Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at LeonardoBoff.com.
by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Desire isn't just any impulse. It's the motor that gets the whole psychic life going. It enjoys the role of a principle, translated by the philosopher Ernst Bloch as the principle of hope. By nature, it knows no bounds, as Aristotle and Freud observed. The psyche doesn't want just this or that, it wants it all. It doesn't want the fullness of man, it seeks the superman, that which infinitely surpasses what is human, as Nietzsche said.
Desire makes life dramatic and sometimes tragic. But also, when satisfied, it produces unsurpassed happiness. We are always looking for the proper object for our infinite desire and we don't find it in the realm of everyday experience. Here we only find finite things. When man identifies a finite reality as the infinite object being sought, it produces profound disappointment. It could be the beloved person, a highly desired profession, a dream. There comes a time, and usually it doesn't take long, when he notices a basic dissatisfaction and feels the desire for something greater.
How does one get out of this impasse caused by infinite desire? By flitting from one object to another without ever finding rest? We must start to seriously look for the true object of our desire. Entering in medias res, I'll answer: It's the Being and not the entity; it's the Whole and not the part; it's the Infinite and not the finite. After much wandering, man is led to experience the cor inquietum (restless heart) of St. Augustine: Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new. Late have I loved. My restless heart will not rest until it rests in Thee. Only the Infinite Being fits the infinite desire of man and allows him to rest.
Desire involves powerful volcanic energy. How does one handle it? Above all, it's about welcoming, without moralizing, this condition of desiring. Passions push the human being towards all sides. Some impel him to generosity, others to self-centeredness. Integrating without suppressing such energy requires care and a lot of renunciation.
The psyche is called to build a personal synthesis, that is finding a balance of all inner energies. Neither making oneself a victim of obsession because of a particular drive -- for example, sexuality -- nor repressing it as if it were possible to weaken its force. What matters is to integrate it as an expression of affection, love and beauty, and keep it under surveillance, because we are dealing with a vital energy that isn't fully controllable by reason, but rather through symbolic paths of sublimation and for other humanitarian purposes. Each person must learn to give up, in the sense of attaining an asceticism that frees them from dependency and creates internal freedom, one of the most valuable gifts.
Another way of dealing with infinite desire is through precaution, which keeps us from the snares of human vulnerability itself. We are neither omnipotent, nor gods that failure can not touch. We can show ourselves to be weak and sometimes cowardly. But we must guard against situations that can make us fall and lose the Center.
Perhaps an inspiring clue is offered by C.G. Jung in his suggestion to build a process of individuation over a lifetime. This has a holistic dimension: it fearlessly and humbly assumes all drives, images, archetypes, lights and shadows. He hears the roar of the beasts that inhabit him but also the song of the thrush, that enchants him. How does one create an interior unity whose effect is the equilibrium of desire, the experience of freedom and the joy of living?
C.G. Jung suggested that everyone try to create a strong center, a unifying Self that has the role that the sun has in the solar system. It draws all the planets around itself. Something similar should happen with the psyche: nourishing a personal Center that integrates everything, with reflection and internalization, and, not in the least, with the cultivation of the Sacred and the Spiritual. It's not uncommon that religion as an institution curtails spiritual life through an excess of overly rigid doctrines and moral standards. But religion as well as spirituality plays a key role in the process of individuation. Its role is to bind the person again and again with his or her Centre, with all things, the universe, with the original Source of all being, giving them a sense of belonging.
The lack of integration of the energy of desire is manifested by the rending of social relationships, by the murderous violence being carried out in schools and by the killing of black people, poor people and homosexuals.
Learning to deal with the forces of desire, then, implies a concern for social health. Humanistic education, ethics and citizenship should not ignore education about desire. The major obstacle lies in the logic of the prevailing system, centered on the desire to have, neglecting the civilizing values of kindness, right treatment, and respect for the person. By contrast, the mass media exalts individual desire and violence to solve human conflicts.
Globalization as a human phenomenon forces us to moderate personal desire for benefit of the collective and so make human coexistence become more balanced and friendly.
How we long for better times!