Yesterday I walked past a tennis court where a family was trying to have fun. Only one problem – there was a two-and-a-half year old who could not understand why he had to make turns hitting the ball with his older brother. He insisted that every ball should be personally delivered to him. The eventual tantrum which left him lying on the ground sobbing, was met with a compassionate embrace by the dad. Even the five-year-old seemed to have some compassion for his younger sibling. Somehow they all recognized that this little fellow was in real turmoil within himself and simply had no other means of expressing what he could not understand.
Most parents remember this period as the “terrible twos”. Its about the time where toddlers learn to say “no”. This “no” however, should not be taken too personally. This little creature is emerging out of a world in which it was so embedded, that it had no real say in anything that happened to it. But a new consciousness is developing – one that can influence its world, one that insists on influencing it. The “no” is as much a rejection of that previous self, as it is a rejection of your well-meant proposal. This process of reorienting ourselves around new realities is a lifelong process. Some get slightly better with age at handling these transitions, but many still prefer the trusted old tantrum. To a large extent we remain blind to the process. But it is possible and greatly beneficial to become aware of this process of transformation.
Desire and I
I want to share with you how an unintended journey triggered a surprising transformation in me. When I first began pursuing an understanding of desire and its role in the formation of self, it was more of an academic exercise. While doing the necessary research for a book, a few of the chapters required specific insight into the role of desire in relationships and so I set aside a couple of weeks for the task. Weeks turned into months… Four years later the book was finished, but something else had only just began. Exploring the movements of desire and the relational dynamics that form us is an ongoing adventure and I could not have anticipated the profound personal transformation it brought about. We will explore some of the concepts around reflective desire, but all the while illustrating these concepts with my personal story.
Our Reflective Capacity
The human reflective capacity is what gives us unique opportunity to learn from others, to enter the mind of and connect intimately with others, and ultimately, to reflect even on our own reflections and thereby create a context for self-consciousness.
Far from being the simple and mindless act we typically associate with “monkey see, monkey do”, imitation is now understood as a complex, generative, and multidimensional phenomenon at the heart of what makes us human. In fact, imitation may very well be the basis for not only how we learn, but also how we understand each other’s intentions and desires, establish relational bonds, fall in love, become jealous, compete with one another, and violently destroy each other, all the while operating largely outside of our conscious awareness. (Mimesis and Science, (Location 191) Kindle Edition) The one quality we reflect most unconsciously, is desire.
In Robert Kegan’s book, The Evolving Self, he identifies the pursuit of meaning as the driving force behind personal transformation. I agree, but how could there be a pursuit of meaning, if there is not first a desire for meaning? So desire can be identified as the most fundamental force at the centre of what makes the development of human consciousness possible.
What is desire? The intrigue of beauty? The attraction of value? The pursuit of meaning? The excitement of what is possible?
Maybe all of these and much more. Some of us know what we desire… or shall I say, we think we know what we desire. For countless people who have pursued the satisfaction of a certain desire, have at the final attainment realized that it was not what they thought it would be. It did not satisfy. Others know that they do not know what they desire. But whether you think you know, or know that you don’t know, finding desires worth desiring is the rarest of treasures.
Very few are aware of where desire comes from. We mostly assume that we are the originators and creators of our own desires … but there are some interesting studies that suggest otherwise. During my research I found a number of books that explored early child development. The book quoted above, ‘Mimesis and Science’, records experiments involving young children to illustrate how desire is suggested to us during early childhood development. Babies become interested in what interests their parents. Human eyes, with their large white spaces, make it particularly easy to follow eye movements. The simple act of imitating these eye movements is the beginning of a lifelong process in which desires are suggested by another. Desire does not spontaneously arise between self and an object – it is mediated by another and as such the movement of desire is triangular.
But it was the books of the Psychologist Jean-Michel Oughourlian that persuaded me of the significant role desire plays in the formation of self. These studies awoke very pertinent questions about the development of my own consciousness. What were my earliest desires and where did they came from? These questions were still rather vague and in the process of forming, but already they began providing insight into the formation of my sense of self. For instance, art has been a passion for me since my earliest memories – a passion I thought I was born with. But by understanding our reflective capacity, the link between art, imitation and authenticity became clearer. In the essay, Authenticity and Imitation, I explore these connections further.
