Decluttering Our Desires
Marie Kondo wants to help people to declutter their houses—but the heart is a 7-story castle that needs deep cleaning first.
Marie Kondo is a lifestyle guru who exhorts people to declutter their homes by throwing anything away that doesn’t ‘spark joy.’ I’ve never utilized this tactic, and I apologize to any Kondo fans who would like to see a more robust treatment of her method. I do know people she has helped tremendously, but I haven’t experienced the fruits of Kondo’ing my home yet. What I do have a lot of experience doing, though, is decluttering the rooms of my heart.
Five years of living a quasi-monastic life in my thirties provided plenty of time for that kind of exploration and work, and it’s one that I’m still hard at.
Not to mention the house I’m currently staying is in chaos. After my mom passed away unexpectedly last month, I moved my dad into a senior care facility where he can get more extensive help for his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. I visit daily.
And now the house, my childhood home, is empty. The task of cleaning out and dealing with a massively unorganized home falls to me. My parents simply became too ill and too tired in recent years to properly manage it, and then tragedy struck.
My wife Claire and I have been spending most of our free time going through it and doing what we can to organize things and get it ready for sale. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking: is organizing the house the most important task that I have right now? Or is it organizing my desires?
And more generally: What if there was as much interest in the ordering of desires in our world as there seems to be with external order? (You know…barriers and passports and quarantines and queues.) Not that the latter isn’t important—it’s just not everything. And not always the best place to start.
We live in a world that starts from the outside in; but all serious change happens from the inside out.
I’ve noticed that—Marie Kondo aside—there seem are to be a lot of public figures talking about the importance of clean rooms lately. For instance, I recently saw a snippet of Chris Williamson’s podcast with Jordan Peterson. The psychology professor was warning the host about not taking small things seriously.
“What the hell is that box doing there?” Peterson asks, acting out a scene that might occur if you had invited him over for dinner and there was a strange package out of place on the floor. “Oh, it’s nothing,” the host says. “Yeah. No, wrong,” Peterson admonishes him. “It’s not nothing! That’s a little portal to hell!”
It seems a little overdramatic, and part of me wonders whether Peterson—who has had a brutal couple of years by all accounts—is projecting some of his personal struggle onto the world.
But I understand the point he’s making. Often times, exterior order is a sign and symbol of interior order.
But not every stray box in your house is a portal to hell. Indeed, some of the happiest and peaceful people I know live in farmhouses that might look cluttered or ‘busy’ to the naked eye: knick knacks, antiques, and stray books are commonplace. Yet everything hangs together—a little sprezzatura for the home.
I like looking to ancient sources for wisdom when it comes to the notion of internal order. And one source stands above all the rest.
Augustine’s idea of an ordo amoris, or the ‘order of love’ in a rightly-ordered soul, is fundamental. He calls the foundation of the spiritual life the work of ordering one’s desires well. This Augustinian approach (which was made most famous in his masterpiece, The City of God), is complimentary to René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire—yet the two thinkers rarely get spoken about in the same breath. And I have to admit: it’s hard for me to square Girard without Augustine. I’ll come back to this in a later edition of this newsletter.
For now, I’d like to point out the striking pattern in many great spiritual masters who all seem to describe the interior life in terms of a room or mansion or castle—or in some cases a mountain. The point is that there is a terrain, an order, an architecture.
The sixteenth century mystic Teresa of Ávila’s most famous work likens the soul to an interior castle made up of seven mansions. Thomas Merton, the Columbia hipster turned Trappist monk, calls his biography the The Seven Story Mountain. He’s talking about an internal mountain, a journey of the soul to the heights of contemplation.
Many other great writers have also made analogies to some kind of interior ‘home.’ The Jewish and Christian Scriptures do, too. In hundreds of diverse works, there’s consistent imagery that relates the soul to an interior landscape, or inscape (to borrow my favorite word coined by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins).
An inscape is the interior essence of a thing. It needs landscaping and traversing and mapping out and decluttering of its own.
This inscape, though, is something most of us have far less familiarity with than the boundaries of our houses.
