The Edge of the Real: The Call of Desire

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DESIRE

The physical, emotional, or intellectual longing that is directed towards something or someone that is wanted.

Sarah Coakley, PhD.

Cambridge University

Desire is a longing which bridges our inner life with the outer world. It is a longing for connection, completion, and relationship.

Desire is a longing for fulfillment or achievement. It is a longing that is born in emptiness, frustration, or loss. It is the feeling that comes from a missed opportunity or the sense of unrealized potential when a project ends suddenly, or when love shared goes unrequited. 

This longing is born in our experience of change. It is something we feel inside. It is our inner voice telling us that more could be done or needs to be done.

Desire does not fade. It seeks out that which is beyond our grasp today, but maybe not tomorrow. Our desires define who we are.

Desire precedes and is greater than our goals, strategies, plans and intentions. Desire is that deep core within us that we identify as what we love, for those people and causes to whom we give ourselves with passion and sacrifice. It is that place within us where human flourishing finds its source and motivation.

I've seen desire in people for a long time. Early on, it was that "thing" which emerged when a group began to have a vision for their organization or community. They are passionate about their cause. They see it, feel it, taste it, smell it as this movie-like visualization of a idea that comes to life and compels them to invest their shared life to bring it to fulfillment.

Passionate desire is a longing for something better that engages the whole person, mind, body and spirit. It is who we are at our most central, deep and intimate level.

The desire for wholeness is born within us. Philosophers, theologians, motivational experts, story-tellers, and artists have spoken about desire, passion, and completeness in many and various ways. They know, as we know, that this is the nature of our world. Broken, incomplete, unjust, raw, untouched potential, filled with passionate visions of the good which touch us down deep inside, drawing us out into a life which is better, more complete and whole. This isn't a new story. It is rather the oldest story of human endeavor taking on urgency for each of us, everyday.

To follow our desire, we must think for ourselves, act as responsible persons, and live as the embodiment of that desire. Out of this commitment we discover a new life, and the potential for completeness.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith, writes,

“… we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things ... 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.”

The challenge is to not get lost in the rush of emotion that comes from passion.  We need to treat our passions with maturity, respect, and understanding.  Our passions have the power to create goodness as well as to destroy the very desires at the heart of our passion. 

We, therefore, need to understand the source of desire. We need to find a way to create patterns of thought and practices of behavior that allow us to see how to bridge the deep reservoir of meaning within in us with the world of change that envelops us like the sea does its fish.

The Three Desires

Over the years, as I've listened to what people say and have observed what they do, both in private and organizational settings, I've seen that this inscruble thing called desire is always present. It is evident in the passions and visions that people have for their future. It is also evident in their response to situations where they are frustrated, disappointed, anxious or angry.

I eventually came to see that this desire from down deep within us is a mix of three desires. I've concluded that this is the spiritual core of our humanity, or, what we mean by our human spirit. It is the center of our individual humanity that is the platform for the life and relationships we nurture in the outer world. It is what is celebrated, what elicits tears, cheers and commitment to making sacrificial gifts of art, wealth and time. From my own experience, I see this as the mark of divine intention upon our humanity. Nourish these desires, and we see why we exist, and what our lives are to mean in practice and difference. Our desires carry that kind of singular importance.

The Three Desires guide how we function in our work, our communities, and our families. Our desires are revealed when we plan, in how we address problems, in our celebration and mourning of life's transitions , when we succeed or fail, and, in how we go through the changes and transitions of our lives and work.

What are these desires and how are we to understand their function in our lives?

Our Three Desires are

for Personal Meaning, for Happy, Healthy Relationships,

and, to Make a Difference That Matters.

 Three Desires-Impact-NoFill
We desire for our lives to have personal meaning.

Our minds sort through our experiences; sift through the sensory data we are receiving; categorize the information that we absorb; identify patterns of behavior and recurrence of ideas; then, our minds establish order, perspective, understanding, and finally meaning.

