Modern Desires and Age-Old Words
As you read this extended quotation, try to guess when it was written.
The world says: ‘You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder…. To consider freedom as directly dependent on the number of man’s requirements and the extent of their immediate satisfaction shows a twisted understanding of human nature, for such an interpretation only breeds in men a multitude of senseless, stupid desires and habits and endless preposterous inventions. People are more and more moved by envy now, by the desire to satisfy their material greed, and by vanity.
The speaker is Fr. Zosima in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov. This is a cultural commentary we need from halfway around the globe 140 years ago.
Breeding Dissatisfaction and Discontent
Ours is a consumer society with a consumer economy. Advertisers bombard us with the message “expand your needs and demand more.” Wanting, getting, and having, we’re told, is true freedom.
As psychiatrist Richard Winter explained, in his book Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, advertising “wants its endless commercials and catalogs to breed in you dissatisfaction and discontent with your house, your car, your body, your clothes — in other words, to stimulate in you a desire for more than you have.”
More Never Satisfies
What they don’t tell you is that more never satisfies.
Years ago a wealthy Christian friend bought a new white Mercedes Benz — the really big one. He was ecstatic until he pulled up next to the same car in midnight blue. Dissatisfaction and envy hit him like, well… like a big midnight blue Mercedes Benz.
My friend’s experience is, of course, about as rare as sand in a desert. Our sinful nature is naturally covetous and advertising carefully enflames our desire for bigger, better, faster, and more.
The Spiritual Battleground
As it turns out, we share this spiritual battleground with Christians in all ages.
That Dostoevsky in the nineteenth century could have written the lines from Fr. Zosima last week is, upon reflection, not at all surprising.
“Three things are necessary for the salvation of man,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, “to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” (Emphasis added)
Eighteenth century Jonathan Edwards in Treatise Concerning Religious Affections argued, “True religion consists in holy affections.”
The third century Desert Fathers said something similar — and proposed a cure.
Reordering Our Desires
In The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times, Jean-Charles Nault outlines five steps for reordering our desires taken from the Desert Fathers.
First, there must be tears. Tears are, Nault writes, “the acknowledgement that one needs to be saved, that one cannot go it alone.” If we find ourselves trapped on the treadmill of desire, consumption, unhappiness, and more desire, we must cry to God for deliverance.
Second, pursue prayer and work. After fidgeting with all his desires, the monstrously wealthy author of Ecclesiastes observed, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; also that it is God’s gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). Get up early and pray. Go about the tasks of the day keeping God in mind. Say grace. Close the day with prayer. And peace will come.
Third, practice contradiction. Jesus, facing temptations (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13), contradicted Satan with Scripture. We should do the same. When inappropriate or unhelpful desires arise, slap them down with Scripture. “Man does not live on bread alone,” comes to mind (Deuteronomy 8:3), substituting for “bread” the latest craving.
Fourth, remember death. What good will the newest, greatest tech gadget be then? Or the newest clothes? Or that illicit affair? Or whatever else we, with the help of advertisers, “must have” repeating the foolish words, “Then I’d really be happy.” Ironically death brings us what we most desire: God (Heaven) or something/anything else (Hell).
Finally, the Fathers recommended perseverance (ὑπομονή). This, writes Nault, “is not stoicism but, rather, long patience in God’s sight.” We are destined for glory and the fulfillment of that desire for infinite happiness God put into us. This is our hope and St. Paul told the Romans (8:25), “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience [ὑπομονή].”
A Better Way
Fr. Zosima identified the same lies we believe today about human nature, freedom, and the things of the world. Rather than bringing us freedom (as advertised), “expand your needs and demand more” brings isolation, suicide, envy, and murder along with the dissolution of society as the history of Russia after Dostoevsky demonstrates and we seem to be learning all over again.
It’s time to explore — and help our neighbors explore — a different and better way. As St. Paul reasoned,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:1-2).
Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”