My theory is that the explosive popularity of house-cleaning and bed-making gurus might have something to do with the ease of exterior ‘actions’ required to make progress. It’s like the popularity of fitness classes: ‘just tell me what to do’ is a common refrain. (I speak from experience. One of the companies I have founded—and still partly own—is an alternative fitness program that matches external programming to the interior inscape and core motivational drive of the person, which comes after a lengthy orientation period. Not all are cut out for it.)
People understand what making their bed is; not so much what ordering one’s disordered desires feels like. There’s no 12-step program. There is no easy roadmap.
When I am teaching my freshman business students, I tell them that nothing that the NYU Stern School of Business could’ve possibly taught me could’ve prepared me for the day when a hitman showed up on my porch in Las Vegas to collect a debt from my failing company. Should I have asked NYU for my money back?
No. The point is this: I can’t give them a playbook for all of the crazy shit that is going to happen to them if they become entrepreneurs—or whatever it is they end up doing. What I can do is help them understand how to clean and prepare their hearts and minds for whatever comes.
The journey of this interior soulcraft is like walking along a winding path in the dark with only the next few feet ahead of you lit up, or making your way through a 45,000 square foot castle with nothing but a candle to light the way through the creepy rooms.
[All of this is not to say that there is not reflexivity involved between the exterior and interior lives: making my bed and cleaning my room can reflect back on my interior life and make it more orderly; likewise, going on a yearly silent retreat always makes it easier for me to make my bed and clean my room in the weeks and months afterward. There is a constant dance between the exterior and interior life because we’re embodied souls—when you touch my body, you touch me. Not just my body, but the whole me. You are touching a person, an embodied soul. (This basic anthropological understanding is the fundamental basis for any robust sexual morality—but that’s an article for another day.)]
So what of all this? Well, I’m not going to try to capitulate five thousand years of received wisdom from East and West on the decluttering or re-ordering of desires here. There is enough material to dig into for 10 lifetimes. I’d like to simply propose some of the basic tactics that have worked well for me.
Some of them have been introduced already in my book Wanting. I’ll expand on them a bit, though, because that’s partly what Anti-Mimetic is for.
Mimetic Desire and Haywire Compasses
The tactics I describe below will be addressing one very specific way in which our desires typically become disordered: mimesis. Regular readers of this newsletter will be very familiar with the idea by now. For those who are new, I suggest reading this intro.
The discernment of desire is one of life’s most important skills to develop, and it’s not a skill many of us learn in school. That makes the journey of discovering and living out a personal sense of mission even more daunting. Not even parochial schools seem to understand that this could be their number one comparative advantage—equipping students to understand vocational discernment and to know themselves better than their peers—but the message falls flat. It’s too damn hard. It requires too much time and attention to each individual. It doesn’t ‘scale’. (Not true.)
The journey is difficult and it requires a mentor the way Dante had Virgil. (Matching students to mentors would be one important step forward.) But remember that at the beginning, Dante didn’t have Virgil either. He found himself lost. His journey had to start alone.
Envision a journey through a dark forest. You are trying to get somewhere, but you don’t necessarily even know where. You do know that some of the signs seem to be pointing you in the right direction; other signs are pointing in the wrong direction or intentionally trying to deceive you. Others are purely distracting. Others are captivating and attractive. When you follow the ‘right’ signs, you sometimes get post-hoc feedback that you’ve made the right choice—if you’re paying attention. Same with the wrong signs. You just have to be paying attention.
Now these ‘signs’ come not in the form of street signs but all things: people you meet, situations you encounter, things you see, sounds you hear. All the forest is teeming with signs. It’s a sacramental forest in which everyone and everything means something and points to something beyond itself.
This sacramental first of mine is the best analogy that I have found for the journey of vocation at this point in my life. The entire journey—and the difficulty—is being able to discern which signs to pay attention to and which to follow…and which ones to learn from but not necessarily follow.
(We often learn the most when we follow a sign and then have to course correct, or maybe even backtrack. Sometimes, we don’t learn anything at all. That’s the greatest tragedy of all. That’s the primary thing to avoid.)
These signs are what, in Girardian terms, we might call ‘models.’ The question becomes: Which models of desire are leading us toward our singular destination, and which ones are throwing us off the scent?
