Humanity's desire for immediate gratification blocks worthy goals


When we set a value or a goal, we incur an obligation to move toward that goal. Most people think of the process of moving toward the goal as a set of transactions. Actions that move us toward the goal are credits. Actions that move us away from the goal are debits.

Unfortunately, a conflict arises between our desires and our goals. We desire a piece of chocolate, but our goal is to lose weight. What to do? Easy, we eat the chocolate (a debit), and we promise to eat healthy tomorrow (a credit). The problem is that tomorrow never comes (same logic is used by politicians, but that is for a different venue), so we drift away from the goal.

Have you considered this conundrum? — T.W., Las Vegas

By “set” I assume you mean “commit to”? If so, then, yes, commitments oblige us, indeed.

Credits and debits? Hmm. An economic metaphor, then.

You suggest that the political application is for a different venue, but I think it’s a great place to start. In the United States, pretty much since the end of World War II, our “desire for chocolate” has been ravenous, undiscerning and unrestrained. Our appetite has pushed away any and all considerations for “losing weight,” so much so now that, during election debates, candidates are actually arguing over what we should buy with the money we don’t have!

I’m saying the only thing Republicans and Democrats seem to disagree about is which is the nobler path of financial collapse. But make no mistake, both parties are hellbent on the destination.

When I run out of money, I stop buying stuff.

One of the time-tested, time-honored measures of adulthood is the willingness and ability to put off immediate gratification for the sake of a greater gain. By this measure, American adults might be a vanishing breed.

Conundrum? For me, it’s a banal observation of the human condition. The reason commitments matter so much is precisely because human beings, by nature, are such permissive masters of their own desires. Which is to regularly not be masters at all.

This explains, I think, why the world’s great religions agree desire itself is the enemy. The Hebrews gave us the Tenth Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Covet.” The word “covet” in Hebrew means “to desire greatly.” The Buddhists constantly admonish us about our “attachments” and insist the better life is a life of detachment. The devil knows Jesus is fasting, knows he’s hungry, and tempts him to turn stones in to bread. “Man does not live by bread alone,” Jesus says, not so much to teach the devil anything new but to remind himself of the greater goal.

Desire itself is the enemy. And not merely because our runaway desires enslave us to buy things we can’t afford. Not merely because, once in debt, our desires than necessitate spinning delusions and yarns about how we’ll get back to work paying off debits and acquiring credits tomorrow. Not merely because it’s easier to break the habit of going to the gym than it is to start the habit of going to the gym. Not merely because our hearts’ desires run toward the petty and shallow (oh, that we could actually desire and laud achieving the goal of having more than 200 Facebook friends!). Not merely that we like and seek reckless inertia.

No, it’s worse than all that. Human beings are capable of desiring awful things: death, destruction, suffering, humiliation, vengeance.

In the Hebrew creation stories, Adam and Eve can’t follow the rules. They rebel, precisely because the forbidden fruit is so desirable. God describes the consequence, in part, to Adam and Eve thusly: “Your husband will rule over you, yet your desire shall be for him.”

Yep. Ask a practicing Jew, “What’s one of the ways I can know that the world is a fallen and broken place containing fallen and broken people?” One cogent answer could be: “Notice that there are men who sincerely desire to rule over women. They like it. Then notice that there are women who can sincerely desire a man who could possibly desire such a thing.”

I’m saying, T.W., that, yes, setting goals and bringing effort and commitment and discipline to achieving those goals is a fine thing. But you’ll hardly ever meet anyone older than 21 who hasn’t regularly torpedoed a noble goal with a petty, shallow, or sometimes sordid desire.

In the end, our unruly desires can’t be mastered by mere effort and intention. The desires themselves must be transformed.

I’m an Anglo-Catholic, T.W. In our Book of Common Prayer is a prayer I pray often, simply because it includes the line, “… that someday I could desire what You desire.”

Because on that day I will no longer need goals.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.