If I consult the raw data of my existence and begin to look for patterns, a few emerge, one of which is my consistent effort to up the ante.
When I worked in bars and restaurants, I didn’t want to work for normal bars and restaurants. I wanted to work for the best one in the area. I spent a few summers at different events and festivals doing security work. But I wasn’t happy in a stationary position manning a gate, or working in the pit of a stage pulling people out and stopping them from being squashed by crowds. I wanted to be on response teams, rushing around and dealing with emergencies and de-escalating conflicts. When I was involved with health and fitness, I thought teaching normal populations was easy, so I decided I wanted to teach athletes. Then I realised that athletes are the best kind of clients and changed my mind, deciding that working with regular people was the hardest thing to do and that I should do that instead. When I want to learn about a topic, I skip the introductory material and go straight for hard stuff, thinking that I can figure it out along the way and save myself some time.
In practically every domain of my life I’ve tried to do the hardest thing first. Most recently, I switched from writing daily to writing twice-weekly so that I had the time and space to take on more complex ideas with more rigour. But I began writing daily because I know it meant setting a pace that few could keep for long.
I’d narrated this pattern as an inability to not strive for excellence. I cast a favourable light on my person and counselled myself to find a way to deal with annoyingly relentless search for betterment.
But somewhere along the line it stopped being about outcomes at all. I read James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games and decided that playing finite games—for money, power, prestige, respect, status, etc.—was too easy. Infinite games are inexhaustible and thus represent a lifetime of challenge to continue playing. I should focus on these (see The floor and the canopy for an example), I should focus on making the process as interesting as possible instead of maximising the utility of outcomes. That began to seem like the hardest of pursuits. So I went after it.
Essentially, I eliminated, rather than upped, the ante and made the game unwinnable. But who wants to play an unwinnable game? Simple: someone who doesn’t want to die.
TO DIE OR NOT TO DIE?
In his first book, Rene Girard said that “The ultimate meaning of desire is death…” I was puzzled, at first. But then I recalled Oscar Wilde’s “two tragedies”—to get and not to get what you desire. To not get what you desire is tragic for obvious reasons. But to get what you want? Why is that a tragedy? Quite simply, satisfaction of desire leads either to dissatisfaction or dissolution. Dissatisfaction because the reality of a desire attained never equals or surpasses the expectations we had originally envisioned. Dissolution because a desire that is attained is extinguished, and so leaves within us a void of energy where there used to be an animating drive.
The clever individual knows—sometimes via theorising, but mostly via practical experience—that desire is a suicidal impulse, capable only of decapitating, not empowering a person. Which leaves them with two options:
Option one: opt out of desire altogether. This is the path of Buddhism, and in a way, of mindfulness. It involves the patient awareness of desire and thus enables a practitioner to transcend it, to “watch it to death”, as they say.
Option two: ratchet desire up. As soon as something seems achievable, lift your gaze higher until you have fixed your sights on something unattainable given the constraints of your existence.
Option one, as you’d expect, is rarely taken. Most, me included, take option two. But why? I think it has to do with our relationship to death.
When it comes to desire, the question we all have to answer is, “To die or not to die?” We submit to death when we give desire no rein over us, or when we set ourselves eminently achievable goals. We rebel against death when we desire the titanic, the unreasonable, the ever-so-unachievable.
Which we choose is a spiritual choice, a choice based on philosophical assumptions, on aesthetic inclinations, and it is my experience that the majority of us choose life—that is, we choose a life with desire over one without it.