One last thing before I get to the more practical portion of this newsletter.
I learned how a compass works for the very first time 5-6 years ago. In essence, it uses the earth’s magnetism to move a tiny and highly sensitive needle toward the North if the compass is held perfect flat—but even more importantly, the compass can not be near certain objects (like laptops or magnets) that will throw off the sensitivity of the magnetic pull and give the compass a ‘false north’.
Knowing what these negative obstacles are—in our case, we’ll call them false models of desire—is the key toward getting to your final destination.
Our life’s compass can become hijacked in a thousand different ways; so can our desires. Decluttering them involves the hard work of recognizing what is moving us toward a false north and which models are pointing us in the right direction. Even if they are not leading us precisely toward the final destination, they are at least not leading us away from it too far.
“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” --T.S. Eliot
And now, a few things to chew on and maybe even put into practice. I was so inspired I even drew some art of my own.
6 Practical Ideas
1. Identify the people influencing what you want
The first step is to identify the models of desire who are influencing what you want. These are the people who serve as your models, or mediators, colouring what you consider to be desirable.
At one point, I wanted a Tesla Model S. I almost talked myself into the purchase with all the ‘objective’ reasons that I thought made it desirable: such as that it goes from zero to 60 milesper hour in under two seconds.
But I would have been better off asking the question who, not what, had generated and shaped my desire for the car. The same is true for your own desires, whether in relation to material purchases, educational paths, career choices, even romantic interests. When it came to the Model S, it wasn’t until I thought seriously about it that I realised that I follow someone on Twitter who obsessively shows videos of himself driving in cool places in that particular vehicle, and that I’d never had a desire to own one until I saw these. From there, I started piling on all the evidence that would support the desire that had already formed – mimetically – within me. Desire comes first from social influences, often long before we realise it, or understand why.
To become more aware of the models influencing your desire, ask yourself these questions:
When I think about the lifestyle that I would most like to have, who do I feel most embodies it? In reality, this person almost certainly does not live the lifestyle you imagine them to have, but it’s still good to identify those you pay attention to the most when you’re thinking about the kind of life you want.
Aside from my parents, who were the most important influences on me in my childhood? Which ‘world’ did they come from – a familiar one or a less familiar one? Were they close to me (friends, family), or far away from me (professional athletes, rock stars)? As I’ll explain shortly, the proximity of our models of desire determines how they affect us.
Is there anyone I would not like to see succeed? Are there certain people whose achievements make me uncomfortable or self-conscious? This is the first clue that they might be a ‘negative model of desire’ – ie, someone you are constantly measuring yourself against.
2. Categorise your models as internal and external
Next, it’s useful to recognise what kind of models are influencing you. Girard identified two main types: those inside your world, and those outside it.
Models inside your world (‘internal’ models of desire) are the people you might really come into contact with: friends, family, co-workers, or really anyone you can actually interact with in some way – it could be the person who cuts your hair, for instance. These are people whose desires are in some sense intertwined with your own – they can affect your desires, and you can in turn affect theirs.
Models outside your world (‘external’ models of desire) are people you have no serious possibility of coming into contact with: celebrities, historical figures and much of our legacy media. (For instance, most of us can’t interact with Steven Spielberg after watching one of his movies, or debate with the writer of a New York Times article that we disagree with.) External models are one-way streams of desire – they can affect your desires, but you can’t affect theirs. For instance, the Count of Monte Cristo – the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel of the same name – was a powerful model of desire for me (for better or worse) after I first read the book as a kid. But the count is a fictional character, so he is necessarily an external model of desire for me. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be a highly influential one, though. Models don’t need to be, and often are not, real people.
Social media falls in a strange, grey area. Many people you encounter there are external models of desire in the sense that you’ll probably never meet them and they might not even ‘follow’ you back. At the same time, everyone at least feels accessible to everyone else. You never know when something you Tweet or post is going to get noticed by someone. This is part of what makes social media so seductive: it straddles the worlds of internal and external mediation of desire. (When you’re on social media, ask yourself: Are these people even real? Do they really want the things they model a desire for, or are we all engaged in a game of signalling?)
