Getting What You Want Might Not Destroy Western Civilization

Getting What You Want Might Not Destroy Western Civilization

Boarding the Azamara Quest in Barcelona, about to start a week-long Riviera cruise, I felt joy and two types of anxiety. One was luxuryphobia. The other was mortal fear.

Surely, I thought, this beautiful blue ship will sink. Surely a tsunami will capsize it.

Why? Because I am aboard. Because I love ships, traveling, breakfast buffets and, best of all, the sea. Because (as a horrible person) I have no right to want anything. Because, dare I want anything, dare I pursue it, I (as a horrible person) must be punished for this outrage.

And it's not enough that I suffer alone. Others must suffer too: in this case, 7,000 fellow passengers. Because, hey, I'm that horrible.

I always think like this, catastrophizing the first whiff of happiness. Phoning a friend? She'll accidentally walk off a cliff while talking to me. Sit down to watch cartoons? An earthquake will flatten my town. Here's why:

When we dislike people, we hope they never get what they want. When we dislike ourselves, we hope ... well, do the math.

Self-denial can be sacred, when it's done to make amends, a sacrifice, a lesson in anticipation and appreciation, for the greater good.

But self-denial triggered by self-loathing is simply self-denial for its own sake: a punishment we wreak upon the only people we can punish endlessly, who cannot outrun us: ourselves.

Self-denial is unfashionable in a culture that celebrates self-gratification, so we strive to hide ours—pretending to feel neither rage, bitterness or sorrow at not getting what we want. Because (we tell ourselves) we want nothing at all.

In other words, we deny ourselves, then deny our self-denial.

Nothing desired equals nothing denied.

That's why life with self-loathing feels not just sad but droningly dull: Boredom weighs heavily upon our heads, like fog, hiding colors and contours from our eyes. Self-loathing battens boredom, piquing it, telling us not that life is flavorless and empty but that it abounds in sweets and sparkles which we don't deserve.

How can we face this dire punishment, much less endure it? By believing that we care nothing for sweets and sparkles.

But because we're human, we desire. And because we're human, sometimes a desire manages to surface, then by accident or miracle or sheer courage we act on it—by saying yes or at least by not saying no. When that happens—when we finally deny our denied self-denial—we're so invested in not-wanting that our Inner Punisher heaves into overdrive.

That's when we imagine bad things.

I want to sail. Therefore this ship will sink.

And thus I think myself omnipotent.

Not when it comes to good things, only catastrophic ones.

Simply by loving sailing, I can bring this whole ship down. Oh man, how powerful I am! Also: How pompous. How delusionally self-absorbed.

But I can feel it, even now: Planning my next trip to the beach —not to some shining crescent but to a fog-swept, wind-blasted urban strand—I can already feel these rising fears: My loved one, left home, will slip down the stairs. The subway will explode.

But how perverse. We call ourselves weak useless failures in almost everything else—yet when it comes to havoc wrought by the high crime of even feeling our desires, we can do anything.

In truth, we're stronger than we think we are. We're strong enough to sever the chains of self-loathing. But sink ships? All by ourselves?

We're not that strong. Because we're human. That's one reason to rejoice.

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