Most of the time, all of this takes place just below the level of our conscious awareness. Learning from childhood onward to think this this way, it becomes second nature. Physicist and philosopher Michael Polanyi describes it as tacit knowledge. It is that knowledge that we know, but we don't know how we know it. We just know it. It is learned in the experience of life.

We think this way, finding meaning in our lives and in the world, until there are too many discontinuities. Increasingly, in the modern world, these discontinuities are markers of societal and intellectual change on a grand scale. All the meaningful continuities of the past, of belief in God, in the goodness of humankind, in the power of government to do good, in freedom, opportunity and progress. Each of these points of personal and societal meaning are in transition. It doesn't mean that the foundational truths are changing, but rather how they function in the world is changing.

Personal meaning is not just a set of intellectual or spiritual beliefs that are important to us. This sense of meaning rises from down deep in us. It is not just individual, but a shared feeling. I've seen it in working with businesses. There is something that draws these people together. Some vision or desire that compels them to join their lives together to venture forth in some great endeavor.

A vision of this sort, as I point out in my Circle of Impact Leadership system, is formed by ideas. They provide a core belief or meaning for us to make the commitment to work together towards goals that we define as our organizational purpose. A vision, then, is a picture of shared meaning that is acted upon by the people who work within an institutional system to create impact.

Circle of Impact- simple

We articulate this order by telling stories. We share our opinions, make decisions and practice ethical discernment because of the clarification of the values that form our desires, or are the product of our desire for personal meaning.

We act on what is personally meaningful, by defining our purpose, by elevating values that underlie our purpose to a central place in our relationships with others, and, then, together, implement a vision that leads to the impact that is a fulfillment of that which is meaningful to us.

Unless there is constant attention to sustaining a culture of founding values, future generations only see those values as relatively meaningless, and possibly, irrelevant cultural practices.* In other words, Personal Meaning is not private meaning, but meaning that is shared within the social context of our lives.

We desire to have happy, healthy relationships.

In a previous post in this series, Fragmented Boundaries, I write,

I am who I am, always have been, always will be. Though I live in the external world, I am who I am, in an always changing interaction between this person who I am and the world in which I live. Therefore, I am always becoming the person who I am right now.

Crossing the boundary from our inner life to the outer world requires an engagement with that world. It is in our relationships with one another that we find our most tangible connection to the outer world. Let me describe what I see.

Recently, I took a salsa making class. In this class was a retired couple who had been married for six years. As we prepared our salsas, they talked about all the cooking classes that they had attended, from Santa Fe to Boston to Paris, and soon, in Tuscany.
I asked them, "Which one of you was the foodie who got the other involved? They said, "Neither. When we got married, we decided to do something that neither of us had ever done. We took a cooking class, and found out that we both loved it."
What was it that they loved? Sharing the experience of learning, of being creative, and establishing a whole new circle of friends in their hometown.

In the context of their relationship, individual desires, long dormant, came to life. Joy and meaning, and a life that matters resulted. For not only has their experience provided them a context for a happy, healthy marriage, it has also brought them into relationship with people that they may never have had  the opportunity to know.   

We are social beings, even the most shy, introverted and individualistic ones of us. It isn't that we want to hang out with people all the time. It is that our engagement with people, more than in any other facet of our lives, is where our inner selves meets the outer world. To speak, to know, to share, or to love, requires something from within us to form into words or actions that communicate to the other person, who translates what they see and hear into something that touches their inner self.

We are not random objects bumping into one another, like billiard balls on a pool table. We are purposeful, desiring beings who seek connection with other purposeful, desiring beings.

Our shared connections make us tribal beings as well. We gather around the things we love which release our passion in life. My tribes are the church, social entrepreneurs, organizational and community leaders, people who desire change, the Red Sox Nation, jazz and classical music aficionados, lovers of history, philosophy and culture, and travelers through landscapes of mountains, oceans and open spaces.   

We learn in the context of relationships; a living context where our inner lives touch the outer world in a less mechanistic, more organic way. To know someone, to interact with them, requires us to live in a shared story of meaning and expectation. This is true for our oldest friends and family, as well as the person that we have just met.

Our human relationships are the embodiment of particular values that are intimate, social and practical.

