Learning to Want What We Want

Learning to Want What We Want April 22, 2013

During the course of a homily on the virtue of faith I heard this Sunday, the priest gave an anecdote from his teenage years. I can’t quote him verbatim, but this is essence of what he said:

As a teenager, I thought that Heaven was essentially a mass that never ended. The very idea of sitting through a never-ending series of church hymns repulsed me. Nevertheless, I wanted to want this because I believed I should.

His experience of wanting Heaven despite his visceral repulsion to it is an example of what I think makes up the essence of the spiritual life: you must strive to want what you must want.

Isn’t that a strange concept? If I want to want something, don’t I want it? Not really. The fact that you can want to want something that you don’t desire shows that there are at least two parts of you that “want” and that these parts are out of line with one another. The first part is the will and the second part is an affective desire. The spiritual life is essentially the task of aligning these naturally misaligned faculties. Specifically, the will, informed by the intellect, should govern your affective desires.

This, however, raises the oft-unasked-and-even-less-frequently-answered question of how one is supposed to realign one’s desires.  I think that there are two answers to this question that Christians of all types can agree on. The first is through the grace of God. Christians differ on the specifics, but all can agree that, through God’s grace, a person can learn to want as he ought.

There is also a second method which I think can be used to realign one’s desires. Though this method also depends on the grace of God, it requires the participation of the person. The idea of this method was first brought to my attention by C.S. Lewis, who said in his book Mere Christianity, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

The psychological research on this phenomenon bolsters Lewis’ words. In this video, for example, Amy Cuddy describes how our posture and physical expressions affect our feelings and emotions. She has demonstrated that people who position themselves in a certain way before job interviews boost their confidence and improve their performance. I think it follows, if we extrapolate from Cuddy’s findings, that if we act in accord with how we want to want, then we will gradually adjust our affective desires so that they will be aligned with our wills.

In sum then, when we inevitably find ourselves not wanting as our Christian Faith tells us to want, we have two options. The first, and most essential, is to pray. In the first place, God can of course change us directly through prayer. Even if the second option is to work, the motivation that it takes to act in accord with reason against our desires is itself a grace of God. However, we cannot be spiritual sloths or quietists and expect God to do all the work for us monergistically; we must also strive to act in accord with a proper Christian way of life. Hence this quote from Flannery O’Connor:

About the only way we know whether we believe or not is by what we do…Bridges once wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins and asked him to tell him how he, Bridges, could believe. He must have expected from Hopkins a long philosophical answer. Hopkins wrote back, “Give alms.” He was trying to say to Bridges that God is to be experienced in Charity (in the sense of love for divine image in human beings).

[Picture of Heaven from Wikipedia]

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