I remember booking out another two weeks while writing Desire Found Me, in the hope of finishing the book. It had been in process for far longer than what I originally expected. Friends offered us a quiet space in the Colorado Mountains and it was during this time that much of the theory became a profound experience – a revelation.
One’s sense of identity and the structures that support it appear very strong as long as they remain unexamined, but as shadows they disappear in proportion to the light cast on them. Up to this stage I was very comfortable conceiving of self as an essence that was whole within itself. In fact my theology assured me that what I really am was designed, created and sustained by God and needed no-one and nothing else to be whole. Such a concept of self creates a fierce independence. In this context, relationship is an attribute, an added benefit, but by no means is self dependent on any relationship … except maybe on this God as the immovable ground of this unchangeable self.
Slowly but surely this way of knowing myself and others began to crumble under the weight of a new reality. The role that relationship plays in defining anything became clearer. The concept of a perfectly designed and stable essence called ‘human’ in general and ‘self’ in particular, gave way to a vision of something much more dynamic. Far from these relational movements being mere attributes, it became clear that these were the very movements that carve us. In other words, there is no self without the other and the relational movements between them.
My self-examination progressed from early childhood experiences to the relationships that were current. And there was no relationship more present than the one I enjoyed with Mary-Anne since the age of 18. If self is not a stable entity, but a dynamic movement energized by desire, what role did the desire between Mary-Anne and I play in forming my sense of self? Is my desire for her a reflection of her desire for me and visa vera?
During this time I also read “Puppets of Desire” by Jean-Michel Oughourlian in which he illustrates, amongst other things, how desire creates personality. I began to wonder how my desire for Mary-Anne creates my personality. And if, when I gave myself over to her desire for me, to what extent I became her… and visa versa. Becoming another might sound very strange, especially if one’s concept of self is a stable entity, but the more self becomes a dynamic movement, the more possibilities open. This process of examining self, even the most intimate relationship that forms this self, was not comfortable. To know yourself with absolute certainty provides comfortable confidence, but to question the very structure of self, is not for the faint of heart! However, truly knowing yourself is not possible without these uncomfortable questions.
Alas, the two weeks were over and we got busy touring and ministering again. November 2014 the book was submitted for publishing. We also came to the end of a five year ministry tour. An ideal little cottage became available near Orlando Florida and we quickly settled in.
The process suddenly found momentum. Questions that were previously vague and deeply buried, surfaced with clarity. If desire forms me, then what is the primary desire that makes me me, and where does this desire come from? Previously I could trust my desires for I was their originator. But now a new reality dawned. Desire is mediated and forms my sense of self. This suspicion towards desire began a process in which all desire was drained. It was a kind of revolt against a self that could be so whimsical as to be influenced by the desires of others. Emotions ebbed away. Feelings faded. I was no longer dealing with an intellectual deconstruction. It was as if the eyes of another opened through which the deconstruction and disappearance of self could be observed.
This is difficult to explain, but let me try: there is an awareness that is larger than my individual identity … somehow it is possible to be part of this consciousness and observe our own selves objectively. It is a mystical experience… and a paradoxical one, but incredibly liberating. Some days I felt tempted to reach out and save that self that was so certain and so in control. But I knew I would have to deny the reality I experienced and move back into a prior naivety to do that. The harshness of truth was at least palatable – the comfort of illusion was sickening. Self as I knew it up to that time was gone – forever. Neither was there any desire to create or find a new self.
Rene Decartes is probably best known for his saying: “I think, therefore I am”. But even my thoughts about myself were dissolving. When all knowledge of self evaporates so does all knowledge of God. Yet somehow there was a inexplicable trust that there is a God beyond my knowledge of God. Although a frightful experience on one level, there was a depth of peace on another level. The only prayer I could muster was: “Into Your hands I commit my spirit.”
