What do you want, and why do you want it? How intense is your wanting? To what degree is your wanting a form of suffering?
These are questions tackled by philosopher-entrepreneur Luke Burgis in his book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2021). Burgis contends you are living a lie if you think your choices are completely autonomous, independent, and self-directed. His book outlines a concept called mimetic theory, which says persistent desire or wanting is due to our susceptibility to the influence and modeling of others.
Burgis’s intention is to make us more conscious of unhealthy behaviors and desires. It would help, however, if he were to go deeper into the psyche.
Mimetic desire, he writes, is formed and generated “through the imitation of what someone else has already desired or is perceived to desire.” (The word mimesis is derived from a Greek word meaning imitation.) Burgis says we use the modeling influence of others to decide what we want for ourselves. “We chose objects due to the influence of a third party, a model or mediator of desire,” he writes. He cites the evidence that infants begin to copy others, often with body and facial expressions, as part of the process of interacting and becoming social.
Of course, it’s true that we often come under the influence of circumstances and others. As I see it, though, this point is of secondary significance. It’s more important for us to understand that the stress and anxiety of chronic wanting is a product of our personal inner conflict more so than a condition caused by others.
It’s a trick of our mind to attribute our behaviors and emotions to outside influences or factors. Bad luck, job loss, lack of opportunity, and the malice of others are often blamed for the self-defeat and negative impressions we generate within ourselves.
Burgis does this, too. He attributes the chronic state of wanting and desire—one of our most “popular” ways of suffering—to outside influences. He’s not seeing clearly enough the unhealthy “game” we play with ourselves. This game involves, in this context, our unwitting willingness to suffer the persistent displeasure of desiring what we don’t have, can’t get, or is unhealthy for us.
The more we experience such displeasure, the more likely we are to be afflicted by cravings and desires and to be entangled in inner conflict. The distress or pain of incessant wanting is the result of an unconscious choice we’re making to hold on to feelings of deprivation, refusal, and inner barrenness. Envy and self-pity are frequently symptoms of this inner conflict.
The unconscious “game” is not to get but instead to suffer the sense of not getting. The wanting, when especially intense, is a coverup for our unconscious choice to remain mired in this inner conflict between desire versus deprivation, refusal, or barrenness. The desired object or behavior is not the prize in itself but instead serves as a contrivance or ruse for experiencing unresolved inner conflict.
Unconsciously, we’re willing to deepen the painful impression of being helpless or powerless to attain what we so adamantly want. Such conflict can haunt us much more than we realize.
Wanting becomes one’s unconsciously chosen way to suffer. The wanting, while compulsive, feels natural. Life can’t be complete, it feels, because something is always missing. We can’t imagine another way of experiencing ourselves except in terms of some vague emptiness, disconnect, or alienation. Fortunately, we can break our compulsion to experience this futile wanting and needless suffering when we become aware of the unconscious dynamics that produce this form of misery.
Cravings and desires are powerful sensations. They act like flame-throwers turning up the heat in the crucible of one’s conflicted psyche. Buddhism is right that much of our suffering is due to the tendency to crave and desire things. Many of our most persistent and troublesome cravings or desires arise organically within us, propelled by inner conflict. We are driven to replay and recycle the unresolved emotional issues that inner conflict compels us to act out.
For instance, a person may want desperately to feel significant and important. But beneath the surface, in the realm of inner conflict, this wanting can be a coverup or compensation for this person’s identification with self as someone who is unworthy and insignificant. People will crave money, power, and fame in order to compensate for this underlying emotional weakness. They may feel desperate to succeed primarily to avoid the pain of underlying self-doubt. This wanting becomes a painful desire that covers up one’s own unwitting participation in the inner conflict between wanting respect versus identifying unconsciously with being undeserving of respect.
When blind to inner conflict, we’re compelled to act it out. We don’t need to imitate others or seek out models to initiate and carry out this process. The driving force is our own compulsion to act out unresolved inner conflict.
