Two Thought Experiments

In moving toward simply bringing more consciousness and awareness to our own desires, notice just how much our social position is a huge part of what we want. To illustrate the power of our concern over social position, let me ask you to imagine this scenario:

You work in an office, and one day you
“receive an anonymous letter listing the salaries of the people in the office in which you work. Your salary listing is correct, but you notice that you are way down on the pay scale. In fact, people who have been there a shorter time and have less experience than you nevertheless draw a bigger salary. You are angry and depressed. You consider quitting. Then you notice that your co-workers are massed around a memo your boss has posted on the office bulletin board. According to the memo, someone, in order to stir up resentment at the workplace, has been sending people false salary listings. The person in question has apparently obtained the actual list of salaries to work from, since he always correctly gives the salary of the letter’s recipient, thereby adding an element of authenticity to his letter. To restore office harmony, the boss adds, he is posting this one time only a listing of everyone’s salaries. Your eyes turn to the listing in question. You find your own salary. And when you look at the salaries of your co-workers, you realize that compared to them, you are very highly paid. Your self-esteem soars. In fact, you take on a mildly condescending attitude toward your co-workers.” (William Irvine, On Desire)
It’s the same salary either way – but that same salary that was first made unsatisfying was then made very satisfying.

When we shine the light of consciousness on this desire for social rank, only then can we, maybe, begin to see through it. We have to notice how much we cared about it in order to begin moving toward not caring about it so much.

By doing that little thought experiment, you might find yourself saying, hey, it’s silly for me to care as much about my relative position in the office as I have. I will still care about it some, but not as much. I think I’ll pay more attention to just being glad I have enough.

For a second thought experiment, try this. Suppose you awoke tomorrow morning to find yourself the only human on Earth. Space aliens had spirited everyone else away, leaving only you. There are enough canned goods in the stores to ensure you a lifetime of plenty of food -- and the orchards will continue to bear fruit in season, and let’s say that electricity and plumbing somehow continue to work without people maintaining them. At the gas pump, you can swipe your credit card to dispense gasoline, but of course you never get the bill. You now, essentially, own everything. You can take any car, live in any house. You can stroll into the most expensive fashion boutiques and pick out any clothes. You can drive up to Washington, DC if you want to, get the Hope diamond out of the Smithsonian, and wear it around.

This could be you.
At first, perhaps, you might do some of these things: live in a palace, wear the most expensive clothing, a Rolex watch, sip the most expensive wines, drive around in an Italian sportscar or a Rolls Royce picking up the greatest art works from museums to hang in your palace. I think you’d fairly quickly tire of all this, though, don’t you? Before long you’d be back in a smaller house: cozier, easier to keep clean. You’d wear any old comfortable thing, or stroll around in pajamas all day. If that.

What this shows us, again, is how much impact other people have on our desires. We dress, choose a house, a car, a wristwatch with other people in mind. We spend large percentages of whatever we have to project an image calculated to gain the admiration of other people – or, better yet, their envy.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "Desire!"

Next: Part 4: "Your Inner Whining Child"
Previous: Part 2: "First, Notice"
Beginning: Part 1: "Fields of Dreams, Streetcars of Desire"

1 comment:

  1. In addition to his book On Desire that you cite, William Irvine has written another on how to deal with it, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. It's been helpful to me.

    He shows that the Stoics were not the grim ascetics defined by popular perception today. They sought joy and tranquility, and used practical mind exercises to achieve it. These included techniques for overcoming the inclination to determine one's worth in comparison with others.