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New life for old: on desire and becoming human

30 November, 1999

Starting with human desire, Vincent MacNamara traces the possibility for the contemporary reader to move through the development of a personal self and soul-awakening to religious faith and moral transformation.

104 pp, Columba Press, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



  1. The Territory of Desire
  2. A Further Desiring: Soul
  3. Desire and Religious Faith
  4. Religious Faith: Further Reflection
  5. Desire and Morality
  6. Morality: Further Reflections
  7. Meditative Life



Vincent MacNamara takes the human condition, and especially human desire, as his starting point and finds within it the call to humanness. He follows that call through the development of the personal self, through soul-awakening, and into the areas of religion and morality. The overall thrust is towards integral human development. MacNamara suggests that listening to the call of our humanity requires mindfulness or self-presence: that for him is the key to transformation and to an authentic religious and moral response. He considers the possibility of such a lifestyle in contemporary culture.

This is a book for anyone who has an interest in the spiritual longing that is so palpable today or who looks for a hopeful approach to religious and moral issues.  It is a book to return to and reflect on many times.  It invites the reader into a deepening awareness of the mystery of the human person.


Chapter 1 The Territory of Desire

Our experience, I think, is that our desires often betray us. We are fulfilled for the moment but we do not find long-term happiness. That is not surprising. Human beings are such a baffling mixture. Mary Midgley opens one of her books with the striking sentence, ‘We are not just rather like animals; we are animals’ (1). The psalmist, on the other hand, chants, ‘You have made us a little less than the angels.’ There are many levels of life-force in us and so the movement of desire throws up a disorganised array of needs which we pursue in hope of satisfaction. Our experience of dissatisfaction is not a reason for condemning desire but rather for pursuing it more seriously and deeply. Perhaps we might, with D. H. Lawrence, think of shallow desires and profound desires, ‘the personal, superficial, temporary desires, and the inner, impersonal, great desires that are fulfilled in long periods of time’ (2). How we respect the different levels of desire, and negotiate our way through their complexity, is perhaps our basic problem. Is that what is in question when people talk about and hope for integration, for harmony, for synthesis? Is it a matter of organising our desires?

We don’t generally decide to have desires: they come to us and take us over, in all kinds of odd ways. Some of them are common to the whole of our race, deeply embedded in the structure of humankind. But we will each have our own nuance of them and there is no knowing what highly individual shape that will take. We would be foolish to think that we easily know our desires: there is a vast and mysterious underground there that we are unaware of. The desiring self is elusive. So there will be a long search into the caverns of our psyche if we are to know ourselves – if we can ever truly know ourselves. There will be an ongoing journey of awareness.

Some of the great traditions have made desire the central issue: perhaps the Jewish and Christian notion of ‘the heart’ catches something of it. It is the gutsy stuff of morality, but, also of faith and religious practice. An approach to these are as through the experience of desire might be enlightening. So let us follow this thread of need and desire through different areas of life. We could put to ourselves the key questions. What is my desiring about? Why do I desire and seek what I desire? Why or how are things invested with desirability for me? Do I experience different levels of desire? Do my desires lead me to wholeness, are they life-enhancing? What is my inner story – behind the daily seeking and striving and planning and fantasising? Forget the obvious, the public things that I do. Can I come to know myself better in the deep springs of my actions? Can I talk about a central, a nuclear desire? We all need to sit with and wonder about such questions for a long time.

We do not easily come to answers. It seems to be part of the human condition that we do not know ourselves: we are, as Steiner puts it, strangers to ourselves, errant at the gates of our own psyche (3). We are confused about desires and motives. But the fact is that often we unthinkingly act as if the way to happiness for us lies in having and holding – and, given the human situation, that means in striving and grasping and competition. We go that road because, it seems, we can hardly do otherwise: the demons, the energies, are driving us. We know that we are often unwise, emotionally unwise – and incapable, emotionally incapable. There is a kind of inexorability about it, our own little Greek tragedy. The result is that we sell ourselves short. We haven’t listened to our true selves, to the fullness of our desiring. It is remarkable how often the Christian gospels concern themselves with just such foolishness – the foolishness of power or position or wealth, or ambition. Just the foolishness of it. The sadness of it. The pity of missing the mark.

