Dear Tristan: The Limits of Desire

Dear Tristan,

On Saturday, I wrote about pursuing your heart’s desire. Yesterday I cautioned against forgetting what is important as you pursue your ambitions. Today I want to talk about the limits of these pursuits.

The simple fact is, pursuing your heart’s desire is hard.

What is much, much easier is simply getting someone else who has what you want to give it to you.

By the time you’re old enough to read this, you will probably have heard me say the words, “my right to swing my fist ends at your nose.” Too many people, in pursuing their desires, forget this idea, or choose to ignore it. What does this pithy phrase mean? Simply that while you have the right to pursue your desires to whatever lengths you choose, that right does not extend to coercing others to fulfill your desires for you.

Our society today seems gripped in the talons of an entitlement mentality. The general feeling is, “I want something. You have lots of it. Therefore, you should give it to me.” Never, ever fall victim to this mindset. It is nothing more than theft, surrounded by good intentions and flowery words. Pursue your desires with all your heart . . . but don’t let those desires blind you to the fact that you’re not the only one out there who has desires, and is pursuing them. And you have no right to take by force the fruits of someone else’s pursuit of their desires, any more than they have the right to take yours.

People with this mentality read in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed with the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They mistake this to mean they are entitled to life, liberty and happiness.

Never buy into that. Nobody owes you happiness. And if you believe they do, you are much less likely to pursue that which makes you happy, and much more likely to simply take it by force from the nearest, or the weakest, person who has it.

Unfortunately, this comes all too naturally to us. It is part of human nature to choose what is easy rather than what is hard. And there are more types of coercion than brute physical force. There are those who would never pick up a weapon to do someone else harm, who would not hesitate to wield the organs of political power to bend their targets to their will. There are those who would choose neither of these two types of coercion, and would simply manipulate someone psychologically through the skilled use of words.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking these are any less coercive, simply because the force used is not physical.

Then too, there are people who would never take what doesn’t belong to them, but who wield any of these three types of force in order to compel a change in belief or behavior. But using force in an attempt to compel someone to do as you want them to do, or worse, to change their personal beliefs to suit yours, is just as bad as using it to steal their possessions. In fact, I would call it worse.

And that is a big piece of why I’m writing these letters to you: to help you learn to recognize when others are attempting to coerce you . . . and to assure you that such coercion is never my intent with you.

Yes, there are times when protective force is justified, even necessary. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t pull you out of the street if you started to run out into traffic, or that someone who is being physically assaulted should just stand there and take it. But force should always be a last resort, after you’ve already tried logic and reason, or in a situation where there isn’t time to employ these or other alternatives. If I have to resort to force, there is a sense in which I’ve already failed.

But too often we tend toward force as a first resort. Because it’s easy, and because it’s effective. It’s easy to compel someone to do, or think, or say what you want when you have a gun to their head.

But that’s not the relationship I want to have with people. It’s especially not the relationship I want to have with you.

We have this idea in our culture that there are some things that are beyond the pale of acceptable conduct in a relationship: Things like physical or verbal retaliation for behavior we deem inappropriate . . . or ignoring one of the participants in a conversation and just talking over them as if they weren’t there . . . or rebuking and shaming someone in public in front of others. These various coercive behaviors are considered rude and inappropriate.

Except when we do them to children.

Then they’re considered not just acceptable, but advisable.

And that’s what I want to share with you in this letter. Just as I told you up front that coercion is not an acceptable replacement for pursuit of your desires, the same is true for me. If I want to see you become a healthy, well-adjusted adult, coercion is merely a shortcut . . . a way to compel a particular set of behaviors in the immediate present and near future, but not really an effective method of actually achieving my desire to see you grow to be a wise, discerning person.

It all comes back to what I’ve said in several of these letters . . . it’s not about behavior. It’s not about me compelling you to run and do what I want you to do right away. That’s just the shortcut . . . the cop-out. Your mom wrote in her letter for yesterday about requests and demands, and how demands have no place in a relationship. But we make demands on children all the time, as a matter of course. The idea of requesting something of a child seems almost ludicrous to most people in our culture.

Because after all, if we request something, there’s a chance they might say, “no.”

It all comes back to that coercion . . . back to the fact that many of the same people who are horrified by the thought of taking someone else’s possessions by force, or through the coercive power of government, have no similar compunction about breaking the will of a child through that same coercive force.

As for me, though, if I’m going to sit here and advise you against taking shortcuts to achieve your heart’s desire, I can hardly follow that up by doing so myself, can I?

Because my heart’s desire is not that you behave in a way that suits me. My heart’s desire is not that you do what I want out of some coerced, external motivation, but that you learn to make wise, internally-motivated choices about what youwant.

There was a time in history when families had a “motto” (and some older families still do) that characterized them and set them apart from other clans and families in their respective cultures. If I were to have such a motto for our family, it would be “Live Free, Love Well, Choose Wisely.”

That is my heart’s desire for you . . . that you grow to be someone who lives free, loves well and chooses wisely.

And coercion has no place in that process.

Love,
~Dad

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