Pain, Joy, and Longing: What The Giver Can Teach Us About Desire

What comes to your mind when you think about the word desire?  Is desire a familiar friend to you?  Or something that you run from as soon as you feel even a hint of it? We all carry different desires in our lives: desire for food, desire for another person, desire for a promotion at work, desire for a house (or a bigger house, or more stuff for your house).  Or perhaps your desire is more abstract: desire for more peace and calm in your life, desire to be loved, desire to achieve a mission or purpose in life.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines the verb desire as “to long or hope for;” “to express a wish for” or “to feel the loss of.”  Notice how desire is so closely tied to disappointment or anticipation: we’re looking forward to something, but we haven’t yet attained it.  Or on the flip side, the final definition intertwines desire with loss or grief, as when we desire something we once had but lost.

What are some of the desires you identify most strongly in your life?

A short time before the movie release a few years ago, I read the children’s book The Giver by Lois Lowry.  In this novel, the characters live in a dystopian future where everything exists in shades of gray.  The lack of visible color extends as a metaphor to the citizens’ emotions and longings.  The inhabitants of this community take a pill each day that suppresses desire and emotion.  The plot of the book begins when the main character, Jonas, is assigned to the role of Receiver of Memory.  This assignment requires him to receive all the painful memories that the society has wiped from its memory. 

I listened to a podcast discussing some of these themes in greater detail after reading the book.   This theme discussed in the podcast struck me: because the characters in the book do not experience emotion and have no memories, they don’t experience feelings of pain.

Wouldn’t we all like that?  Our world is full of pain: we have only to open up a newspaper, turn on the TV, or take a walk on the city streets to see suffering in our world.  We grieve the deaths of those we love, we feel pain at broken relationships, we are shocked by the violence around the world, and we weep at images of children who are starving.

As Jonas begins his process of receiving the memories the society chose to erase, he is wrecked by the intensity of the emotions he feels, ranging from joy to sadness.  In the process, something starts to change in him.  He begins to see in color.  He stops taking his pills and begins to experience desire, sadness, and joy in his daily life.  Emotions he didn’t even know existed are now rising to the surface.

Another theme that surprised me in this novel was the assertion that medicating pain through erasing memories doesn't just strip these people of suffering.  Because pain and longing do not exist, there is no opportunity for joy.

There are a multitude of ways that I attempt to make myself happy to feel a fragment of that joy in my day-to-day life.  I’ll obsess over how many Facebook likes I get on that photo, spend hours playing mindless games on my phone when work feels overwhelming, or stop and get my favorite fast food when I’ve had a bad day.   But it doesn’t take long for me to realize that these are all ways I’m simply medicating my pain and deadening my feelings through this false sense of happiness, while denying the deeper desire that bubbles just beneath the surface. 

We all have ways that we choose to escape from our pain and longings. These typically involve us numbing that pain or desire, driving it far away so we don't have to deal with it or feel it.  We can run to shopping, drugs or alcohol, sex, the approval of others, perfection, power…any number of things that quiet the voices inside of us that want something more.

How do you avoid pain and deaden your heart to your desires?

Pain is uncomfortable, that's true.  Longing typically leads to pain, because our longings likely won’t be perfectly fulfilled in this life.  But if I kill my desire and shove my pain into a deep dark corner of my heart where it will never be acknowledged, my life will be flat.  Maybe I won’t feel sadness or longing, but I also am robbed of my ability to experience joy.

I love that joy and pain are juxtaposed so clearly together.  They are two strong and seemingly opposing emotions, but you have to be able to experience one to find another.  As a Christian, I am grateful for the pain God has brought me through, because the deeply rooted joy I can now experience is so clearly an outflow of that.  I can rejoice and be thankful in God.

How can you choose to acknowledge your desire, knowing that it will be painful?

I need to choose to embrace desire every day.  (And to be honest, I’m not always successful.)  It is easy to find ways to medicate pain in our world, because we as a people don’t like to feel these difficult emotions.  But I must choose to sit in pain or sadness when I feel it, rather than running away from it.  I must choose to become alive to my desires, although that often hurts.  And in so doing, I’m opening myself up to experiencing joy and compassion toward others.

Have you been struggling to feel anything at all these days?  Maybe you’ve come to a point where you're not quite sure you can experience emotion.  Or maybe you’re in a spot where your emotions feel overwhelming, and you just want the pain to stop.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based counseling office where I want to support you on your journey of understanding yourself, your emotions, and your desires in a way that embraces them rather than runs away from them.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to hear how I can help.  

