Dear Tristan: What do you Want?

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about regret and what a good job we humans do of trying to keep it under wraps, or kill it off altogether.

Regret, though, is not the only feeling we treat in this way, though. Perhaps as a way to avoid ever having to experience regret, we end up doing the same thing to desire. This can, and often does, extend to our desire for a particular kind of life, a particular kind of vocation to spend our life on, or a particular person to share our life with.

When you were born, of course, your “wants” were pretty much synonymous with your “needs.” You wanted, and needed, nourishment, sleep, connection, a dry diaper, and not a whole lot else. Now that you’re seven months old, you’re starting to want other things . . . things that aren’t necessarily “needs.” Things like help to practice standing up, or a particular toy to play with. Nothing as lofty as the desires I mentioned above, but desires nonetheless.

I want to make sure that desire is something I nurture in you. Rather than telling you “no” because it’s inconvenient for me or I don’t feel like doing something for you right now, I want to go out of my way to feed your desires as much as I possibly can without harming you (for example, when you’re watching me wrap a Christmas present, I’m not going to indulge your desire to play with the scissors). But within reason, I’m going to do as much as I can to give you what you want. As you get older and more capable of seeing to your own desires, I’m going to stay out of your way as much as possible (again, within reason) and let you achieve that which you desire . . . and do what I can to help you, as much as possible.

Most of us don’t learn to live like that. Too often, we tell ourselves that it’s better not to desire anything, because that way we can’t be disappointed. We make up stories that we tell ourselves about the things we desire – stories like: “That’s not good for me,” or “I’m better off without that,” or even “God doesn’t want me to have that.”

And sometimes there is a grain of truth to the stories we tell ourselves. There are a lot of things that I might want, that are not good for me, or that I’m better off without . . . certain foods, certain hobbies or certain habits in which I might desire to indulge would, in the long run, do me harm.

But acknowledging that fact, and my choice to do (or sometimes, not to do) what I know will be healthier for me in the long run, is very, very different than trying to tell myself the lie that I don’t actually want it in the first place. And it’s even more insidious when I tell myself these lies solely as a way to avoid dealing with the disappointment of failing to obtain something I really do want.

Let me tell you a couple stories of my own desires, to try to explain what I mean:

When I was a child – roughly between the ages of about 11 and 17, I was fairly active in local musical theater. I wasn’t a great actor, but I could sing pretty well – and I was cast in several roles based on that ability.

There was one role in a local production that I really wanted. I auditioned, but as it turned out, I was all wrong for the director’s vision for the role, and he instead chose someone who was older, who fit the role better, and who was a much, much better actor than I was. My younger sister, on the other hand, got the lead role in that particular musical, and went on to turn it into one of her most successful and well-played roles ever (and she was very good at just about all of her roles, so that’s saying something).

And while I was sitting in the audience enjoying her success, I convinced myself of two things: First, I hadn’t really wanted the role anyway – had been pretty sure I wouldn’t get it, in fact – and had just tried out for it because I wanted the experience of the audition. Second, that I wasn’t really into this whole musical theater thing anyway – that I didn’t like the craziness of the lifestyle or the time commitment it took to be involved in theater, and that I didn’t really want to be spending my time on it anyway.

I think, if I’m not mistaken, that was the last time I ever auditioned. And now I miss it. A lot!

Here’s another story. As I mentioned, while I couldn’t act all that well, I could sing. I could also play the violin – not so well as your mom can (or could, even then) but I was one of the more accomplished kids in my town (a big fish in a very small pond, so to speak). Our local symphony had an annual competition where they would choose soloists to play or sing with the orchestra each year. Several of my good friends had won the competition in past years and had played or sung with the orchestra. I competed two years in a row, in both singing and violin. The second year I competed – the last year in which I was eligible – I had been doing a lot of rebuilding in my violin playing, and was not particularly ready to compete. But I did anyway, just to see if I could do it.

In the singing competition, I placed second out of about five or six contestants . . . good enough for a prize, but not good enough to sing with the orchestra. In the instrumental competition, I placed . . . second. Out of two.

That was about the time I convinced myself that I didn’t really want to do this violin thing long-term anyway . . . I’d been wavering back and forth between going to college to study music, or to study government.

I chose government. I went to a very small school where, when I did play my violin or sing, I was still a big fish in a fairly small pond, and where I didn’t have to do a whole lot to seem pretty good to those listening. Not long after college, I stopped playing almost completely. And what singing I do now is mostly concerned with trying to get you to go to sleep at naptime or bedtime.

