Lent and Desire
“Now for the invasive questions – are you sexually active?”
“No. Uh. Not currently.”
“Date of last sexual encounter?”
I always wonder which questions are the non-invasive questions at the doctor’s office. Even just running through my basic medical history reveals a lot about me. And that’s not even getting into my parents’ or grandparents’ histories. Our bodies carry history and memories. I wonder if doctors are curious about the emotional side of those physical histories or if they see so many people that it becomes uninteresting. I think I would make a terrible doctor because I would want to hear the story behind each and every injury, surgery, allergy, and disease.
“Are you considering pregnancy?”
I knew this question was coming. It always follows closely on the heels of the sexual status questions. But I’m still not really prepared for it.
“I don’t know. Maybe. No plans right now but maybe someday.”
I think about the ways I have responded to that question at different times in my life and I feel further from having an answer than ever.
“Ok. No worries. You still have time. It’s just helpful to know as we review your hormonal and adrenal test results.”
I know I’m only a few years away from getting the “it’s probably now or never” speech. On the heels of my divorce, the Beverly Hills doctor I used to see asked me (at the tender age of 28) if I was interested in information on freezing eggs as it was the “ideal time.” I politely declined the pamphlet while silently horrified at the idea and that it was being offered to me. (No offense to those who choose this route – it’s just not for me.)
My new doctor ended the visit asking if I had any additional concerns and I wondered for a minute how thorough of an answer she wanted before deciding to stick with a strictly health related answer. I left the doctor’s office a little sad and a little more aware of my mortality but that’s not unusual for me. What felt different this time was the heightened awareness of really how little control we have over our lives especially when it comes to getting what we want out of it.
I think I used to believe a cultural narrative that tells us if we want something, all we need to do is go out and get it. Never mind if we have the skills or resources or education, all of that can be remedied if we just want something hard enough. In this worldview, wanting and desire only exist as an impetus to get us to where we need to be. If we do not get what we want, it is because we did not work hard enough (or in religious circles “pray hard enough”) or maybe because we did not actually want it that much in the first place.
Part of the reason for Lent is to remind ourselves of wanting and desire. Denying ourselves something we don’t usually think twice about reaching for (chocolate, wine, Netflix, Facebook, etc) triggers an awareness of longing and desire. I used to feel embarrassed by how hard Lent is for me. Giving up an occasional bowl of ice cream seems like it should not make me as aware of longing as it does. But the truth is, eating ice cream is pleasurable and it is readily available and so if I want it, I take it. It is a desire (however simple) easily satisfied, so why deal with the suffering (however unpainful) of the desire?
Of course my wanting for ice cream is minuscule in comparison with the things I really deep down desire. And Lent makes me aware of those deep down desires in a way that is acutely painful. I am intentionally giving up some of my easy satisfactions and allowing myself to experience even the simplest “suffering” that comes with self-denial. Somehow that opens up my heart to reveal all of the wants and desires I would rather ignore than experience. It makes me aware of all the things I want that I do not know how to get – or maybe are not mine to take?
Perhaps there are some people that really just need to want more or work harder and their desires would be fulfilled. But I think for most of us, we want things that we do not know how to get or cannot get for ourselves. We want to be cured of a chronic disease. We want to be less stressed. We want to feel happy in a lasting way. We want to be safe. We want a partner or children or both. We want to see peace in the world. We want to see justice served. We want to be loved. We want a comfortable standard of living. We want to be smarter or stronger or prettier or all of the above. We want a job that’s fulfilling. We want to rest. We want to be respected.
We do what we can to reach those desires – some of us giving all of our resources (time, money, emotional energy, physical energy, etc) to fulfill those desires – but how many of us actually have all of our wants truly satisfied? I would venture none. And I don’t believe that that’s because everyone is a failure at living.
What if wanting and desire do not exist simply to get us to what we “should” have? What if we want and desire to open up our hearts a little wider? To help us be more aware of our need – for one another, for God, for a community? To make us more aware of our smallness in this great big universe and walk more humbly?
I think of everything I want and what I know of what my parents want and my grandparents want and my great-grandparents wanted. I think of the line of desire leading all the way back to a garden with everything – where every wish could be fulfilled – and still there was wanting. What they wanted seemed like a really good thing – to know more and be more like God. But rather than letting their desire to be like God lead them closer to God, they tried to take an easier path – reach for the quick fix and easy satisfaction. I do not know what first experiencing sin was like but I wonder if it felt like the deep down suffering of desire – desires that will never be satisfied.
I do not have answers. I do not know which of the truly good things I (or you) desire will be fulfilled. I do not always know which desires to pursue or how “hard” I should try to make them happen. Honestly, sometimes I do not even know what I really want – it can feel like an endless sense of not enough. There is so much that feels outside my control and that is scary but also I think good. Believing I can make everything I want happen would not be healthy for me and I think would steal some of the adventure and unexpected pleasures out of living.
I was sad walking out the doctor’s office because she was asking me (however clinically) about things that I think I really want but do not know if I will get. I do not know if they are desires that will be fulfilled. My prayer this Lent is that these unfulfilled desires are not making me bitter or cynical or worn out with wanting but that these desires are moving me closer to God and my community. I pray that my heart is being enlarged in the waiting and the wanting.