I woke up this morning to the sound of my brother showering. The bathroom is next to my room, and every slosh of water is amplified through the drywall.
I was annoyed.
After all, this is my Saturday to sleep in. It's my day off to rest after a long week at work. How dare he interrupt it. My mind traveled down this path of self-absorbed irritation until I was reminded of a lesson I've been learning:
Deep happiness does not come from an uninterrupted flow of my will. If I can only be happy when I get what I want, I will never have lasting contentment.
The culture I live in prizes self-actualization over nearly anything else. The goal is to get the most out of life as possible, to seek as much gratification as possible, fulfill every longing, and have every experience. If someone disrupts your peace, you’re supposed to cut them off.
Striving to live a full life isn’t a bad thing, but such an intent focus on our own desires is making us miserable.
Have you ever seen a child not get the toy they want? Even if twenty minutes before they had no knowledge of such a toy, because they can’t have it now, they have a total meltdown.
The mark of maturity, then, is the ability to die to one's desires. The people I know who live the most joyful, generous, love-filled, meaningful lives all have this trait. It's nearly impossible to upset them because they know how to find bliss whether they get their way or not.
Counterintuitively, it is the ability to be happy when you don't get what you want that will ultimately lead to the most satisfying life.
A few years ago, I visited Washington D.C. with my family. We were checking out of the hotel on our last morning there when a man came charging through the lobby doors.
He was roughly thirty-five, dressed in a nice shirt and khakis, with gelled black hair, and had just gotten out of his Mercedes SUV.
The man was livid. Seething. He started screaming at the front desk attendant. Veins popping. Face red. I can't even remember what it was about. I think the valet had taken too long to park his car.
Maybe it was ego. Maybe he's just an arrogant guy. But at the root, this is what someone looks like who is incapable of happiness unless he gets his way.
That's a relatively harmless example, but like any vice, it only spirals.
We hear about billionaires on the news, who could consensually sleep with the most beautiful women in the world, being charged with several accounts of sexual harassment.
They don't know how to be denied. For people who always get what they want, the word "no" is moot.
Because they have made their desires their god, in their ego-driven mind, they can't not get their way. That man in the hotel needed to get his way to be happy. His desires to exercise power and express frustration had mastered him.
The problem with submitting to what we want in the moment is that our strongest desires aren't always our deepest desires.
Thinking back over everything we've ever desired, hopefully it's clear we don't always want the most noble things 100% of the time. This is because our strongest desires in the moment often oppose our deepest desires in life.
In the moment, our strongest desire is to eat three donuts; our deepest desire is to have a healthy body. Our strongest desire is to sling insults when we’re frustrated with someone; our deepest desire is to treat all people with dignity. Our strongest desire is to have sex with anyone we’re attracted to; our deepest desire is to live in a trusting, faithful relationship with our partner.
It is the war wages on within all of us.
Having our way is more of a burden than we realize because it requires us to believe we're always right, always justified, and our cause always warranted. When we are mastered by our desires, we’re driven to do things that sometimes don’t even make sense to us.
The lie that is central to this inner battle is that we need our will to be done to have peace. But in truth, it is precisely when we’re able to sever getting what we want from our happiness that we can experience the tranquility we seek.
Thus, I must qualify the title of this post with a caveat. Getting what you want won't make you miserable. But needing to get what you want will.
Cover Photo found via Europeana/ Unsplash - Scythian Messengers Meet the Persian King Darius I by Franciszek Smuglewicz. Creation Date: end of the 18th century - beginning of the 19th century. Provided by Lithuanian Art Museum. PD for Public Domain Mark