Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Art of Manliness, asking the question "what do you want" and why it is so important to ask yourself and answer that question. The whole article may be read here.
“The best thing is to want what is right (the honesta) and not to stray from the path.” –SenecaMy biggest fear is to live a life I regret.
“[W]e go to far less trouble about making ourselves happy than about appearing to be so.” –La Rochefoucauld
“My life … is for itself and not for a spectacle.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” –Marcel Proust
It’s easy to fall into the trap Proust is talking about and spend life blindly chasing something you never actually wanted.
Blindly following your desires makes you a slave to your impulses — slave to the assumptions of those around you, the advertisements you’re exposed to, and the confused chemical signals of your body.
Our default is to spend our life as rats blindly chasing the next dopamine hit.
This isn’t a setting easily adjusted, but it’s worth shifting our aims and becoming fully human.
If we don’t pause and ask ourselves what we want to want, we will spend our lives focused on unhealthy aims defined for us by others and the worst parts of ourselves. We will pass these bad assumptions about life onto our children and loved ones. We will reinforce these boring, desperate defaults in everyone we encounter.
To achieve freedom we must be able to think for ourselves. If we don’t cut to the core and reprogram our wants (our desires) then our best-case scenario is to be the most successful, rich, or famous slave. If we never peer into our programming then we may end up the cleverest rat, but that’s hardly worth celebrating.
Asking yourself what you want to want can help you avoid wanting the wrong things.
It can also help with existential crises, disillusionment, and other crises of desire. The current culture has betrayed us in the way it programs our desires. It’s exhausted many of us to the point where we’re wary of wanting anything at all.
Asking this question may give you the ability to desire again — to trust in yourself and your aims:
What do you want to want?
To answer this question seriously we have to understand what it is and why it matters, so we’ll start there.
We’ll then look at two ways in which we can start ridding ourselves of society’s default desires, and discover and shift to living out our own.
Let’s get into it.
You Are What You WantThere’s never been a time in human history where it was easy for someone to trade in their status quo wants for deliberately chosen desires, but we live in a period where this project is particularly difficult.
There’s no single dominant, cohesive culture and there are endless options — a million different lifestyles and beliefs to try on and a never-ending buffet of things to want. There are a million advertisers and content creators competing for your attention, playing on your insecurities. It’s a time of acute cross-pressures, and folks aren’t sure which way to go.
In such a period, people don’t have the willpower to sort through the barrage of options, and they default to the kinds of things that please their biological cravings (food, sex), or the kinds of pursuits that have been desired by humanity for thousands of years (wealth, fame, power).
It’s a dizzying time, but not a wholly unique one.
The ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism was born in a time of anomie, or “normlessness,” similar to ours. Their social structures were breaking down; the normal societal games used to divvy up honor and respect were broken.
Carlin Barton puts it this way in Roman Honor: “With the loss of the rules and conditions of the good contest, the entire language of honor ‘imploded’ and had to be ‘reconstructed.’” Imagine the anxiety this would cause a society that was built completely around living for honor.
The early Stoics had to go back to foundational principles to discover what truly mattered in life.
They had to ask themselves the question we’ll look at here:
What do I want to want?
Many of the stable arenas in which a Roman could formerly earn the respect of his peers had collapsed. Into this vacuum stepped the Stoic philosophers, who offered guidance on how to navigate their newly fragmented world.
For this reason, these ancient philosophers are particularly helpful in illuminating what ails modernity and teaching us how to reconstruct a system in which we can thrive. For example, Seneca makes this observation about folks who didn’t take charge of what they wanted in his time:
“If you ask one of them as he comes out of a house, ‘Where are you going? What do you have in mind?’ he will reply, ‘I really don’t know; but I’ll see some people, I’ll do something.’ They wander around aimlessly looking for employment, and they do not what they intended but what they happen to run across. Their roaming is idle and pointless, like ants crawling over bushes, which purposelessly make their way right up to the topmost branch and then all the way down again. Many people live a life like these creatures, and you could not unjustly call it busy idleness.”Sounds familiar, right? Such drifting may be as old as civilization itself, but we don’t have to take part.
In times of uncertainty and flexibility, like Seneca’s and ours — when everything seems to be in chaos and nobody knows what’s going to happen next — knowing what you want to want, and being able to reprogram your default desires, is both vitally important and uniquely possible.
Why What You Want Matters
“Every chance of stimulation and distraction is welcome to [the mind] — even more welcome to all those inferior characters who actually enjoy being worn out by busy activity. There are certain bodily sores which welcome the hands that will hurt them, and long to be touched, and a foul itch loves to be scratched: in the same way I would say that those minds on which desires have broken out like horrid sores take delight in toil and aggravation.” –Seneca, Tranquility of Mind