In 1997 Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for his role as Melvin Udall, an eccentric, abrasive man who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. You may remember the scene from which the movie’s title emerged. As Melvin exits his psychiatrist’s office after being denied the help he wanted, he pauses in the lobby and asks awaiting patients, “What if this is as good as it gets?” For some, his question is laden with too much pessimism. For others, it’s their mantra. Whichever response you have, most of us wrestle with desire and constantly recreate ways to manage or alter it. Let me invite you to look at a few of the ways I’ve seen desire managed and to consider an alternative that creates the space for a deeper intimacy with God.
For those who resonate with Melvin’s question, depression may be a way of managing desire. Somewhere along the way, you learned that it didn’t matter whether or not you had desires because you were unable to realize them and it hurt too much to be disappointed. Depression is one of the more subtle and passive ways that we detach from desire. It usually comes unexpectedly and is often difficult to pin on one particular event. It’s the dark cloud that rolled in while you weren’t looking.
Another way of passively detaching from desire is through denial. Again, at some point in life you learned that unmet desire is too disappointing, so, “What desire?” became your line of defense. If depression is a dark cloud, denial is a noxious gas because people in denial are, by definition, unaware of the emotional anesthetizing happening in their souls. Denying that we have deep, glorious desires doesn’t free us to be selfless and loving. It often makes us as vaporous as the denial itself because to deny our desire prevents us from being known and subsequently, being loved: desire fulfilled.
Similar to denial, diminishing our desire is an attempt to keep the pain of disappointment at bay. If you have felt deeply disappointed but told yourself, “It’s not that big of a deal,” you have likely diminished your desire to minimize the pain. And like denial, diminishing desire can seem selfless, especially in Christian circles. However, if we detach from desire in an attempt to keep it manageable, we usually find ourselves either depressed or angry and more distant from God in the process because diminishing our desire and pain is ultimately a commitment to not need God.
Unlike the relatively passive responses above, anger offers the illusion of a more active response to desire. A little toddler friend once got angry at the floor when she fell on it and hurt herself. She saw the floor as the culprit instead of the foundation that usually helps her stand. As adults, some of us are prone to despising our desire when it goes unmet and the longing hurts. We blame desire and despise it as the source of pain. Neither response is logical, but when we are hurt anger can feel powerful and give us a sense that we can access it to avoid being hurt again. Unfortunately, because desire is interwoven into the fabric of our humanity, despising our desire moves into despising ourselves, or self-contempt.
When the contempt isn’t self-oriented, it manifests itself toward others, usually God, and usually in the form of a demand. If you have either secretly or openly bargained with God saying, “You gave me this desire so You either have to fulfill it or take it away,” demand is part of your managing repertoire. We rarely limit our demand to just God, but usually impose it on others, from our spouses and friends to the impossibly slow drivers in front of us. Most of us are not usually as brazen with our demand as Melvin in As Good As It Gets when he yells across the restaurant for a different fork, but it’s there and readily accessible when disappointment or loss of control threaten to descend on our agendas.
Each of the above responses leaves us wanting and inhibits our intimacy with God because each is a choice we make to manage desire without Him. We paradoxically gravitate toward these responses because we want to feel safe and in control but end up feeling angry, lonely, or numb. However, when we unclench our fists and consider the freedom that dependence on God affords, we stand a chance at experiencing the very things we fruitlessly strive for on our own: love, joy, peace. We feel a shift from our commitment to not be hurt or disappointed to a recognition of God’s commitment to give Himself to us and to meet us in both our deepest desires and our most excruciating disappointments.
Depending on God in the midst of desire is not a natural response but this is the beauty of dependence, the divine set-up. God is enticing us to something far more amazing than any natural response we can contrive. Desire is at the core of who we are and bigger than anything we can possibly manage, so we are set up to either surrender to the love and grace God promises or to perpetually create new ways of self-sufficiency. In fact, I am confident that the ways I mentioned above are just a few. Our addictions and misdirected desires have countless ways of conforming to whatever shape we need them to be. But when we let desire soften us, we can connect with God. When we let the pain of unmet desire take us to surrender, to asking, waiting, and hoping that God will show up, we position ourselves to experience what we want: deep, abiding love.