Hot Now: Meditations on Desire.
I would drive though downtown Raleigh and pass an original Krispy Kreme Donut shop on Person Street. The “Hot Now” light radiated from 6-11 am and 6-11pm, signifying fresh donuts. The sign should have read “Gastronomic Ecstasy Now,” and although I knew of the succulent round treasures in the store, I passed it. I passed it even though I would moan my donut praises each time. I deprived myself of the most dopamine-inducing food of all, censored my yearning to taste that sweetness. Michael Pollan writes about the elemental proclivity toward sweetness and concludes, after watching his child’s first ecstatic encounter with a piece of cake, that “sweetness is the prototype of all desire.” I recall the disappointment that I felt each time we passed the Krispy Kreme, but it is more difficult for me to isolate moments that I have deprived myself of desire, sweetness’ broader derivative. Perhaps I cannot pinpoint specifics because deprivation is the way I live.
In the life machine, you put in hard work and good things come in return – good karma, good grades, and a good pat on the back. But it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of waiting before the good things come, and the good things are not usually real. The observable results are mostly just votes of affirmation that we are doing the right thing and that we are decent people. The results of hard work are not usually satisfying in their own rights. I do not actually feel the effects of intellectual prowess when I turn in a paper that I worked hard on and I get an A, which is someone’s assessment that I have fulfilled an expectation. I expect pleasure to arrive at me after I toil, but I just receive a letter grade and then proceed to the next task.
Working for eventual pleasure is part of the “American Way,” and it began when the Puritans settled New England in the mid-17th century. The Puritan colonists venerated hard work, as many of them believed in Calvinist ideals that centered on predestination. For Calvinists, hard work signified that one was part of the “elect” and thus, was going to heaven. Calvinists could detect who would be saved by identifying who was successful in work, and so the Protestant Work Ethic developed. America was built on an ethos more severe than just “work now, play later.” Rather, our culture has roots in a philosophy of “work now, play when you die.”
Puritanism is Christianity and Christianity worships martyrdom. Jesus died for the sins of millions of people that he would never know, the ultimate delayed gratification. And to continue the retrospective biblical trajectory, Eve gave into the allure of the apple, imbibed the sweetness, and so humans have been eternally condemned. If somehow we all are actually related to this person, we are bound to expect punishment for acting on desire. I inherit these ethics from my Christian mother who plagues me with stories of college years spent exclusively in the library and with her impossible full-time-job/mother-of-three/do-everything-110% combination. But on the other side of my family runs a deep Jewish tradition of blessing all food, blessing the alcohol, blessing sex, blessing the desires. Being able to choose what we eat and drink and to give and receive pleasure from another person are holy acts that exercise a person’s freedom, and in the case of sex, the mitzvah — or commandment — of creation. This traces back to the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt, where they were not free to experience pleasure at their own wills. God went out of his way to part the sea and deliver the Jews to freedom, so the Jews are commanded to eat, drink, and have sex because not doing so would make God’s work for naught. I am confused about the balance between self-preservation and self-indulgence, between the Protestant Work Ethic and allowing myself the free will that my ancestors wandered the desert to pursue.
I tried my hand at veganism in my senior year of high school because I read a book about maltreatment of animals in the food industry and all of the practices that the meat and dairy industries employ that strip the earth of its resources and hinder the environment’s sustainability. There is no reason that I should contribute monetarily to entities that give so little care for the planet that supports us. I lasted about a month without meat or dairy products, charged by the enraging information that I had read, but then the urgency of that information wore off. I could not remember why I thought that what I ate or didn’t eat could in any way jab the monstrous meat and dairy industries, so I reacquainted myself with the cheese samples at the grocery store. Being vegan just wasn’t worth it. I had hoped that depriving myself of these foods and being sick for weeks adjusting to the new diet would shake a fist at the companies who kill animals inhumanely and force animals into claustrophobic living situations. Really, it wasn’t worth it because even if, eventually, the entire country turned to veganism and provoked these industries to change their ways, it would take so long that I would never see the repercussions of my discipline and restraint. I was not promised a day when my virtuous actions would cause good. I am motivated by results, and I am selfish and not willing to deprive myself of enjoyment if I am not convinced that I will revel in the positive benefits of my efforts.
