“So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game”
–Taylor Swift “Blank Spaces”
Our problem as a culture is not that we desire too much but too little. We are not creative enough about our longings. But we don’t need to be when those longings are hand-picked for us.
It would be easy to mistake cultural decadence for a robust ability to desire greatly. But the two are, by no means, the same. Take Taylor Swift’s song, for example. The chorus above ushers us into a world of romantic decadence complete with a “long list of lovers,” where she plays at discarding relationships like dressing room clothes. She’s “young and…reckless,” and she’ll “take it way too far”. This game she’s playing smacks of indulgence. The allure is instant gratification, but the appeal quickly wears off, so she goes from one lover to the next, but continues to end up alone and unfulfilled.
This game she’s playing at is one that we dabble with, ourselves, in various forms. We feel discontented so we spend countless hours buying clothes, drinking too much, or burning through a long list of hobbies. All of these attempts are formulaic and predictable. If there’s so little imagination, why are these things so popular and appealing to us?
We’re quick to accept cultural definitions for our desires instead of defining them for ourselves; and culture is ready and willing to take up the mantle of defining our wants for us. If the problem at hand is our unfulfilled longings (that show up in a state of discontent or restlessness), then culture’s quick solution is decadence. But those indulgences only mask our desires; they don’t fulfill them.
Do you know what you want? I mean, what you REALLY want? If you’re looking to culture to identify your holiday wishes, you may “really want” a sleek, ribbon-wrapped car stretched across your driveway and poised to respond to your commanding touch. While it’s appealing, it’s also unimaginative. It’s a temporary patch that leaves little energy invested in desiring greatly. The pursuit of desire, with our cultural capacity for opulence, is something you’d think we’d be good at but we’re not.
Freud coined the term “wish fulfillment” to describe the way our unconscious desires manifest themselves in dreams or fantasies (obscured from conscious view) until they culminate in resolution. Culture offers us plenty of fantasies that we willingly accept as the fulfillments of our every wish. But if our true desires are hidden from us, how can we really know what we want or whether we’re being fulfilled by what we’re offered? We can’t.
The next logical question would be, why do we bury our desires? Because we’re afraid of the intensity of those longings, and equally afraid of the people and things we long for. So we ignore/suppress/repress them for fear of what they might stir up within us: an immortal ache. This fear of aching has the uncanny ability to limit our creativity. But the stubbornness of those desires trumps the strength of our suppression, so they come bubbling to the surface anyway. Our fear leaves us frantically looking for something to tame the desires, so we end up relying on culture to soothe the inner beast.
True fulfillment doesn’t come in ribbon-wrapped packages. When we frantically reach for shiny things we merely placate the longings. We appease and pacify, only to end up restless and discontent. Living this way is like dumpster diving for scraps of food when there’s a sumptuous feast waiting for us just across the way. Fulfillment is available to us in the form of intimacy and connection (the feast), but we choose a “long list of lovers” instead. And those trysts end up “go[ing] down in flames,” as Taylor laments.
I love how C.S. Lewis, the famed author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” puts it: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Indeed, this kind of logic yanks at our core. Who wouldn’t choose the beach over mud puddles?
To move beyond the allure of cultural decadence we must recognize the immortal ache within us. Those desires are not superficial at all. They are deeply personal and intensely real. True fulfillment evokes our creativity, our imagination, our vulnerability, and our love. True desire is only fulfilled when we partake in a lavish and glorious feast, a feast that nourishes rather than pacifying those desires. Have you ever tasted such a feast?