Desire, Autonomy, & Decisions
This is as accurate as I can remember of an actual conversation Joseph and I had 2 weeks into marriage:
“Would you like to take out the trash?” -Me to Joseph
“UH NO! Who likes to do that?” -Joseph
“Oh come, just do what I asked!” -Me, frustrated and rolling my eyes.
“What did you ask?” – Joseph, honestly confused
“I asked you to…take out the trash…” – Me, beginning to realize I didn’t actually ask that…
“No you didn’t. I’ll take out the trash but next time just ask me directly” – Joseph, realizing he married someone who communicates very indirectly.
Have you ever realized you were communicating indirectly mid-conversation? If so, welcome to my life. I didn’t realize how indirectly I spoke until I got married. I would attempt to communicate something by implying it, hoping that dropping hints about what I wanted would get me what I wanted without me having to ask for it directly.
Polite and Protective
At first, communicating like this seemed both polite for others and protective for me. Since being direct could be felt as rude or forward, indirect felt more polite. It felt protective because if I only gave a hint about what I wanted, if whoever I was talking to (Joseph) came to that conclusion and didn’t do what I wanted then I could deny I actually wanted it.
Indirect communication kept my desires ambiguous and dependent on others but a crumb fell off the table just often enough to keep me hoping for more. When I imagined true love I imagined this: A relationship between two people who knew each other so well that they would anticipate and meet each other’s needs before being asked. If I could hold out long enough then once in a while someone would meet one of my many unspoken desires, right? The problem wasn’t really with my communication, the problem was how I was handling desire.
I thought this was healthy (Before Therapy)
I thought this form of love was the way the world ideally worked. I thought this was the way God worked. God is love after all, right? Even Jesus said God knows what I need even before I ask, so don’t worry (I read that: don’t think about what you want or need). And if God is the ultimate example of commitment in relationship then then the ideal human relationship would be everybody doing that for each other. So I attempt do that for everyone and hope everyone does that back for me, right?
This is not healthy (After Therapy)
Um…yeah- I now see that as codependent and unrealistic. Unraveling that ideal of love and relationship includes some assumptions I had about faith and God too. They have been such an integral part of every part of my life and that will never change. Still, as I continue this journey of life, how I see God and faith have also been changing dramatically.
The Morality of Desire
A huge part of these changes include becoming more honest with myself, including my desires and how I communicate them. I’ve spent an entire lifetime assuming real Christians classified different desires on a moral spectrum, occasionally allowing oneself to pursue the “good” desires but then avoiding or ignoring the “bad” ones. Desire in general felt taboo, too much like sin, so it was easier to deny than admit. I don’t just mean the times you want your spouse to take out the trash, although paying attention to daily desires is part of this.
Good or Guilty?
Looking back, I didn’t believe I should ask Joseph to take out the trash because I felt it wasn’t a valid/good desire. I believed I should be endlessly giving and selfless therefore I couldn’t directly ask for him to take out the trash as a convenience to me when I was fully capable of doing it myself. Communicating indirectly (dropping hints) was a way to get around this. If I got what I wanted without asking for it then I could avoid feeling guilt for getting that need met.
Autonomy or God?
I made most of the major decisions in my life because I felt like God “led” me to do them, not just because I wanted them. I believed I needed divine backing for the important decisions I made in life. I didn’t believe I could just want something and go for it. That felt selfish and definitely on the “bad” end of my personal desire spectrum. I didn’t believe I could have autonomy and follow God.
All that is changing.
I still feel the pull of that moral spectrum but I am actively resisting that way of addressing desire anymore. Why? Well I could write a book about that (maybe I am?!) but in short, it’s because all my fundamental assumptions about who I am, who God is, and how the world works have changed. I believe this life I am living, body, soul, spirit, and mind, is a good gift from God. I don’t have to fear or condemn desire. I don’t have to pretend I don’t have desire.
Autonomy is a gift, not a sin.