Something profound was happening and I did not want to get in its way, either by preventing it or by pushing it. It was an experience of being in the hands of a process that I could not understand until it had run its course with me. The loss of all desire is a type of death – the death of that self that was formed by desire. It felt like months, but was probably only a few days in which this death experience persisted. Yet it was not only a negative experience, but rather a detached experience. I both experienced and witnessed this death. I felt the pain and empathized with that person passing away. Simultaneously a deep sense of excitement awoke.
Self is a dynamic construct in constant motion, reconstituting itself around new realities. Much of its development happens unconsciously. Each new level of self-consciousness involves a new perspective of the previous self. What was subjectively part of the previous self, and consequently invisible to it, becomes objectively viewed by the new self. A simple illustration might help. Newborns are totally embedded in their world. If a ball is presented to them and then covered with a cloth – the ball simply does not exist anymore. If they don’t see it, it does not exist. But from about the age of 9 months, they begin to realize that the ball might still exist although they don’t see it. And so they search for it. In newborns, sight is so subjectively part of their self-reality, that they cannot objectively evaluate it. In the 9-months plus babies, it is becoming more of an objective reality that can and should be questioned. Every stage of development involves a new perspective in which we objectively see what we were blind to before.
What happened to me during this period in which desire was exposed, was that I became conscious of a process that usually happens unconsciously. And what I witnessed was not simply the death of an old self and birth of a new self, but rather the very core process that makes this transformation possible. The actual transformation became a conscious objective experience. For the first time I would be able to intentionally influence that process that constructs self. There would indeed be a new self energized by desire, but where these creative desires came from and how this self would be formed would be a more transparent process. By no means to I imply that the whole unconscious became conscious – that’s not possible. The unconscious remains the infinite source of new meaning. However, a core process that was invisible before, became visible.
Like the first blades of grass crack through the winter soil, the smallest glimmers of hope appeared. A desire to understand returned. Clinically I began to calculate the relationships and ideas that have influenced me … and the people whose influence I would continue to welcome. Mary-Anne, my children, faces of friends old and new, presented themselves one by one to my minds eye. Gratitude began to rise. God became visible in the faces of others.
The enormous significance and influence that the message and person of Jesus has had on me since my earliest memories became clear. In Jesus I saw a life worth living – a person who would give himself for the benefit of others. It is so much easier to give yourself when you have already lost your self. For it is only then that you can acknowledge that whatever you still are, is pure gift. It is the generosity of God to give Himself in our existence that is the substance of what we can give to others. When self is still something to be protected and justified it cannot simultaneously be the love gift it is meant to be.
What a moment of reality it is, when you see yourself through the eyes of the One who desires you into existence! The one desire that defines each one of us, more than any other influence, is the desire of our Creator to sustain us in existence. In fact, this desire is the creative force that forms us. For whatever this God does is “according to the good pleasure of His will/desire” (Eph. 1:5,9) It was no longer my beliefs nor thoughts that defined me. Clarity and simplicity as I never experienced before, flooded my mind: I love, therefore I am. My very existence testifies to the fact that I am desired and loved. To give what I receive is all that is left to do. Gratitude becomes the basis of life. If I have any meaning it is because of the relationships I find myself in. These opportunities to give oneself are what gives self meaning.
From Desire to Action
Obviously ‘love’ and ‘giving oneself’ are very broad and general concepts. The shape they take in your particular existence will be as unique as you are. For me, the communication of this message became even more significant. The friendships we develop, the events, the online school – their meaning became clearer as I saw them as opportunities by which we could benefit others. By being conscious of the core desire that gives meaning to my life, I could now link this desire to my activities. As a result, these activities suddenly became much more meaningful and exciting.
There were also a number of activities that had little to do with this core desire. Seeing this made it so much easier to eliminate unnecessary busyness. A number of students participated in the Mimetic Theology Program over the past few years. Their stories of transformation are inspirational and so I asked a few of them to contribute articles to this series. Next week a new story of transformation will be published.