In the 1960s, Hula Hoops and TV dinners were in. In the 1970s it was pet rocks and fondue pots. In the 1980s, there were padded shoulders and Hacky Sacks. You couldn’t go out without seeing fanny packs in the 1990s. Some of them were big enough to fit a “Tickle Me Elmo” doll.
Little had changed by the 2000s. We were fascinated by the guys rolling by on their Segways and were taking pictures of them with the disposable cameras we picked up at 7-Eleven. Of course, all that has changed now that we are in 2023. We can congratulate ourselves on having outgrown our fads—as we all drive our pickups and SUVs, check how we slept on our Fitbits, and listen to favorite podcasts on our AirPods.
Someone might counter that AirPods and Fitbits are useful. So were TV dinners and disposable cameras, yet no one wants them anymore. Let’s face it: we have been conditioned to desire things that others want us to desire for their own purposes.
Behind every fad lies the intentional cultivation of desire. It is disconcerting to think that at least some of our very real desires have been implanted in us by others. It almost boggles the mind to think that in 1975 an advertising executive was able to instill a genuine desire for pet rocks in the hearts of millions of people. What were we thinking? We weren’t thinking; we were desiring.
The science of advertising has come a long way since then. Today’s advertisers have access to information about how the human brain works that Gary Dahl, the ad exec who introduced the pet rock, knew nothing about. For example, Jane Raymond, a professor of consumer psychology at the University of Whales, says that research on the brain’s lateralization suggests that faces pictured on the left side of a page capture attention better than faces on the right side.
The intentional inculcation of desire – it is called seduction in some circumstances – is frequently intended by one individual (or group) to influence another individual (or group) for some kind of personal advantage. The various types of natural desire were long ago classified in three categories: desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and pride of life.
St. John identified these categories in the latter part of the first century. He considered them to be comprehensive of all natural desires and describes them as “all that is in the world.” These desires are what move the world.
But according to John, the world and its desires are passing away, rather like the desire for Tickle Me Elmo dolls. In 1996, people fought over them in store aisles. There was a stampede in a Walmart in New Brunswick that caused injuries. Desperate people spent many thousands of dollars for a single doll. But the frenzied desire for Elmo dolls has passed away.
It is hard to imagine a world where the desire of the flesh for physical pleasure, the desire of the eyes to possess what is seen, and the pride of life, the desire to be recognized as better than others, no longer control people. Yet they too are passing away and will one day be forgotten.
Does that mean that human beings will in the future world be without desire, as some Buddhists hope? And if that should be the case, will those desireless creatures still be human?
I think not. To desire is part of our humanity. Far from spelling the annihilation of desire, the future world promises its fulfillment. So, the Psalmist writes of God: “In your presence is the fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Christian spiritual formation recognizes that desire can helpfully direct our lives or harmfully “corrode” – St. Peter’s word – our souls. Thus, desires that dishonor God and harm people must be kept at a distance. There are even times when one should flee from them. New and helpful desires must be nurtured.
When people delight in God, those new and helpful desires grow in them. They should be cultivated, for they are ones that God can safely fulfill, and humans can thoroughly enjoy.