A happy relationship is one free of doubt, open to vulnerability, peaceful, affirming, with genuine compatibility, and love.

A healthy relationship is built upon the mutual practices of openness, respect, trust, honesty, and responsibility.

There are two distinct contexts for our relationships. One is personal, the other professional.

Happiness and health in our relationships with friends, lovers, spouses, children, parents and in-laws function in a long historical arch. Live with someone for ten, thirty or fifty years, and our lives are bound together in ways that are invisible and continually present. We nurture the health and happiness of long term relationships by giving our attention to the core desires that we each have individually and those we share. It is by this daily practice that we produce happiness and health. The ancients believed that happiness and health came as the virtues of life were mastered. This is the intention that is needed in our closest, most intimate relationships.

A relationship between two people is between individual persons. Each is defined by their own distinct values. Each is defined by what they desire in a relationship to the other, and, together they grow into an understanding of the difference their lives are to make. When there is compatibility and a sharedness in each of these three parts of our lives, then happiness and health can grow.

In the professional sphere, our relationships are less personal, more detached, more difficult to be qualified by the terms happy and healthy. Modern organizations have become increasing dehumanizing, unreceptive to human interaction (communication), and lacking the supervisory space to allow for the expression of individual initiative to create a collaborative environment for relationship.

As the old, dying models of 20th. century hierarchy fail to adapt to the rapid introduction of technologies for individual autonomy and collaboration, resistance to change grows. Defense of institutional positions of power and influence create weakness in the operating structures of organizations, making them less agile and more prone to corruption and violation of founding values.

Outside of many of these corporate structures are networks of relationships that are spontaneous, open and collaborative. Leadership is not directed and delegated, but shared and facilitated. The network of the relationship is marked by the phenomenon of shared values, responsibility and outcomes. The structure of organization that is needed rises from the purpose and desired impact of their work together, and by design is agile and adaptive to contexts of rapid, discontinuous change.

Network-Hierarchy ImageThe weakness of these networks of relationships is that it is difficult to scale and sustain the work of these kinds of relationships. As a result, they need a structure within which to work that can accommodate the energy and ambiguity that exists in these relationships. The challenge of hierarchy is nimbleness for change. Networks of relationships emerge out of the discovery that we - WE - share similar desires that call us together for achieving impact.  These structures need one another to counter their inherent weaknesses.

We desire to make a difference that matters.

The desire to make a difference that matters is the most fundamental expression of human desire. It is what we do, and the effect of what we do that we see as validating the value of our lives.

For some people, the obsessive need to prove their worth in achievement is the extreme expression of this most human of desires. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the lack of desire towards achievement or fulfillment is the product of the weaknesses or absence of the other two desires.

To make a difference is to create impact. To create impact is to take some idea or value and create a living expression of it.

If there is a forward movement through the three desires, it is towards making a difference that matters.  It is the most logical place where achievement and completion are realized.

There is some satisfaction in finding what is personally meaningful, as well as in having happy, healthy relationships. But it is this third desire which brings wholeness to our lives. If values strengthen the mind, and friendship enriches our physical life, it is making a difference through the expression of values in our relationships that brings the three parts of ourselves to fulfillment.

As a result, it is what we do, create and the impact we have which is the greatest expression of human spirit, and where wholeness is realized.

The Leadership of Making a Difference That Matters

Early on in my exploration of leadership, I came to see that all leadership begins with personal initiative. This initiative is specifically an act of decision in response to an inner desire for change. In effect, leadership is a form of our inner selves' engagement with the outer world.

This perspective is vastly different from views that are hierarchial or inspirational. Neither view places the source of leadership in human desire. Instead these views see leadership as either a position of responsibility within a management system, or, a kind of sloganistic pumping up of one's emotions to do various kinds of work.

My early inspiration for seeing leadership as a function of human desire towards creating change came from Peter Drucker, one of the preeminent management thinkers of the 21st. century. In his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, that was spark that led to the creation of my own leadership consultancy a decade later. Drucker writes about entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs see change as the norm and as healthy. Usually, they do not bring about the change themselves. But – and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship – the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.