Most desires do not come and go quietly. There is too much at stake – deep needs, survival in one form or another. We are such a complex angel-beast, body-soul knit that getting or not getting, or the fear of not getting, affect us in elemental ways in body, feelings and mind. ‘He was white with rage’; ‘I was shaking like a leaf’; ‘my heart was pounding with excitement’; ‘I broke out in a cold sweat’; ‘I had a knot in my stomach’. Excitement, fear, anger, jealousy, sadness and hatred, meshed with the extremely volatile energies of sex, swarm around our hopes, desires and failures. We are beings of emotion. Life would be very impoverished without it – we also have emotions of joy and compassion and gratitude, and a passion for beauty, truth and goodness. But we experience emotion often as a kind of turmoil. It unhinges thought and judgement. It can prove too much for us.

Our desiring has a history
Let us look at some of the great driving forces of our lives, the great instinctual needs which seem to be common to most, lives. Take these obvious ones: the need for security and survivival; the need for power and control; the need for affection. and esteem. They are there, deeply there, in all of us: we don’t have to decide to have them. They are the building blocks of our existence. They generate our desires: We might think of life as a journey of responding to or organising our, needs, finding ways of having them met. What I will be arguing here is that there can be an ongoing movement. There are levels or stages, an ongoing transmuting of desiring. There is in the desiring self an inbuilt thrust ever upwards towards fullness of life.

What that might mean or how it might happen is what I will be trying to track here. As we move from stage to stage, we carry our past with us. So how we had our needs met as children will have a lifelong significance. How we did it was shaped for each of us by our childhood sense of how the world was, by our early learning experiences, by the demands of our very particular circumstances. So we wrote the crucial first pages of our story. We had not yet come to the possibility of personal choice. We could only adapt to our environment. For a start, we didn’t choose our parents or our genetic make-up but we have to deal with what we inherited until the day we die. Then we had to have our great instinctual needs met in our own way, from year to year, from the vital needs of babyhood to the adolescent’s need for significance and esteem. We survived. We developed our own ways or patterns of survival. It was an instinctive, adaptive, animal-like existence. But it formed the basic pattern of our relationships. The granting of love or its withdrawal, the climate of trust or its fracture, the experience of joy or of fear, the encouragement of individuality or its suppression, the too little or too great burden of responsibility, all left their mark. There was nothing much we could do about the process. Much of it just happened to us.

Human becoming is a deeply problematic matter. Human consciousness is a wonderful but troubling endowment. It is the precious gift of knowing who and what we are. It gives us philosophy, art and science, but it also gives us an awareness of our hurt and fear and lostness, of our jealousy and competitiveness. It presents the child with a frightening experience. It is easy to be a cow or a crocodile or a geranium. But it is not easy to become a human being. Nobody can do it for us. And the child has to do it in a world where adults spend much of their time warring or envying or resenting, or coping with their own inadequacies and their own ancestral or cultural prejudices. Nobody will ever know, and we will never fully know, just what emotional colours were dyed into our personalities. Or what deeply buried experience holds the key to present behaviour: for some, childhood was so painful that it has been thoroughly suppressed. Which doesn’t mean that it lies innocuously in some cellar of the personality: it infects our days; it shapes our desires and how we try to have our needs met.

The Personal Self
So when we move gradually to young adulthood we take much baggage with us. What opens before us is the task of becoming a person. We begin to find our own ways of having our needs met – of acquiring security, meaning and relationship. We organise our desiring according to our own scheme. We have the possibility of moving out from the adaptive behaviour of our childhood days. We find ourselves choosing to be a computer wizard; or to drop out of college, or to get married; or to live in Australia. We make a quantum leap in the enterprise of human becoming. We can come to experience freedom and the liberation of desire from sheer instinct. We develop a personal self. We have the possibility of creativity and responsibility.

It is our human destiny. It is the evolution of the person, the emergence of something of inestimable value and mystery and possibility. Someone who, ideally, can choose, who can give or withhold themselves, whose undertakings have personal worth and significance. Someone who can take on themselves the burden of existence. Someone whose inmost heart cannot be breached, who can only themselves give themselves – to others, to noble undertakings, to evil, to God. Someone to whose life you can begin to apply the notion of morality. For the emerging person it is a time of achievement, and that resonates satisfyingly in the secret chambers of the self.

It is an amazing journey. But it is not all sunshine. We pass from childish dependence to adult responsibility – more or less. Our needs and desires are met – more or less. We develop autonomy, freedom, individuality – more or less. Our past casts a long shadow: it would be hard to overestimate its effects. Some of us, for example, have long ago found that, if we were to get what we needed – to be accepted and loved as children – we had best be sweet and pleasing. Others of us instinctively found that if our incipient thrust for life was not to be smothered we had better be assertive and independent.

That marked us. And, as we grew, some found that in order to survive they had to retreat into silence, or go sick or weak, or play the incompetent, or the hard man or the clown, or withdraw icily from relationships. Long ago we each wove our individual patterns of behaviour. We inhabit them: they have become our way of being in the world.

