A Defense Of Desire

Jen Polleck Michel hesitates at George Saunders’s recent appeal to kindness:

When he fleshes out his vision of human kindness, he seizes on an example from the parent-child relationship: “If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit… YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.” We are selfish, Saunders says, to want for ourselves. We should abandon desire in favor of love.

This is a fond and familiar heresy: that desire is to be blamed for all moral ills. In his book, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton compares the Buddhist and Christian solutions to the treachery of desire. Buddha proposed we get rid of desire altogether. He considered it a contagion. But Chesterton defended desire, arguing that the gospel did not obligate us to give up on our desires, but rather, to judge their nature: “I do not see, for instance, why the disappointment of desire should not apply as much to the most benevolent desires as to the most selfish ones.”

In a similar vein, C.S. Lewis takes issue with the idea of unselfishness, in The Weight of Glory:

I submit that this notion [of unselfishness] has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is not part of the Christian faith . . . The negative ideal of unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.

For the greater part of my Christian life, I have failed to understand what Chesterton and Lewis are saying and what the Bible so clearly defends: desire is not evil. A thousand times and more I have hung myself on the accusation of selfishness, living with the burden of be kind, advice that would subtly seek to obligate me to the whole of humanity and will to find me guilty whenever I cannot appease their demands.