Online or offline, the closer someone seems to being like you, the more you can relate to them – and the more you are likely to pay attention to what they want. Who are most people more jealous of? Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world? Or the colleague who has a similar education to you, and a similar job and works roughly the same hours, but who makes an extra $5,000 a year? For almost everyone, it’s the second person. The difference between the internal and the external mediation of desire explains why.
Advertisements also model desires to us, obviously, but notice how they usually work: the companies serving the ads typically show you not the thing itself, but other people wanting the thing. Advertisers play right into our mimetic nature.
Be aware that internal models lead to more volatility of desire in your life because the world of internal models is highly reflexive: you can affect one another’s desires, which isn’t possible in the world of external models.
Working out who your internal and external models of desire are (and which ones are in the grey area) will help you gain greater agency over your desires. I recommend drawing the two overlapping circles above on a blank piece of paper and trying to fill out the spheres with as many specific examples from your own life as you can.
3. Beware of becoming obsessively focused on what your neighbours have or want
Because desire is mimetic, people are naturally drawn to want what others want. ‘Two desires converging on the same object are bound to clash,’ writes Girard. This means that mimetic desire often leads people into unnecessary competition and rivalry with one another in an infernal game of status anxiety. Mimetic desire is why a class of students can enter a university with very different ideas of what they want to do when they graduate (ideas formed from all the diverse influences and places they came from) yet converge on a much smaller set of opportunities – which they mimetically reinforce in one another – by the time they graduate.
Be aware that your desires can become hijacked through this process of mimetic attraction. It’s easy to become obsessively focused on what your neighbours have or want, rather than on your immediate responsibilities and relationship commitments. We humans are social creatures who know others so that we can also know ourselves, and that’s a good thing – but, if we’re not careful, we can become excessively concerned with others.
The solution involves learning a new way of entering into non-rivalrous relationships with other people – a new kind of relationship in which your sense of self-worth is not derived from them (more on this later).
4. Map out the systems of desire in your life
As well as identifying the specific models influencing your desires, it is also helpful to consider whether you have become embedded in a particular system of desire. For example, consider the chef Sébastien Bras, owner of Le Suquet restaurant in Laguiole, France, who had three Michelin stars – the highest culinary distinction for a French restaurant – for a full 18 years.Until 2018. That year, he took the unprecedented step of asking the Michelin Guide to stop rating his restaurant and never come back.
Bras had come to the realisation that striving to maintain his three Michelin stars year in and year out had kept him from experimenting with new creative dishes that the Michelin inspectors might not like. His Michelin rating had kept him stuck in a ‘system of desire’. The organising principle for all his choices was simple: keeping Michelin happy.
When he reflected back on why he became a chef in the first place, Bras told me that it was to share ingredients from the Aubrac region of France with the rest of the world – not to become a slave to a ratings system.
When Bras understood the way that the Michelin Guide created a system of desire in which he was trapped, he found the courage to extract himself from that system.
I think we all have a Michelin Guide in our life—it just doesn’t have the Michelin name on it. To gain more control over your desires, figure out what your particular version of the Michelin Guide looks like. It might not involve stars at all, but the approval of specific people or the expectations of your friends or family; or the awkwardness of sharing with others that you have always wanted to do something that not many people would understand.
By mapping out the system of desire that you’re enmeshed in (and probably have been your whole life), you can begin to take some critical distance from it. This will allow you to stop accepting your currently dominant desires at face value and save you from defaulting into important life choices instead of choosing them with intentionality.
Most of all: know where your desires came from. Your desires have a history. You can’t know what a ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ desire is unless you understand where it came from – and that involves diving deep into your past, understanding how you have evolved as a person, and seeing which desires have been with you for a long time and which ones have come and gone like the wind.
5. Take ownership of your desires
Is there such a thing as non-mimetic desires? It’s debatable, even among Girard scholars, so it’s best to think of mimesis on a spectrum:
On the very far left side of this spectrum are desires that aren’t mimetic at all, for instance, a mother’s love for her newborn child. On the less mimetic side would also be desires that are not entirely un-mimetic, but desires that we might call ‘thick’ – they are deeply rooted in a person’s upbringing, or impressed deeply upon their imagination. For someone with a religious sense, these desires could be thought of as given by God as part of a ‘calling’. They are less mimetic in the sense that they have deeper roots, and they aren’t easily variable based on new encounters, seasons or experiences.