Drucker's view from three decades ago remains true today. Change is the norm. Effective leaders, as well as managers, learn to work within the context of change. This requirement is now no longer limited to people in positions of leadership, but the necessity for each individual, regardless of their place, standing or position in life or work. To respond to one's desires, is to accept, not a leadership role, but a call to take initiative to make a difference that matters.

The Call of Desire

Desire rises from within us as a longing for connection, completion and fulfillment. It is expressed in the desire for personal meaning, happy, healthy relationships, and, to make a difference that matters with one's life. This movement of desire bridges our inner selves with the outer world. When we act upon our desires to make a difference that matters, we are exhibiting the character of leadership.

Our desires, therefore, are a call upon our lives. A call to step out to make a difference in a way that fulfills one's desires.

The Call of Desire is a call to meaning, friendship, wholeness and impact in life. When we respond to this call from within us, we are deciding to change not only our outer world, but also ourselves. When we do, we turn away from the world of the Spectacle with its artificial hyper reality. We claim a reality that can be touched and experienced, created and replicated. This is how we reclaim the real for our lives and for the people and places where our lives make a difference that matters.

The call begins within, must be answered, and lived out in the world of change. As a result our lives take on the character of an unfolding story. It is this story that I'll explore in my next post.

*See Jim Collins and Jerry Porras' Built to Last for a description of this reality.

The Edge of the Real: Our Fragmented World

Big Hole Battefield 1

I have been arguing that in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative. This has been much discussed recently, and very insightfully. It has often been remarked that making sense of one's life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

Charles Taylor

We all exist in time. We know that yesterday we went to the market, and tomorrow, we'll visit with friends over dinner or spend our days at work. We look back in remembrance and forward in time with anticipation. We understand the cycle of time as a part of life.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes wrote a very long time ago,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

While we may acknowledge this to be true, we also desire for time to stand still. We desire stability and continuity, to keep the good and avoid the bad. This is a response to a world that is more fragmented than whole.

Look to the conditions of our external world. It is a world of change that is often disruptive, random and unwelcome. Yet, it is this very fragmented world that we ask to be consistent, stable and compatible enough to make us feel good about ourselves and provide a ground for a personal identity that can withstand the change we experience. This fragmentation is primarily between our inner selves and the world that is separate from us.

The challenge to be a whole and complete as a real person becomes more urgent as our world fragments into hyper-realities.  Of course, to see this, understand it, and live into it requires us  to understand how our inner and outer lives have become so fragmented, how the world is and is not a mirror of our inner state, and how we can establish a path to personal wholeness.

The Hyper-reality of the External World

The hyper-real social world that I describe in The Spectacle of the Real is a world of random experiences that are presented to us as daily events of significance intended to define who we are as people.

Look at your Twitter or Facebook feed, or, watch the news scroll across the bottom of the screen of your favorite news channel, and you'll see events, causes, ideas and personalities that are promoted as information that is important for us to engage. These status updates are not descriptions of all that is taking place, but rather a filtering of what is important and what is not. The selection of what is included and not included is commentary on the news, not the news itself.

ALL media content is mediated content, not raw data for our own critical mind to determine whether it is news or not.

The early promise of social media was as a more or less unfiltered reservoir of people and information to connect and engage.  Social media sites have evolved into clever, highly sophisticated advertising platforms, promoting not just products for sale, but perspectives and social philosophies intended to guide our understanding of the future and our place in it. The more they know about us through our social media postings, website selections and online purchases, the tighter and more closed the sources of information that are provided to us.

The hyper-reality of social media fragments the narrative sense of our lives, that Charles Taylor describes. For our lives to be understood as a continuous, unfolding story, we need to be able to see our life experience as a whole in two ways. First, as having continuity and connection over the entire length of our lives, and second, as being open to what is new, different and unpredictable.