Defences, if you like. Whatever it took to get by – not to be hurt or diminished or unnoticed or insecure. None of us had the absolute freedom to face the task of life cleanly, newly minted. So we found our hidden – quirky, distorted – ways of getting what we so badly needed and what we were entitled to, what would enable us to be in the world, to function. For example, one might rather unconsciously adopt a style of being sick or being a victim if it was the only way of getting badly needed esteem. It is understandable. For some, perhaps, it might be a necessary staging post on the journey. We need great compassion for the confusion into which we were thrown. What we did as children was the only way we knew. What we did as we grew older was shaped by it. We need to respect that and value it. It was so easy to be hurt along the way. We were so vulnerable. We needed our defences. If we are to be fair to ourselves, it is important to acknowledge also the gold, the genuineness, that is hidden even in our distortions and in our ways of combating our fears: in our own odd way we were seeking something, some quality or satisfaction, such as self-esteem, that was vital to our human becoming.

This personal phase is about our capacity to function in society, to acquire whatever is necessary for our well-being in terms of security, meaning, and belonging. It is a restless phase in spite of achievements and successes. We are never able to satisfy or quieten our desires. We are always looking for more – more power, more control, more attention, more signs of affection, more assurance of our worth. There seems to be some deep wound, some deep unease. Perhaps it is that we are haunted by the wholeness that is our destiny. And that we will never be at peace until we reach it – not a very lively prospect. Unless there is a sea-change in our desiring, unless we can move on to another level, we remain in a circle of striving and we are condemned to a kind of manic pursuit – what I will call ego-striving or ego-desire – of objects that we feel will bring happiness.

Great fears mirror our great needs. They are the shadow of our great desires. We need and desire security, meaning, affection but we are plagued by the great fears of death, of meaninglessness, of isolation. So we surround ourselves with our security systems – money, investments, insurance, lights and alarms, friends in high places, health-checks – hopeless denials of death. Or we write a book, or design a building, or endow an institute, or produce a disc, or raise a family – so that we will never be quite dead and forgotten. Or we get stuck into something that will keep out the meaninglessness, that will salve the dull sense that we are useless, that we are finished, that the world does not need us, that there is no point to anything any more and no point to us. Or we’ll try to heal the gnawing sense of unworthiness that so many so unaccountably feel: we’ll gain esteem by proving or pretending that we are good and honourable and worthy of respect, and all the harder the more we fear that we are not. We never get over wondering if we are loved: the fear that we are not gets embedded early on in the human heart. So we surround ourselves with all sorts of relationships: someone will make me feel loved. And we do all kinds of – sometimes crazy things to ensure it.

I liked this from Saul Bellow. ‘The emotional struggles of mankind were never resolved. The same things were done over and over, with passion, with passionate stupidity, insect like, the same emotional struggles in daily reality – urge, drive, desire, self-preservation, aggrandizement, the search for happiness, the search for justification, the experience of coming to be and passing away’ (4).  The development of a personal self is critical for us. But the human condition dictates that much of its energy is self -referential, what some call ego-energy. It is true that most of us seek to live up to what we understand as a decent, civilised life: we would be ashamed of ourselves if we didn’t; it has become part of our self-image. We make a useful and generous contribution to life. Perhaps we act mainly from a mixture of motives. But often our efforts have an egoic origin and colour – because, as we saw, we are never satisfied and are always seeking to fill the lack. We hide our egoic striving and scheming from others. But it may be that we don’t even see it ourselves, that we deceive ourselves. We think we know what we do and why. We think we have a clear identity, that we are sharply defined choosers, when in fact we are more like a loose federation of fears and emotions: they are calling the tune. We think we are in possession of our lives when we are, you might say, more lived than living.

So here we are today, the product of that struggle to reach personal autonomy. We have developed our patterns, our ways of being in the world – the intriguing thing is how they invade even seemingly insignificant events. They work for us, more or less. They are familiar. They are comfortable enough, like old clothes. To go against them would stir up old feelings and fears. For example, to go against my style and my reputation of being a nice, compliant, agreeable person leaves me with jagged and awkward feelings that are hard to handle. It is easier to lean in the direction of my pattern of niceness.

We muddle through but we are unfree. Our patterns make it difficult for us to realise our potential. They cut us off from parts of ourselves. They cramp our existence. They prevent us from seeing and doing the truth. They are a kind of servitude. They affect how we read the landscape of life: they affect how we relate to, or, more likely, react to others; they. affect how we make choices. That has consequences not only for our human becoming but for our religious faith and our moral life. These are big statements and they form much of “the thrust of this book.