Some people who strive to become wealthy can have as a hidden motivation the desire to feel superior to others. They seek value in the form of money to cover up their emotional affinity for doubting their intrinsic value. This kind of wanting covers up an underlying fear of being an insignificant or lesser person. The inner conflict is between consciously wanting to feel good about oneself versus being compelled to process unresolved self-doubt. Driving self-aggrandizement is the entanglement in self-doubt that inner conflict facilitates.
An emotional resonance with self-doubt disturbs, in varying degrees, the psyche of most people. Instinctively, we hide from ourselves this identification with self-doubt, self-alienation, and inner emptiness. We don’t see how readily we succumb to the allure of this identification. The thought of being so blind to this emotional condition offends our ego. Unconsciously, we resist letting go of unresolved hurts and identifications associated with feeling unworthy and insignificant.
One of humanity’s unconscious wishes is to go on nursing unresolved hurts from childhood (the first hurts). We don’t need imitation of others as impetus or guidance to act out this compulsion. Many people feel conflicted, for instance, between consciously wanting to feel loved versus unconsciously being willing or compelled to recycle old hurts associated with being rejected, abandoned, or betrayed.
Unconsciously, we’re driven by inner conflict to suffer, and a never-ending stream of wanting may become our “favorite” way to suffer.
Many people who yearn for excitement or adventure are burdened with an underlying impression that something vital is missing from their life. Chronic boredom is a symptom of this conflict. We are compelled by inner conflict to desire that which we artificially construe to be missing from our life. We unwittingly set our sights on some person or object that we can surreptitiously use to feel conflicted about. It’s pure self-deception.
Some people desperately want romance in their life mainly to stave off their loneliness. Consciously, they desire love, but their unconscious weakness may be to feel helpless to overcome their own passivity and self-alienation. Even if a romantic partner is found, genuine love may be elusive if the lonely person’s wanting is based on self-alienation, because this issue, if unrecognized and unresolved, will carry forward into the new relationship, blocking intimacy and the development of a stable relationship.
Here’s another example of wanting that is self-initiating. Lingering infantile influences in our emotional life can cause us to want, sometimes fanatically, outside reality to validate the disinformation we inwardly churn up to protect our egoistic biases. Such mental-emotional contrivances insist that, “My values are the best ones,” or “Reality is what I say it is,” or “This is the way things should be.” The zany perceptions of QAnon followers offer an example. On the surface, they desperately want reality to validate them, but, unwittingly, they have chosen the path of least resistance. They accept preposterous notions of reality because truth would require that they strive to put their best foot forward rather than sink into disinformation and with it the degradation of their intelligence and even their humanity. Our best effort requires inner growth, while the worst only asks that we show up to act out inner conflict’s antics.
Wanting becomes an unconscious psychological defense. The defense covers up our willingness to indulge emotionally in old hurts that are unresolved from childhood, such as feeling refused or deprived. The defense makes this case on our behalf: I’m not attached to the feeling of being refused love, affection, or recognition. Look at how strongly I want to feel love. Look at how needy I am for recognition. I desire these things so earnestly. This is how we fool ourselves into thinking our desires, our “wantings,” are legitimate, rational pursuits.
Even a noble kind of wanting can be a means to suffer. For example, people can desperately want their country and the world to make headway against climate change. Yet they can begin to feel anxiety and even despair at the lack of progress. If they’re suffering this way, their unconscious intent is no longer for reform and progress. Instead, they’re more interested in recycling and replaying unresolved inner conflict associated with feeling helpless and hopeless. The more they fall into despair, the more acutely they feel helpless, and the more acutely they then suffer from their unfulfilled, desperate wanting.
Burgis warns that mimetic desire could spiral out of control. Our bones “will get picked dry by the winds of mimetic forces without our ever having staked a claim on anything that touches us at the depths of our being.” He says we need a new invention, possibly in education, that helps us to navigate our way forward. My suggestion is that we begin to see ourselves more objectively, as creatures who suffer needlessly because of ignorance of our psyche’s self-defeating inner conflict.