Hyper-real contexts always place us on the outside of the screen, looking in at those who are doing the real living. We are meant to see a reality that is larger and more important than our own existence, filled with the fascinating people we must follow, and never, ever, involving us as direct participants in their lives. The result is that our inner lives take on a stunted, not flourishing life, disconnected from an outside world that can fully engage us

I have often heard people say in response to my daily change of my Facebook cover picture, how much they would like to go to the places that I have been. There is nothing unusual about those places. Many are within minutes of where I live. Or, the number of times the thought has crossed our minds about how much we would like to do what those crazy guys in a YouTube video did or say what they said. Social media sharing is a vicarious experience, not a direct one, as it is not quite as real as the one we create when we act upon some desire to go see a concert or hike to a beautiful mountain waterfall.

The reality is that the attraction of the screen is always random, momentary and intermitant, never whole or complete. Our lived lives, on the other hand can be filled with meaning, friendship and a real sense of accomplishment and contribution.

As Umberto Eco wrote in Travels in Hyperreality"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." This is the hyper-real, social media context in which we seek to understand who we are as persons. The more deeply engaged in this hyper-real world we become, the more disconnected we become from our inner selves.

The Numbed Self, or, The Hyper-Real Inner Life

Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, was one of the first to recognize the social impact of images on a screen. His most famous epigram is the medium is the message. In McLuhan's most important book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man there is a chapter entitled The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis. In this essay, he uses the Greek story of Narcissus as a way of seeing the effect that electronic technology has upon us a persons.

"The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions ...

... the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!"

Narcissus was unaware that the image was of him. His inner self-awareness was disconnected from the external reality of the pool. His sense of self or identity was broken.  His awareness of who he was had been severed from his awareness of the world beyond his perception. The wholeness of life was lost on him. He had no way to tell a complete or whole story of seeing his reflection in the water, because his perception of the image in the water and his self-perception were disconnected. He was a fragmented man captivated by a hyper-real image in the water.

McLuhan was one of the first media critics to see electrical technology as a tool for replacing our sense of identity with an artificial image. The computer screen, the iPad, the Smart Phone are objects which are now extensions of our identities, representing our inner selves in the outer world. This is why it is do difficult to let go of them. To let go is to lose our identity.  Whatever is on the screen is not who we are, but, rather, a substitute representation, a hyper-real presence.

Sherry Turkle two decades ago began to speak about how Life on the Screen provides us multiple identities. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other  she has similar insights as McLuhan's.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run.

... we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.

But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection, ...

This is a fragmented relational world lived through the hyper-space of the screen.

At The Edge

Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, draws a distinction between the self of the modern age and that of the premodern one. He speaks of the modern self as being "buffered" against the intrusion of the outside world, and the pre-modern self as being "porous" so as to allow what is in the outside world to take on meanings that intrude into our sense of who we are.

By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the "mind"; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.

As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don't need to "get to me", to use the contemporary expression. That's the sense to my use of the term "buffered" here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

... the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.

... the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

As Taylor's description shows, the separation between our inner selves, or "minds"  and the world at large is much more complex than simply identifying either a connection or a detachment between our inner and outer worlds.

The point I wish to draw here is that the extremes of either a "buffered" or "porous" self are products of the fragmentation of the world in which we live. Wholeness is discovered, lived out, at the boundary between them, which I'm calling The Edge of the Real.

Two Questions

There are two questions that I wish to raise that I will pick up in part two of this essay.

1. Is the fragmentation between our inner selves and the outside world neutral, neither good nor bad, just the way things are, and therefore, just something to adjust and adapt to each day?

I am asking whether what I have said thus far has any merit. Am I just creating an issue where this is none?

I ask this because Taylor in his A Secular Age clearly shows that there are benefits to living a bounded, buffered life, creating a safe space between my inner self and the outer world.

2. If this fragmentation is unhealthy, then what does it mean to be a whole person, and how does one bridge, cross over, heal the gap between our inner lives and the outer world?

I ask this question because of what I observe in people who are broken and people who are whole. I see a pattern or a collection of patterns that point to how the boundary between the world of our minds can engage in the world apart can become a place where life is made whole.

The Edge of the Real is a place of discovery. In part two, I'll explore what I see as the source of wholeness, and part three how to create wholeness in our lives and work.