This, then, is the drama of life. The human drama. The moral drama. The religious drama. It revolves around the primordial fact that to be is to be with others. That is where the great needs are realised or not. That is where I become or wilt. It is the acceptance of others that I crave. It is others who diminish me. It is the success of others that threatens me. It is the fear of others that cripples me. It is others that I have to control for my security and sense of power. A piece of Eastern wisdom tells us that where there are others there is dread. There is a tendency for many of us to see the other as threat rather than as gift, so that we are instinctively ready for combat. We were immersed in all this before we had much of a clue about living and it has left its mark. But, whatever our good or bad luck – and life is not fair – the Christian tradition tells us that it is through and in this complexity that our human, moral and religious salvation is worked out.

It is the stuff of great literature. It ought also to be the stuff of theology and spirituality, for those who have that interest. We might learn more about what faith and grace and salvation and goodness mean – words that have long since lost (their shine – from poems and plays and novels than from the tomes of theology. Literature touches more deeply into the actuality, the mystery of the person, into human longings and needs and fears. The person with whom theology is engaged, the one whom God addresses. Literature knows, as theology often doesn’t seem to know, what are the deep things of the spirit, what are the rhythms of the human heart, what is its waywardness. It illuminates the meaning of terms that can so easily slide off the tongue.

Responsibility: awareness
So we have work to do for our becoming and integration. We can take responsibility now which we couldn’t take at a childhood stage. At least, we can if our history has been anyway kind to us – some have been so cheated by life that their capacity for responsibility has been severely undermined. But most of us are able for it when life knocks the corners off us and jolts us out of our narrow ways. Our acquaintances cut through our pretences. With luck, we begin to tire of our patterns. We feel the distress of our fears and of our reactive behaviour. We find that we are not able to be who we want to be. We are not able to relate as we would wish. The good that we would like to do we are unable to do. We have moments when we chafe at our unfreedom.

The way forward is not easy. What helps most, I think, is an awareness of how we behave, of who we are. How often have you heard it said about someone that they are completely lacking in self-awareness? It denotes a blindness to one’s lifestyle and its effects on others. It is a failure in consciousness. It is embarrassing. There is nothing worse than being in the dark about ourselves. We may not be in touch with our patterns and, whether we are or not, we may not be able to cope with them. We just act out of them – automatically, unthinkingly. They imprison us. We cannot simply will them away by taking thought – it is a more difficult road than that. Good resolutions crumble before them. Awareness needs to be ongoing: there are deep secret caverns to be visited – so much difficulty in coming to know ourselves and so much to know. We could begin by giving ourselves little moments of quiet and reflection and gentleness.

A help to awareness is the revisiting of our story. The truth about ourselves is plaited into our story. If only we could have a feeling sense of that, of the ‘how’ of it, how the pain and the hurt and disappointment and misery – as well as the light and joy and encouragement and success – have been woven into the fabric of our lives and even branded into our bodies. So that, through time, we have become who we are. So that now we react to our environment in our own unique, storied way – fearful, anxious, prickly, resentful, arrogant, controlling, withdrawn, needy, starry-eyed. Those patterns and the roles that we become obsessively identified with limit our humanness. They cut us off from much of our potential. If only we were intimately in touch with that.

It is the reactiveness of our patterns that is the problem. It is not how humans are meant to be. We can live our lives more or less like the rock in the field – with little aliveness. Or more or less like the lower animals – instinctively, reactively, unconsciously. Or we can live with ever deepening levels of consciousness. An awareness of our reactiveness is already a growth in human becoming. It creates psychic space for us. It brings into play our characteristically human possibility of being present to ourselves. It is a significant moment, a spiritual moment – the frightened rabbit could not do it or the frightened child.

But if such presence is to be transformative, it will need to move beyond a mere acknowledgement of how we react, to an acceptance of ourselves. That is a further stage. It will be a suffering acceptance. It is a suffering genuinely to admit to ourselves and to own the circus of tricks and pretences and projections we get into for our establishment or defence. If we can own them, we have taken on a different relationship to them. We are more in possession of who we are. We have opened up the possibility of freedom and of a more genuine relating to others. It is a growth in wisdom.

1. Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (London 1980) p.xiii (italics original).
2. Quoted by Herbert McCabe, Law Love and Language (London 1968) p.60.
3. George Steiner, Real Presences (London 1989) p.139.
4. Saul Bellow, ‘Zetland by a Character Witness’, Collected Stories (London 2002) p.247.

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