Desire or Rationality?
We live in an era created by science and rational thought. But the culture that we live in is not rational. It is sub-rational, almost primal, in its elevation of the expression of desire over everything else.
This elevation of desire is a two-edged promise. It on the one hand, a promise of engagement in all that life has to offer.
On the other a promise of total exhaustion, of even annihilation, if embraced without thought, direction and boundaries. It is the power behind the passion of ambition and human connection.
Images of desire capture our attention, draw us into experiences that touch us, change us and can ultimately transform us into new persons. Our rational selves rarely do that. It is the passion of desire that makes it possibly for us to make the sacrifices to be people who create the goodness that lies dormant in the potential that we all have.
If that desire is let loose, never guided by our rational selves, then like Icarus' flight to the sun, we can crash and burn.
Desire = Love
I'm calling desire those inner drives that draw us toward what we love. Philosopher James K. A. Smith sees this love lived out in a sort of secular liturgy of worship. There are rituals that we observe because they reinforce the importance of our desires.
“… we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities – what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are – is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate – what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hoped for, what we think the good life looks like. The vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it. ”
Our loves and desires are shaped by how we live in the world around us. The social and organizational systems and structures that are the context of our life and work is a place of engagement where we either find our desires fulfilled or frustrated. Our happiness is not so much about what we think, but how we intersect with the social and organizational places where we live and work. Smith writes,
So when I say that love defines us, I don’t mean our love for the Chicago Cubs or chocolate chip scones, but rather our desire for a way of life. This element of ultimacy … is fundamentally religious. But religion here refers primarily not to a set of beliefs or doctrines but rather to a way of life. What’s at stake is not primarily ideas but love, which functions on a different register. Our ultimate love/desire is shaped by practices, not ideas that are merely communicated to us.
Or to put it another way, our real world context is both outside of us and within us. The connection between our desires and the physical places where we spend our days is intimate and integral to every aspect of our lives.
If you are like me, there are places you go to find restoration and perspective. For me it is the spiritual geography of wild places. Remove the technological noise and perspective returns. At these places, we reconnect with the desires that drive us toward what we love.
When I go to a place like Max Patch (below) I find myself standing on a high mountain bald with a 360 degree vista of mountain ridges.
The vastness of this mountain scape, like that of this panorama of the Grand Tetons of Jackson Hole (below), touches me deep inside, reminding me of vastness of the opportunities that we each have each day to make a difference.
The desires of my life and work resonate with the bigness of these mountains. It is why I constantly return to them, where I find balance and proportion between me as an individual and the bigness of the world in which I live and work.
Smith presents a compelling view that contemporary consumerism is set of liturgical practices that both inform and form us as people. He writes,
"Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall - the liturgies of mall and market - that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our desires and actions. That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. These quasi-liturgies effect an education of desire, a pedagogy of the heart. ..."
What is true of the mall's impact upon us is also true of the social and organizational structures where we live and work. They are not inert, neutral, artificial places. They are living contexts which engage our desires, and where our lives take root in a real world. These "places" affect how we develop as human beings.
It is this deeper truth that lies behind the design development of office space between those of an open plan and the closed kind advocated by Susan Cain in her book, The Quiet. The architecture of space in social and organizational structures affects who we are and how we perform. This is the tangible representation of the role that human desire has.
A Structure for Desire?
We don't look at the way we organize our businesses and organizations from this point of view though. We tend to see space or organizational systems as just a place where work takes place. We think of organizational structural design as primarily about creating efficiency and production. We don't think of them as a determining factor in how people connect to their inner desire for meaning and impact. It is the same reason we don't see people, but rather human resources. It is the utilitarian mindset of the industrial age that cannot see what is evident when one stands outside of that context.
The effect of this mindset is to diminish our understanding of human potential, reducing it to whatever is needed for the task assigned. Consequently, any connection to human desire is lost all together.
It was James K. A. Smith who provided me the insight to see something in my work with clients that had been evident all along: three human desires that everyone has. Desires for personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships and to make a difference that matters.
What we love drives us towards these desires. And we need to structure the social and organizational systems of our lives and work to enable these desires to find fulfillment.
In part 3 of this essay, I will look at how we can create organizational structures that enable people who work within them to find personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships, and to make a difference that matters.