to be content surrounded by the possessions, privileges, and comforts we have accumulated. But we don’t seem to get there (and so we fall back into the mistake of thinking accumulating more will make it easier for us to be content with what we have — hence, Rockefeller’s answer to the question, “how much is enough?” is “Just a little more”).
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Perhaps, then, we need to learn to be content with what we do not have and rather than pursuing contentment with comfort, what we need is contentment with discomfort. Rather than a pursuit of happiness, this means accepting one’s unhappiness.
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(How can I be happy while the world burns? How can I write a poem after Auschwitz or Wounded Knee or Fukushima? How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?)
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Here, I’m offering a bit of a different approach than that taken by healthcare, especially in its reliance upon pharmaceuticals to address unhappiness.  Essentially, what pills do is numb our unhappiness in order to increase our productivity within the status quo.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing — being numb can be a sweet relief for those who have been very unhappy or unhappy very long (and I, too, have pursued numbness for a period of time in my life) — but I’m not sure that numbness should be confused with contentment.  In fact, I don’t even think that happiness should be confused with contentment and I think that confusion is at the source of many of our problems when it comes to desiring against desire.
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A large part of the problem here is that learning to be content with what we do not have is difficult (impossible?) to do when we have acquired so much. Here, the ascetics are wise to distrust those who proclaim that they are are not possessed by their possessions… even though they never relinquish those possessions.
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As the ascetics are well aware from their own experiences, we often discover that our internal state of detachment is much less real than we thought it was once we are separated from that which we thought we could live without.  We are, all of us, masters of lying to ourselves (we are always the first and most important audience of the lies we tell to others) and this is why our actions and how we live matter a great deal more than what we feel or claim to believe.
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Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not proposing that we all sell everything we own and give the money to those who are living in poverty (who would propose such a thing?) or that we rush out to join some contemporary flagellants (although I’m not sure if this or people who train for triathlons are engaging in a more extreme form of self-harm!).  What I’m trying to do is understand the problem.
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And I think part of the problem is that the possessions and privileges and comforts we accumulate come to us stained by the blood of others.  How can we be content with what we have, when what we have is stolen and haunted by the presence of all whom we have dispossessed (of land, of children, of health, of parents, of innocence, of hope, of life)?
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(But, uh-oh, this means maybe selling what we have and giving the money away isn’t really taking us far enough — because maybe it’s more about returning what we have stolen so that justice and life can be restored.  Because who am I to speak of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land?  I am the Babylonian who has carried others into exile, I am the Egyptian living off the bodies of slaves, I am the vampire staying young from the blood of others.)
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Now, I also want to be clear that by thinking about these things, I am thinking about them precisely as a member of a dominant, colonizing, oppressive and thieving population.  I am thinking about my people and I.  What I am writing should not be taken as encouragement for those who are abused to stay abused, or those who are dispossessed to stay dispossessed, or those who are colonized to stay colonized, or those who are oppressed to stay oppressed.  Far from it — I believe the opposite and long for the end of all these things (that, at least, is the story I tell myself about myself).  And my people learning to move from what feels like comfort to what feels like discomfort, and from pursuing happiness to learning to live with unhappiness, could be an important part in that process.  If we want to be content, we need to stop killing.  To stop killing, we must recognize ourselves as killers.  This can produce unhappiness but, if we hope to at least try to contribute to some kind of change, this unhappiness cannot be shrugged off or rejected.  Because the lives of the killed or the maimed or the orphaned matter a great deal more than the sense of contentment of those doing the killing and maiming and orphaning.  If we pursue this, perhaps we will learn what it means to be free of desire.
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(But is not this vision of a just world free of oppression and colonization, itself, an objet petit a? Perhaps it is but here I continue to live by the words of Beckett: “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”)
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Or maybe we will discover what history has shown us innumerable times before: that what my people do or do not do won’t be what matters because the Spirit of Life moves amongst those left for dead and it is their anastasis (their rising up, their resurrection, their uprising, their insurrection) that is the strongest force in history.
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Is this not what the Galilean Indigenous fellow, executed as a terrorist by the colonial overlords, desired all those years ago?
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Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
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Responses

  1. Some say suffering is holiness, others that joy is. I could argue for both but won’t. Donald Trump seems happier than Saint Therese of Lisiuex who possessed only a rosary but slowly chocked to death on her own blood. Even so, her last words were, “My God, I love you!” I could imagine those being Trump’s last words too. I think I need to learn some new languages. Some believe that our first words were sung and not spoken. Be well, obliged.


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