Last night, as I sat downstairs at my hostel and prepared to write about the wonders of Macedonia (or what little I was able to see of them, given my short stay), I was joined on the couch by the French fellow who was sharing my room with me. He was the sort of ridiculously good-looking person who, because they are also highly intelligent and happen to be French, further cements in your mind that life is simply not fair. We have no illusions, most of us, that it is any other way, but every so often there is someone or something that reinforces that tired cliché. Fortunately, I rather liked this guy, and our conversation was a truly enjoyable one.
It was one of those experiences that you find yourself wishing was being recorded. You know the kind I’m describing. You realize almost from its very inception that it’s going to be something remarkable, and as it goes on you occasionally try to form bullet points that will act to jog your memory later when you try to recall the discussion in detail. It is almost always futile. Highlights may be remembered, along with prevailing points and counterpoints that appeared over the course of the intellectual give-and-take, but ultimately it is an ephemeral dance that cannot be learned or taught, whose steps are hidden even from those who perform it. Thus, there is little that can be done to preserve it in full.
The reason for this is that a conversation is a living organism. It grows and shifts and changes before your eyes until from one moment to the next you cannot decide just how you got to where you are or precisely where you were a few seconds before. It expands and contracts, it breathes the very air that its creators expend, and finally it assumes a form and life of its own, independent of those who brought it into being and as truculent and stubborn as a child. It tests boundaries and rejects the ideas on which you fed it, unsatisfied with the perspectives that it has been given and craving always more. And at last, once its spoken life is spent and those engaged in its shaping have tired themselves out, it takes up residence, in one form or another, in the minds of those who bore it with their tongues and succored it with their ears. There it may waste away gently into nothing more than a spark of memory; or it may fester and rot and spoil until it no longer resembles what it once was; or it may live on and inspire, spawning future generations that will abandon their own infant philosophies with no less gusto than it once did.
Having said all of that, I would nevertheless like to try to recreate, as best I can, some of the conversation that took place last night. I believe that it is worth sharing, but more importantly I hope that by engaging in this process of writing I may call to mind more of it than I would by simply trying to remember on my own. Were I to title our little discussion, I believe I would choose, ‘The Irrationality of Desire and the Desire to Be Rational.’ If I do a good enough job of recounting the essence of our conversation, this title should be self-explanatory. If not, then do forgive me-though not yet old, I am simply not as young as I once was.
It started, as first-time conversations often do, with the simple exchange of pleasantries: how long we had each been traveling, what we had seen and planned to see, what we did for a living and so on. Rather mundane stuff, but as I say, pleasant. If one can pinpoint the beginning of a shift in conversation from the ordinary to the extraordinary, then perhaps there is hope for recalling more of what made the conversation special. In our case, I believe that point came when discussing job prospects for a Germanic linguist such as myself. We were lamenting the fact that university professors were not exactly showered with money, when I pointed out that they at least made a good living, even if no one would call the average professor wealthy. This spurred us on into a discussion of where true happiness lay, both of us agreeing that to do something that was fulfilling in its own right made one far happier than making money alone. We even briefly wondered if it was more difficult for the rich to be happy, seeing as how the growth of wealth can also lead to a growth in suspicion of one’s friends, as well as worry for the continued security of one’s financial future. This tangent was quickly abandoned, however, when I said that there were certainly people who were very rich and also happy. ‘But if all you have is money…’ I began, ‘…then really, you are poor,’ my French philosopher concluded. And that was when we took off.
I related a story about my cousin, Jesse, and a brilliant comment that he made about the loneliness of wealth (which truly deserves a post in its own right), and from there we lit into two concepts that would form the heart of our discussion: narcissism and desire. The issue of wealth, which was not a reality with which either of us was intimately familiar, was quickly abandoned in favour of a much more universal concept, that of affirmation. I believe that everyone, at some point in their lives if not throughout them, has felt the need to be affirmed by those around them. Whether it be the approval of a parent or a teacher, the interested gaze of an attractive girl or boy, or even just a simple high five from a friend, the desire for affirmation drives a significant amount of our behaviour toward others. We discussed the role that affirmation can play in the most intimate relationships, and how even unconscious expectations and objectives can determine their outcome. If, for example, an individual is not prepared to enter into a relationship for the mutual benefit of both or all parties, if instead of a relationship based on love or true affection it is a relationship based on the intended acquisition of affirmation (i.e. if it comes from a place of narcissism), that individual will quickly grow bored and will seek to move on to the next challenge. Affirmation for its own sake is fleeting in its reward, and achieving that affirmation slowly (or, at times, quickly) begins to ring hollow when the thrill of the chase is over and one is left with only the result.
