Of Good and Evil: IV – Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jun 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we mistakenly suppose that it is the better possessions of others that make them seemingly more important than we are. And that if we can acquire those possessions we will magically become just as worthy.

I distinctly remember throwing a shameful tantrum at the age of about ten. Five years earlier I had learned to read well and began to devour print. I became fascinated by my favourite authors and took a strong notion to become a writer myself. I was certain I absolutely needed what I supposed successful writers used: a particular brand of fountain pen. My parents were watching every penny back then – and sensibly refused my request. I sulked for weeks – instead of writing just as well with a pencil.

I was suffering from a complaint that afflicts all of us, contagious desire – desire we acquire from others whom we mistakenly suppose to have greater value and importance than ourselves.

A similar thing happened to St Augustine of Hippo when he was about sixteen. He and some friends became fascinated by the ripe pears visible over the walls of the garden of a wealthy man of their town – and conspired to raid the orchard. Augustine remembered vividly afterwards that once he had stolen the pears he had no real interest in eating them. This disturbed him greatly. He became convinced that his moral lapse was the result of an irrational or ‘disordered’ desire – it made no sense.

He was right, of course. But he never quite put his finger on the cause of this lapse.

It was probably contagious desire, resulting from his mistaken young man’s fantasy of possessing something that symbolised the higher status of the owner of the orchard.

The Financial Crash

In Ireland these days people argue endlessly over the cause of the present global financial and economic crisis, and especially over the Irish version of it. The temptation to point the finger at individuals is overpowering. But the root cause was something we are all afflicted by.

It was contagious desire. The bible calls it covetousness. It can also be called mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics the desire of someone else.

“Do not covet your neighbour’s ox … or his wife … or anything your neighbour owns!” This emphatic warning in the Ten Commandments of the Bible is there because that library of ancient books is centred largely on the afflictions that result from ignoring this warning.

For example, the unjust treatment of Joseph by his brothers, because of their contagious desire for the object that signified his father’s greater favour – his ‘many coloured coat’. Or King David’s disgrace over his desire for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Or Absalom’s sad end as a result of his desire for the power and status of his father, King David.

The Bible is not the only ancient religious text to warn of this problem. “Why do we desire what others desire?” asks the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese classic. The unknown author was lamenting the greatest evil to flow from this affliction. When rulers coveted the lands and cities of other rulers, and could deploy armies to acquire them, thousands could die in the wars that followed.

In 2001 there came an early warning of the financial collapse that hit us all in 2009. To maximise their own income from bonuses, executives of the huge US corporation ENRON had dishonestly concealed the increasingly weak position of the firm and published false accounts showing false profits. This led to the collapse of the firm and the ruin of many investors and employees.

Analysing the causes afterwards, the financial wizard Alan Greenspan, head of the US central bank, the ‘Fed’, noticed that individual executives in ENRON had felt compelled to keep pace with one another in claiming these bonuses. He called the phenomenon ‘contagious greed’ – because the word covetousness had long seemed to be old fashioned, and its meaning had been almost lost. At least he had noticed how we ‘catch’ desire from one another.

We saw, and marvelled at, another example of essentially the same thing in Baghdad in 2003 – the looting of most of the priceless treasures from the Iraqi national museum. If we supposed then that we westerners were immune to such behaviour, we now need to think again. Irish bankers who just had to follow risky international lending practices were convinced that if they did not do so they would be seen as incompetent. Contagious desire can lead to a manic rush for treasure out of fear of being left behind and made to look foolish by those leading the charge. Our own greatest national financial treasure – our reputation for integrity and good judgement – has been almost lost in this manic rush.

This fear of being made to look foolish also clearly originates in the fact that we are chronically unsure of our own value.

It is high time we recovered the meaning of the words ‘covet’ and ‘covetousness’. Words such as ‘materialism’ and ‘consumerism’ are weak and misleading by comparison. They merely describe our behaviour without getting to its root and its cause – a desire for the status of another person, who is apparently ‘better’ than ourselves. A multinational cosmetics empire has been built on the assurance that in buying something as trivial as a hair dye its customers can automatically become ‘worth it’.

The Environmental Crisis

It is critically important for us to understand contagious desire and its spiritual root for another reason. It is contagious desire that lies at the root of the world’s environmental crisis. This was proven by the sudden fall in the world price of oil when demand suddenly collapsed in the western economies. Demand is artificially inflated when we become convinced our desires – all of our desires – are needs that must be met. With everyone bidding to surpass everyone else in terms of status, we were on a race to disaster.

The French Jesuit scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, was convinced that the life of Jesus of Nazareth was a crucial part of the story of all life on planet earth. He felt sure that learning what Jesus had to teach was crucial to the survival and protection of all life on earth. He was correct – and we are just beginning to understand why.

Unless we can learn, really learn, that our value does not depend upon the possession of material symbols of status, the near future of the planet will be dominated by environmental decay, the extinction of many living species, internal social conflict, and brutal warfare over increasingly scarce resources.

“See the lilies of the field – they do not toil or spin – yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!”

“Sell what you have and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven have no holes in them. Your treasure will be safe — no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.”

“Impractical! Impossible!” we tend to cry. “If everyone is to become a pauper who will remain to support us?” We miss the point. Generosity removes the sense of inequality that status-seeking creates. The giver honours the recipient, restoring his sense of his own value and dignity. If everyone is generous everyone is also honoured. The root of all envy, covetousness and violence, is destroyed.

By ‘sell what you have’ Jesus meant ‘sell what you have over’. He made this clear in the instruction: “He that has two coats , let him give to him that has none; and he that has food, let him do likewise.”

At the height of the Irish boom, businessmen who possessed only a share in a helicopter felt inferior – not ‘worth it’ – in the presence of an acquaintance who owned a private jet. That was the craziness of the time. Yet all along both men were equally worthy, as were the mechanics who serviced these machines, and the begging homeless people they sometimes passed in central Dublin.

We can only return to reality when we realise that our value is something gifted us at birth, something that cannot be alienated from us by the entirely superficial differences we create among ourselves.

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