David Krueger, M.D.
Several years ago I was talking with a woman who had recently acquired a great deal of wealth. We were discussing restaurants, and she mentioned that she had dined the previous evening at the most fashionable and esteemed one in town, known for both “the poetry of French food” and its sumptuous dessert cart with two dozen world-class choices. She said that she had ordered one of everything on the dessert cart.
I said, “Wow. How was that experience?”
She said simply, “I was disappointed. I was surprised at how quickly I lost my desire.”
I told her how someone else made that discovery some time ago. The novelist Thomas Mann described how his father taught him about desire. His father assured him that once in his life, he could eat as many cream puffs as the wanted. He led Thomas to a pastry shop to let his dream come true. Mann recognized how quickly, as he put it, “I reached the limit of desire, which I had believed to be infinite.”
If we want too much of something, we are afraid of losing it and possibly never having it again. So we believe we have to consume or hoard to ensure that it will not go away or run out. We actually become greedy when what we get is not really what we want, and it fails to satisfy. If one dessert doesn’t do the trick, maybe the entire cart will. If one million dollars isn’t enough, then maybe ten million dollars will be. We become greedy out of the recognition that neither the dessert nor the dollar will nor truly satisfy, never well enough for long enough. Yet we magically believe that more would be better, and that more will counter the greed.
Yet our desires may be unrealistic for a reason: by excessive desires, our disappointment keeps us going. A perpetual series of occasions for hope. We continue to desire by having goals just out of reach, or never quite reaching them. If someone feels that losing a final five pounds will bring happiness, then the five pounds will never be lost, as the illusion of happiness would then have to be confronted. We must ensure that we will never be fully satisfied, or our fantasy would then have to be confronted. Wanting more means never giving up.
Like the perfectionist, good enough is inadequate. It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive; for upon arrival, the illusion of perfection would be illuminated. The perfectionist organizes his behavior to see clearly to the end of his desire, yet to avoid arriving—so hope won’t have to be buried.
Greed (actually defined as the rapacious desire for more) creates an insatiable desire for acquisition of things, pleasures, experiences. Greed insures that we do not have to fear making the wrong choice, or make choices at all. The fantasy of credible wealth imagines unlimited choices. That way, one is never wrong. If you have everything, then you don’t need to choose. If you order everything on the dessert cart, no choice has to be made. So you can never be wrong, or feel that you made an unwise choice. If my friend had chosen one dessert, it meant that not only that she would mourn the unknown pleasures, but that she might also be wrong.
Greed, a state of mind of wanting to have everything, unlimited, at any time, defends against the fear of dissatisfaction, self-cures feelings of helplessness. Links to an insatiable desire: food, sex, or money become identifiable emblems of this process.
Although we usually want more then we have, rather than notice that our desires may be unrealistic, we are more inclined to think that the world (or others) let us down.
When we achieve satisfaction in our lives, it is often by recognizing not only what we want and need, but what “good enough” is. When we are rich and can eat as much as we want, we quickly discover how much is enough. So problems of food and money are really about energy and self-regulation. The most balanced individuals are those who are contained by self-regulation, by having a plan and sticking to it.
That our desire for love or money is insatiable is not the problem. Perhaps, it’s the point, the purpose. How we handle the impossible and engage the ineffable ghostwrites our character.