So I have two forces that operate within me: the belief that in sacrifice I will attract good and the force of my desire that seeks instant gratification. To me, the first is honorable and instant gratification is slimy. Because I don’t know how to balance these two impulses, I have formed my own habits, which have evolved into compulsions about what desires I can submit to and which I have to restrain. They tell me that I am twenty years old once, that this is the time to make mistakes. I can pay in sleepless nights for the possibility of engaging in the magical marginal behaviors that only occur between 2 and 4 am. I go to parties mostly naked because I will never look this good and I can still claim my youth. In a world that condemns the enactment of impulses, at twenty, I get a free pass. I worry that I tip the balance too far in favor of safety, routine, health, and delayed reward in one of the only times when I will be allowed to make mistakes, and in doing so I inhibit the scope of my experience. I compartmentalize “okay,” and “not okay.” Donuts are okay sometimes, but milkshakes never are because I am lactose intolerant and that pain is not worth that pleasure. I can flirt with someone that I am attracted to, but admitting my feelings or going for a kiss is not okay because that vulnerability is also too painful. Food and sex are two radically different things, but this mind pattern traps me in situations of all scopes. What if the milkshake doesn’t actually hurt and it turns out to be my favorite delicacy? Kissing could fulfill my deepest craving for connection. Deprivation is a protective instinct that only protects against any realization of my most sincere wants.
My most sincere want, at twenty, is to have great sex. Even though I have experienced the anatomical procedure of sex, I tell people that I am a virgin because I am convinced that what I’ve done cannot be real sex. Sex makes people happy. In good sex, you shed your skin and are in the moment, feeling the ceiling of your pleasure capacity. Sex is the ultimate gratification of mind and body, but I still delay it. In my sex, I realize everything that I fail at and every person that I’m not and every reason why I do not deserve pleasure anyway. The experience of sex, for me, has been so bad that I know it must have been worse for the man involved, and so I escape shortly after the act. I once spent sex laughing because it was just that awkward and laughter is better than no noise at all. Sex has never felt worthy of a blessing, and that is depressing. I tell myself that it is ok that I’m not having good sex because I’m young, because I’m single, because I would have to work very hard at a relationship with “the right person” before I could find true joy in sex. But I should be able to experience sex as sex and as a pleasure that I am worthy of, not because of any work or deprivation, but because I am a person, and I need sex.
Instant gratification is sketchy because at its extreme, it can lead to obesity, bankruptcy, and unwanted pregnancies, but deferred gratification might be over-valued. Waiting for future fulfillment might just be a practice that is necessary to thrive in our cultural structures that demand it, and not a virtue in itself. Where is the satisfaction in postponing satisfaction to a time when I probably will not care anymore? I rarely got the donuts when they were hot and most and delicious, and even though my body is fresh and ripe for sex, I’m not having it because I think it will be better later on.
Delaying gratification can feel like self-care when it means not giving in to every impulse to gorge on candy bars; it can feel like self-respect when it is denying every opportunity for sex. Denying instant pleasure can help me to feel like a person who has a mind that operates at a high enough function to make choices that span beyond appealing to my base hungers like those for sweets and casual sex.
Freud’s pleasure principle distinguishes between reality and the drive toward pleasure, how a person’s development leads her away from instant gratification that she accessed exclusively as a baby, and toward pleasure that is considered only in relation to reality. Growing up means learning that I can’t have what I want right away, but I have made delayed-gratification more of a habit than a choice. Just to feel more mature, I resort to a grown-up decision when it’s time to be young.
There is strength in deprivation. If I can resist my urges, I hope that I can master myself and eventually not want anything at all, but this control is a lie.
My mother sent me a text message asking what books I wanted for my birthday. I had just spent an hour in Barnes and Noble earlier that day with my friend, pointing out each book that I wished I could add to my collection. I started typing back to her my list, but a self-robbing impulse crept in, deleted my message, and replaced it with one that read, “Don’t worry… I can get books at the library!” I wonder how not pursuing desire in its moment has become so habitual that I cannot make my mother’s shopping easier. My practice of deprivation convinces me falsely that only I control what I get and what I don’t. Accepting a gift goes against my structure of resistance, so I miss out on the experience of receiving, which is how I connect with others. I am beginning to understand that this all collapses into the issue of engagement with self-worth – the ability to believe that I deserve the undeserved. It is possible that if I don’t believe that I am worthy of pleasure when I want pleasure, on this planet, in this country, in this age of my life where I have every opportunity to indulge, I am just wasting time.