I believe God gives humans autonomy. If we pay close attention to who God made us to be then the decisions we make don’t have to have a divine stamp of approval in order to be valid. This doesn’t negate the times we believe we DO have divine guidance, but it also doesn’t negate the many times we don’t have divine guidance and we make the best decision we can with what we have in the moment.
Look Desire in the Face
In order to communicate directly I’ve been examining WHY I felt the need to communicate indirectly. I am practicing (yes, it takes practice) honesty with myself and my desires. Gently taking them off whatever moral spectrum I attempted to classify them with and exploring them has been an invitation to child-like faith. These desires are God-given gifts. Some are to sustain life. Some are to help others. Some are misleading. Some are addictive. Some need restraint. Some are really fun. This feels vulnerable. This also feels very freeing.
Examining Desire Takes Attention and Time
Whether I admitted it or not, desire was already running my life. Desire, when left ignored, becomes desperate for attention. Now I’m taking my life back, desire by desire. Despite what I thought, desire isn’t so powerful that paying attention to it takes over my life. I am no longer giving into the fear of what those desires might mean about my own morality (even though those old fears pop up now and then).
Autonomy: Owning and Choosing
This whole process is part of my growth towards owning my life: healthy autonomy. Acknowledging desire gives me the awareness to choose how I want to deal with it. To my surprise, as I dare to own my desire and decisions I am creating the kind of life I wanted all along. Learning to exercise autonomy instead of living a life at the mercy of my subconscious or others. I now see this as stewarding the life God gave me.
Clear Instructions Not Needed
Jesus told a story about a master who left for a while and, without leaving any instructions, entrusted different quantities of money with three of his servants. Two of the servants invested what they had, one didn’t. When the master returned he was pleased with the two who invested. The remaining servant said something along the lines of “Here’s your exact amount back- I knew you were a hard master and I was afraid, so instead of investing it I hid it.” The master got upset with him.
As a child I read this parable and felt like it was so unfair! If that servant gave back exactly what he was given with no explicit instructions to do anything with it then why did the master get mad at him?
Jesus was trying to tell us something about the nature of humanity and the nature of God.
In this case, I think Jesus might have been saying a few things.
1- Don’t wait for divine instructions to invest whatever you have been given (your life, your resources, your story, etc). Take stock of what you have and invest it in the best way you know how! Consider that you are simply alive is divine direction enough.
2-Don’t assume God is a hard master aka harshly judgmental. What if the master was more upset about this servant making untrue assumptions about his nature as a hard, fear-inducing master than the fact that he didn’t make an investment?
3- Don’t use hold back because you are afraid, especially if it’s fear of what God might do if we mess up. We don’t know where the master was or what he was doing, but whose to say he wasn’t doing something behind the scenes helping the investments of those who dared to invest? We don’t know what would have happened if the third servant invested and lost everything.
What we do know is he stewarded what he had by doing nothing because he was afraid. I’ll admit, I’ve found myself in that position over the course of my life too. But that’s not the way I believe Jesus was inviting humanity to live.
Desire will be your driver if you don’t admit it’s in the car with you.
Instead of desire subconsciously driving my decisions and communication I am learning to exercise my God-given autonomy. While I rewire how I think about desire I’m resisting fear of failure and fear of an angry God. I’m taking inventory of what I have, desire included. I’m learning how to make decisions about desire. That means saying no (or waiting), sometimes it means me doing it myself, and sometimes it means asking for help from others. Either way, I’m not lying to myself about what I want anymore and hoping someone else does something about it for me.
Part of knowing what direction you are headed is knowing where you are. Until you know where you are you can’t really choose what direction you want to go. I’ve been asking myself these questions and you can too.
What do you desire, honestly? Have you examined what you want and how you are meeting those desires?
Do you know where you are? Are you owning your decisions or is something subconsciously driving your life?
Your life is a gift and worth investing in. The desires you have are opportunities to exercise autonomy and create a rich and meaningful life. I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses to these questions and how you are learning to own your desire and your life.