You might be reading this and thinking these stories apply more to yesterday’s letter about regret . . . and I certainly regret some of the decisions I made during those times. But those stories are not just about making decisions I would later regret . . . they’re about convincing myself that the things I desired did not matter . . . and not just that they didn’t matter, but that I shouldn’t be desiring them in the first place.

I remember a conversation with my best friend, sometime after these two stories occurred . . . around the time when I was just barely starting to get an inkling of what I was doing to myself with this, and with some of the other things I believed at the time. I remember my friend saying, “We’ve been taught that wanting things is not ok. We’ve been taught that, if I want that, it must be wrong!”

I grew up believing some crazy things . . . but I think this was one of the most damaging to me personally. I crafted this belief system for myself that said, “If God wants you to have that, He’ll give it to you. If He doesn’t want you to have it, then you shouldn’t be sitting there wanting it in the first place!

And to tell you the truth, I still believe the first part of that statement. I think God will give us what He wants us to have.

But I think the second part is complete hogwash. It goes back to what I’ve written in several of these letters. It goes back to choice. There are some areas, certainly, where God very clearly asks certain things of us. But I think those areas are much fewer and further between than most people believe. And I believe there are certain areas where He gives us the freedom to express, and pursue, our own desires and preferences.

And while we might not succeed at achieving something, I do not believe . . . not any longer . . . that it is wrong to want it in the first place! I believe that wanting and pursuing and achieving (or not) is part of what it means to grow closer to the heart of God . . . to become more familiar with what He wants out of His relationship with each of his children.

What’s more, I believe there are things God, in his roles as the loving, caring Heavenly Father, gives us just because we want them! I think it’s pretty clear in the Bible that He’s done that throughout human history, for those who have a real relationshio with him. I don’t believe that by “wanting” something and working to achieve it, we are working against some grand plan that God has for our lives. I’m pretty sure he’s wise and powerful enough to work with our lives and do whatever He’s going to do, whether or not we get a certain role in a play, or perform in a concert, or any of the other things that different people might desire. In the case of the stories I mentioned, if I’d decided to do more with my singing or violin, that choice would have led me to a different school. If I’d gone to a different school, I might never have met your mother, and you would not exist. So in the end, I’m very, very happy with the way things ended up. but I’m fairly sure God could have worked it all out even if I’d made different choices 14 or 15 years ago. And even if I still ended up in the exact same place, doing the exact same things, sharing the exact same life with the exact same people, I would have spent a lot less time in the interim being angry, depressed, and doing my best to destroy some of the most significant relationships in my life.

That’s the real kicker . . . the reason why talking ourselves out of our desires can be so devastating. It can profoundly impact our relationships . . . those same relationships that I’ve told you I believe are the most important things in my life. In the case of that musical, after I convinced myself that theater wasn’t for me, I let that belief damage my relationship with my sister. As I told you, she was much better than I was, and after that role she went on to a number of other roles in that and other local theater groups. In some cases, I judged her very harshly for the roles she chose to take, and the choices she made in how she lived her life . . . choices which were, frankly, none of my business. I think, as I look back, the person I was really judging was myself . . . for wanting to make the same choices she was making, and for believing that it was wrong of me to want that. She and I have done a lot of repair work in our relationship and have healed the rift that was once there between us, but much of that would have been unnecessary if I’d just allowed myself to want what I wanted!

So I squashed my desires, and judged her for not doing the same. And for a time this put quite a strain on our relationship. We did not see eye to eye on many things, didn’t get along . . . didn’t really even talk much, and when we did, we were usually fighting over something.

Because I wouldn’t let myself desire.

Please don’t make that choice. I can tell you right now that you will almost certainly not get everything in life that you desire, but please don’t let that stop you from desiring in the first place. When you’re not able to see a desire fulfilled, grieve that fact, but don’t let it discourage you to the point where you convince yourself that it’s not ok to desire at all.

This one is up to you. I will, of course, reiterate what I’m expressing here throughout your life . . . and I will, as I said, do what I can to help you achieve your desires. But the inner struggle of whether or not to let yourself want is something that may well take place completely without my knowledge. I know, for example, that some of the people involved in the stories I wrote about above are reading these letters to you as I’m posting them online . . . and are hearing most of this for the first time. I hope that this is the sort of inner struggle you’ll feel comfortable sharing with your mom and me as you go through them, but I can’t know that from here, so I’ll give you as much help as I can give you, here and now.

Let yourself desire. Pursue that which you desire with all your heart . . . and in those times when your pursuit does not end up as you hope it will, keep on desiring anyway.

Love,
~Dad

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