On the far right side, there are desires that are nearly entirely mimetic – for instance, the desire to own a stock merely because everyone else wants to own it. (It stimulates a fear of missing out, which is really just a form of mimetic desire.)
Less extreme mimetic desires might include the desire to go to a specific university because all your friends want to go there. Yet the desire could also have something to do with the school’s academic reputation. Desires can have many different influences, some mimetic and some non-mimetic. The key is to understand the forces at work, and to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So are there ‘authentic’ desires? One of the roots of the word authentic is ‘author’. Are any of us authors of our own desires? Yes, we can be. You might not be the sole author of your desires, but you can certainly take ownership and put your mark of authorship on them through your creative freedom.
Consider someone who wants to write a book about a particular subject. Where did the desire to write a book come from in the first place? Hardly anyone wrote books 1,000 years ago. The desire to write a book today likely has a social dimension to it – perhaps a mentor, friend or rival wrote a book. Wanting to write a book, like starting a company or embarking on a career change, is often the product of social interactions.
But whether you have a desire to become an author or to do something else, the crucial point is that the ubiquitous influences that will have shaped that desire don’t preclude you from putting your own stamp of creation on it. Ten people can desire a similar career goal or lifestyle, yet arrive at it in 10 completely unique ways, having discovered nuance in their desires and the way they pursue and live them out.
It’s also possible for a desire to start as highly mimetic but to become less mimetic as you put your own fingerprint on it. Ferruccio Lamborghini got the idea to expand beyond manufacturing tractors due to a personal rivalry with Enzo Ferrari, whose cars he drove. When he kept having a problem with the clutch on one of his Ferraris, he visited Enzo and was mistreated; that day, the desire to make a better sportscar was born in him where previously it didn’t exist.
So does that mean that his desire was merely derivative? Of course not. Once he set out to make a Lamborghini, he made the desire his own, making beautiful vehicles to his own design and drawing on his company’s engineering prowess.
Lamborghini’s story is a great example of how desires do not stay in one place on the spectrum. They’re mobile. They can move to the right (become more mimetic), and they can move to the left (become less mimetic).
Think about which desires you really want to own and cultivate. It doesn’t matter whether they were originally mimetic or not – the intentionality that you bring to them can allow you to become the author of a new creation.
6. Live an anti-mimetic life
To be anti-mimetic is to be free from the unintentional following of desires without knowing where they came from; it’s freedom from the herd mentality; freedom from the ‘default’ mode that causes us to pursue things without examining why.
It’s possible to develop anti-mimetic machinery in your guts – things that have traditionally been called virtues, or habits of being, such as prudence, fortitude, courage and honesty – that keep you grounded in something deeper even while the mimetic waters swirl around you. In other words, there are certain perennial human values and desires that are worth pursuing no matter what because they have been proven to never disappoint.
Someone with strong underlying values – whether they be religious or philosophical or have another basis – is usually less susceptible to the winds of unhealthy or temporary mimetic desires that lack substance.
In his Confessions (397-400), Saint Augustine wrote a missive to God about his dawning realisation that his earlier life had been dominated by illusory desires: ‘Our heart is restless until it rests in you.’
In the Christian sense, all desire is a desire for being – which is a desire for God, who is the fullest expression of being. All other desires are merely reflections of, or signposts to, that single greatest desire.
But for a non-religious person, there is still wisdom to be gained from Augustine’s words. Ask yourself: In what person or thing are my desires able to rest without the incessant feeling of restlessness? Why might that be? What is something that seems to bring me longer-lasting joy, without the need for ‘more’?
Restlessness of desire is not necessarily a bad thing – it’s what pushes people to seek more – but a persistent feeling of restlessness could be a sign that the desires you are chasing lack the power to satisfy.
Perhaps the most anti-mimetic attitude of all is an openness to wonder—a desire to let reality surprise you. It rarely disappoints.