We spoke of this for a while before deciding that the even deeper issue here was desire itself. Desire for affirmation was powerful, but desire included other goals as well. Anything that we set out to do is a reflection of our desire, and pain results when we cannot achieve whatever goal that is. It may be attracting the attention of the boy or girl we long to notice us, or getting that promotion we have worked so hard for, or earning the grade we feel we deserve, or being accepted into the program that will allow us to fulfill all of our dreams. Whatever the goal, it is an object of desire, and when that goal remains elusive, we suffer. We like to think that we have risen above this, that when we do not get what we want we, as rational beings, are capable of moving on. My conversation partner pointed out, however, that ducks are no less capable of this kind of behaviour than we are. Studies have shown that when a duck is spurned by a potential mate, it refocuses its attention elsewhere by engaging in a long preening session. In this way it is distracted from the pain it is experiencing and, in a sense, moves on. Thus, ‘moving on’ may not be a rational response as much as a natural way of dealing with suffering. Humans have developed increasingly sophisticated manifestations of this of course, but our art, poetry, literature and songs (to name just a few expressions) in some way amount to little more than sustained preening that has the added benefit of being preserved for the sake of posterity.
My friend and I then discussed the belief that predominates in eastern philosophies, that the journey is more important than the arrival. How many times have we climbed mountains (either metaphorically or actually), only to reach the top, take a quick look around-perhaps have a snack or a picnic if we’ve really planned ahead-and then head back down, looking forward to the next peak? The same principle is at work in any kind of progress. We set goals, work toward them, and no sooner have we reached them than we set new goals. No matter how far we get, we desire to go further, and when we cannot, regardless of how much we have achieved, we are saddened and disappointed. We suffer. Although we subscribe to the belief that we are rational and therefore driven by objectivity and reason, in the end it is our desires that push us forward, and desire itself is inherently base and irrational.
We returned again to mating and the notion of pleasure. My friend pointed out that very few animals experience pleasure during sex, but I, for my part, pointed out that we do not call it a ‘sex drive’ for nothing. There is an inherent desire to pass on our genes, and whether we receive the added benefit of sexual pleasure or simply the relief and release of performing our duty to nature, there is something within all creatures that makes them seek an oppourtunity to reproduce. This desire led us to explore the interesting phenomenon of ‘settling’ that is also quite common. For some animals, if you are not strong and fast and physically desirable, you simply do not get to pass on your DNA. Natural selection at work, it seems. Humans have managed to alter this picture somewhat with the additional desired traits of intelligence, humour and general cleverness (thank heavens!). Nevertheless, we agreed last night, there are still individuals who do not display any of the desired characteristics in enough abundance to acquire a desirable mate. What is interesting is that the desire for affirmation, acceptance, togetherness, and what have you, is so strong in our society that people will usually find someone to be with. Is it love or is it resignation? I don’t pretend to know.
The truth that we kept coming back to last night was that we are all animals and ultimately driven by instincts and desires (as well as our rational minds that we so dearly value and see as a source of pride and a means of distinction from all other species). And then we realized that two seemingly incompatible forces were driving us forward and telling us that being an animal was not enough. Religion and science both reject the animal and press us to be something else, something more. Science champions the rational and the mind and has even given us the ability to reproduce without sex, calling into question the continued legitimacy of that particular desire (I, for one, wholeheartedly support this desire and will stand behind it to my dying day). Religion (and, I know, not all religions), on the other hand, tells us that sex and other base desires obscure the true path that we are on, a path that will take us to God, enlightenment or a fulfilled life. Thus, we have science and religion both highlighting the distinctions that can (or must) be made between humans and animals.