The Curious Difficulty of Letting Go

This past summer, my family held a garage sale, which is often quite the production.  Between my parents, my sisters and I, we have 4 separate households from which to sort through overstuffed closets and forgotten storage cabinets, hoping to find hidden treasures to add to the sale pile.  I’m often surprised by just how much stuff we’re able to produce from those parts of our home we barely think about.

One of my contributions to the sale was a Keurig coffeemaker. I loved it when I first received it.  But over the years, it had gone through some wear and tear.  Coffee brewed from it didn’t taste as good, I could only use filtered water in the tank, and I had to reset the clock settings often due to a frequently tripped fuse in my home.  I also noticed I had started drinking coffee less often, replacing it with a newfound love for tea.

Once, that Keurig was my lifeline.  Working early mornings with small children created a serious need for coffee. But as I entered into a new career, I used it less and less until it just became another piece of stuff to sell in a garage sale. That coffeemaker sat on my counter for over a year with me barely using it before I realized it was time to give it up. 

This makes me think about how we cling not just to these material items, but also to relational patterns, distorted thoughts about ourselves and our world, and defense mechanisms we learned in childhood that help us cope.  Oftentimes, we start these behaviors or thought patterns because they work – they ease our pain or anxiety.  They serve us in some way or another, meeting a need or a desire that we have difficulty fulfilling in a healthy way.

Before we know it, these habits become ingrained in our minds or in our daily practice and can develop into codependent relationships, depression, anxiety, addictions, or any number of difficulties in our lives.  We can often look at these patterns and know they cause problems, but they can feel familiar and safe after being used for years.

In a different season of life, we needed these thoughts or behaviors to cope.

Think of a child who is physically abused by her parents when she speaks up to protect her brother from similar harm.  We might expect that child to learn to stay silent and spend time alone in her room, avoiding interaction with her family.  As she gets older, she may make herself feel better by turning to food, sex, perfectionism, or alcohol.  These behaviors might have provided temporary relief for her then, but if they continued to be her only source of coping into adulthood, they could easily become addictive or problematic behaviors.

Maybe you’ve experienced a similar story. As a child, you may have learned to do what you needed to do to find ways to deal with the pain.

But these thoughts and behaviors might be holding you back and creating problems in your present-day life.

As adults, we have the opportunity to choose a different path, letting go of the old behaviors and stepping into newer ways to cope.  Often, though, that process isn’t something that can happen overnight.

When I sold that hardly-used coffeemaker, it felt like I was cutting off an arm.  I could think of about 100 reasons why I needed to keep it, and I almost felt physical pain at letting it go.  But I needed to clear it out, to have more physical space and declutter my home.

If this is how I felt about a piece of junk I barely used anymore, how much more difficult is it to let go of the unhealthy ways we’ve dealt with pain in the past?

Sometimes, giving these up feels impossible.

Many times, these behaviors and thoughts are based on past experiences that are no longer threatening us now.  It is important to learn how to let go of those things that are causing more frustration, pain, or harm than they’re worth.

But we can’t let go of these life patterns without filling that space with something different.  We need to learn to adopt new behaviors and thoughts that fit in our current season of life.  We need to get rid of the things that take up that mental and emotional space in order to make room for things like healthy self-care, more accurate views of ourselves and our world, and restored relationships.

What thoughts and behaviors are you clinging onto that helped you at a different season of life, but need to be let go of now?  

Now I don’t think about my Keurig much.  I’m in a season where I drink coffee once every few days, avoiding the caffeine because I know how it affects my anxiety.  I still find comfort in wrapping my two hands around a warm mug, but typically it’s filled with tea.  While this material example is minor compared to changing old coping patterns, it’s reminding me to let go, to create space in my mind and heart for the things that I need in the season I’m in right now.

Maybe you’re in a season where letting go of these thoughts and behaviors feels unattainable.  Or maybe you’re ready to let those patterns go, but you are unsure about how to get started.  It could be that you’ve tried different positive coping behaviors in the past, but it hasn’t felt like any of them have worked.  At Restored Hope, I want to help you on your journey of learning new ways of coping so that you can lead a more vibrant and wholehearted life.  I offer therapy in the Ann Arbor area of Michigan, and you can call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to hear more about my services and how I can best help you.