On Desire

· 968 words · 5 minute read

Desire once seemed to like a simple thing to grasp and connect with. The longer I live, the more I discover how unfathomably complex desire and our relationship to it is. I’ll give you an example: dating websites.

Over a decade ago, I worked for a large dating website as a systems and network administrator. It exists no longer, but at its peak it had hundreds of thousands of daily active users.

The basics of our matching “algorithm” (if you can call it that) were trivial. You tell us how old you are, where you live, what gender you identify as, and what gender(s) you desire in a partner; we showed you everybody around your age, near where you live, with compatible gender desires - sorted by when they were most recently online.

Every business has key performance indicators (KPIs) that they use to measure how effective the business is, and like all good web services seeking to improve, we did a lot of A-B testing: we would change our service in targeted ways, deliver those changes to only a small fraction of users, and see how our KPI measures differed for those users versus our baseline to see if the change was actually an improvement. For us, as you had to have a paid subscription to send a free-form message to another user of the site, conversion to paid accounts was our top KPI.

You might think some optimizations to our matching algorithm were no-brainers. For example, if you’re a non-smoker who’s never smoked tobacco, you might imagine the ability to filter out people who smoke would be an improvement. But counterintuitively, it was not - conversion rates went down. So too with almost every other experiment. The more we did to try to give people more power to define their preferences, the less satisfied they were with the results.

It turns out that, broadly speaking, we often have a massive disconnect between what we think we desire and what actually feels good.

Jacques Lacan wrote “Man’s desire is the desire of the Other.” When I read Lacan decades ago, I took away that Lacan believed the basis of desire was for validation of the ego from others, that what we desired to be was what others desired, and that ultimately when one possesses the object of their desire, they’re doomed to not want it anymore. It matched a lot of patterns I’ve seen in the early dating lives, mine and those I’ve been able to witness: seeking the validation of the opposite sex, enjoying the chase and passion of discovery, but once all mystery was revealed and all vulnerability granted, the intrigue withers and fades.

Surely this cannot be authentic desire - it feels instead like the insecure ego clamoring for love from others one cannot or will not give oneself. Growing, healing, becoming, and embodying are all lifelong pursuits of hard, humbling work - whereas the euphoria of a new lover reflecting the most actualized version of ourselves and the most optimistic account of our potential allows the ego to lull itself into a fantasy where that work is unnecessary. This form of desire turns out to be more about what one wants to avoid than what one authentically wants to cultivate.

For most of my 30’s, I struggled with desire in an ecosystem of others’ desires, for often desires can seem competitive. If I desire to do a particular thing with my time this evening, but my partner desires for us to do something else, we both will not be able to satisfy our desires. And how can I truly enjoy the satisfaction of an authentic desire when I know it comes at the expense of the satisfaction of those I dearly love? How can I not feel guilty or even shameful for wanting what my own authentic self desires?

What desire remained safe to indulge in were those desires of service: when my desire was to satisfy the desires of others, to share in their joy at having what they want. But this too distils down to being what others desire, and the spectre of Lacan emerges yet again.

It’s only in recent years that I’m able to see how I resigned myself to such emotional manipulation.

In the time since, my work has included persisting through the conditioned reactivity of guilt and repression to seek out the still, small voice of my sovereign sense of desire. I’ve begun re-patterning in a new constellation of relationships that have a more balanced rhythm of supporting other’s desires and asserting the importance of my own, without taking responsibility for whatever emotional waves rise in others for what I do or do not want. Saying “no” to others is a way of saying “yes” to myself.

Many exposed to the esoteric traditions of Hinduism are familiar with the chakras: the energy centers of the body. The energy center of the solar plexus, called Manipura, resides between the energy centers of the heart (Anahata) and of the sacrum (Svadhishthana), and consequently fuses the higher emotions of the heart with the impulsive cravings of the loins into a furnace of creative desire.

In my own practice of mystical Judaism, Tiferet at the center of the Sefirot balances and harmonizes the forces around it, of kindness and strength, and of intellect and emotion. In that tradition, authentic desire is the antecedent to will, which begets creation - and in the act of pure creation, we connect with the shard of light of the Ein Sof that resides within us.

This practice of sovereignty and personal divinity in cultivating one’s desires stands in sharp contrast with the dopamine-based, ego-comforting concept of desire in Lacan. For me, it represents the clearest path forward into building the world I want for myself.