Although science is considered to be an inherently rational pursuit, religion and spirituality are not. In fact, they are considered by many to be completely irrational, seeing as how they represent a belief in something that cannot be quantified, measured or disproven. How, then, could both of these apparently disparate camps be tasked with the same goal, that of making us ‘more human than human’? The answer that we came up with is that a desire to be rational is itself fraught with irrationality. If desire itself is irrational, then even as we push ourselves toward rationality and desire to be rational, are we not ultimately falling back into old habits?
As will happen in conversation, things went a different way and religion ended up taking the next exit. My friend told me at that point that he was a lawyer, a profession that dresses itself in rationalism while playing on emotions to discover the ‘truth’ (this was what he had experienced, and it’s not to say that law itself is inherently irrational, only that people make it that way). He was getting out of that profession and indicated that he was tempted to reject the rational in favour of desire, saying that since rationality makes no sense, we should embrace desire itself and let rationality die. It was an interesting idea, but I asked him what he thought about the rationality that is inherently built into us. For example, if he had enough food to last him for one month, with meager rations, he might be tempted to eat it all in a week. That might be his desire. But knowing rationally that if he ate it all he would be hungry later and perhaps even starve, he would (hopefully) make the decision to reject desire and choose to live. I then pointed out that this was by no means a human trend. Aren’t squirrels being rational when they store nuts for the winter, for example? They may not know it, they may even enjoy it and therefore be giving into a desire that has been programmed into them, but is it not nevertheless rational? My friend smiled, and the conversation more or less ended there.
We did not address how this was any more or less rational than the preening duck. I’ll leave that to you to decide. Remember that I am relating to you a late-night conversation between two travelers, and remember how I expressed my sincere belief that a conversation takes on a life of its own. I am quite aware that a lot of what came up is highly generalized. For example, many people are capable of putting the brakes on the desire for loftier goals and enjoying what they have. After working hard and going far, there are many people who decide that, although they could go on, they would rather relax a bit and take things more slowly, rather than continuing at break-neck speeds toward the next perceived goalpost. This happens, of course, but is it not also giving into desire, albeit a different one? The point is that there is really more than one way to look at it all.
And I suppose that was the upshot of our entire conversation, even though it fell back to idle chatter (mostly because the hostel owner began asking us about unrelated things) and we never had a chance to discuss what we had learned. We were asking ourselves, ‘Are we rational beings, or are we slaves to our desires?’ An answer, although far from an all-encompassing one that we could call ‘the’ answer, is that we are capable of rising above our desires and behaving like ‘rational’ beings, even as we at times succumb to those desires. The question that remains is how rational that desire to be rational is. Is there something to be gained by rejecting desire entirely, and if we do, are we not then desiring to reject it? At what point can we truly be free of desire, and do we want to be? At the same time, is a strictly rational world one that we want to live in? What kind of humans would we be if we somehow found ourselves wholly bereft of desire and entirely committed to reason? Would we even be able to recognize ourselves?
These were the thoughts that occupied my brain last night, so it’s no wonder that my dreams reflected them in some way. I will end this parody of a treatise with a description of a dream that not only left me upon waking, as all dreams do, but left me feeling sad and helpless as well. It also led me to question my own rationality, if not that of the human race in general. You will laugh, as I am laughing now, when I tell you that it involved the cast of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (or at least some of them). I don’t often dream about characters from TV shows (although I do remember a particularly thrilling dream that I had in high school where I was a member of the A-Team), and I think that’s because I don’t usually get as attached to them as I do to characters from books or even sometimes movies. ‘HIMYM’ is one of my all-time favourite shows, and I truly believe that it is a contender for the greatest sitcom on television (I know that some of you will snicker and note smugly that that title’s about as meaningful as ‘best Spice Girls song’. To you I say, ‘hush’). Even so, I would not say that I feel particularly attached to the characters. I do find myself thinking of my girlfriend, Courtney, when I see Lily, and I also identify quite a bit with Marshall (even though I see a lot of myself in Ted as well), so perhaps that is why those two characters featured most prominently in the dream.
What I remember is sitting in a room with Lily and Marshall. Logs were burning in the fire place, but I do not think it was winter. We had just been somewhere else, walking around and involved in some kind of low-level adventure of which I have zero memory. I only know that it was fun and that we were all close friends. I remember sitting there with them in front of the fire, Ted somewhere in the background (Barney and Robin were probably off somewhere doing it), and I was giving them a toast. I got choked up, talking about how beautiful they were together and how I wished them well in their lives. Lily came and put her hand on my cheek, not in a romantic way but in a warm, kind and loving way that absolutely thrilled my heart. She and I talked for a while, I remember feeling happier than I’d felt in a long time (in the dream, that is-I don’t know that I would say it was happier than I have felt in a long time, but that’s a difficult comparison to make, switching between realities and all) and then I woke up.
I don’t recall whether I knew it was a dream before it was over, but I am conscious of a profound sadness, an ache that spread all over me as I lay there in bed and fought to get back to that moment with my friends. Even after I had gotten out of bed, brushed my teeth and headed out to take in the city, the dream was there. It haunted me, or rather the realization that it had only been a dream haunted me, all through the streets and up to the fortress that looms above. I could feel that hand on my cheek, see the look of knowledge and sincerity on her face, feel Marshall give me a strong hug somewhere during the time we shared together, remember snatches of conversation where we reflected on old times or made plans for the future. But it was gone. It was gone and it never was. I had not been this affected by a dream since the John Irving one I had had earlier this year and wrote about in ‘House’ and Home.
I hiked up this hill and thought about things, trying to determine just why it had had such an impact on me. I thought about desire, the desire that I had to experience those things again (for the first time, Peter, for the first time) and what it was that had been so meaningful. I have great friends, an awesome girlfriend, a wonderful family and a life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I don’t long to live in TV land or fantasize about meeting characters from shows and movies, or even celebrities. I feel immensely satisfied with where I am, and I foresee a bright and exciting future for myself. Why then was this imagined moment so powerful, and why did it hurt so badly to have it taken away? I think that one reason that it hurt so much was because I knew that the happiness that I had felt had been fabricated, that the memories that I had while in the dream were at best manufactured and probably didn’t even have more substance to them than the few seconds of recalled pleasure that came to mind in those moments. It was a lie. A lie I had told myself, but it was a lie all the same. And yet I wanted it. With a desire as desperate as it was irrational, I wanted it. It even felt at the time like I needed it, and yet I knew that I could never get back to it, no matter what. It was unattainable because it did not exist.
I thought about this, and all of a sudden I realized that there was a deeper reason for this sadness, and that was the fear, unaddressed and subconscious though it may have been until then, that the experiences that I have in the real world (and do remember that I take reality with a grain of salt) might be no more than remembered nothings themselves. That the memories that I have might one day reveal themselves to be lies, more imagined moments that had never and would never exist. What greater pain could there be than to realize that the happiness and pleasure that we had once felt had never truly been? That the places we go in our minds, to remember in times of difficulty or to long for in hopes of return, are figments of our imagination, phantoms that stalk our thoughts and put on colourful shows but are, in reality, nothing but ether?
It is now evening, and I have had time to reflect on these and other dreams against the backdrop of the sensory world. I do not feel the pain as strongly as I did this morning, and the desire to return to that place and that moment is not as acute as it once was. The warmth on my cheek has mostly faded, along with the smiles and laughter that we all shared, but those memories persist. Perhaps they will one day join the memories of other dreams, long forgotten, but when they do, what will distinguish them from the forgotten memories of my youth or of a playful interaction with a kitten last week? When they go, do they join together, debating the reality assigned to each other? Do they grow dreams of their own and make memories for themselves? Will they return again, like prodigal children, hoping that I will greet them with open arms? And should they choose to, will I welcome them home, or will I turn them away in order to save myself some pain and preserve the tenuous grasp that I hold on reality?