What we want and what we get

Years ago, I treated a boy whose parents had divorced some years prior. His father, who left the boy’s mother (his second wife) to start yet another family, was quite unwilling to come in and meet with me, even for the mere sake of getting acquainted. Then, after a year or so of trying, I got lucky and the dad came in. Stylishly dressed and well groomed, he had a look of someone quite in love with himself. He was bright and articulate, and worked as a mid-level bureaucrat for one of the city agencies. From the moment he sat down, he held the floor and spoke, with much panache, about his life. I knew a little about him, but not the fact that he had 8 children with 3 different women. When he was young, the man had some artistic aspirations. When telling me this, he paused, suddenly looking surprised, and said: “All I ever wanted in life was to be an artist. Somehow it didn’t work out. How did I end up with eight kids?!” At that moment, my perfectly therapeutic and non-judgmental stance was rattled by a sudden thought, and I almost yelled out: “What? All you ever wanted to do was spread your seed as widely as possible, and that’s exactly what you did!” I didn’t say it, of course, and his monologue went on. And on…

I share this story because it provides an excellent illustration of a curious phenomenon wherein our lives actually come to embody our true desires, not the professed ones. Sure, we may be completely convinced that all we want is devote ourselves to art, but how could we explain the fact that our so deeply cherished desire gets derailed by our having… eight children! Granted, one or two could be accidents; I could even extend that to three, but eight, on the other hand, suggests something else entirely. My patient’s father certainly did have a superficial interest in wanting to be an artist, but it’s clear, from the course his life took, from the choices he made, that his truer interest was populating the world with as many versions of himself as possible. This may sound cruel, but, given the fact that he was not terribly active in his children’s lives, it’s safer to assume that he was more interested in reproducing then in actually caring for his kids.

How often do we think we know our true desires? A woman who says she wants a child more than anything in the world somehow gets distracted by relationships with men who are very clearly not father material (and often tell her as much). She comes in and says, sometimes even with despair, “How does this happen to me? Will I ever have kids?”, and I wonder if that’s what she — the essence of her, her true “self” — truly wants. Some people are open to contemplating the possibility of a deeper-seeded desire, and expression of their true nature; others resist — “What do you mean, do I really want to succeed?! Of course I do! I just seem to be unable to… for now…” Yet how necessary is it really to work at finding out what it is we’re really pursuing! What is Woman A’s true interest in life that she gets involved with men who are somehow handicapped– physically, financially, or emotionally? What is Man B looking for, if he says he longs for a meaningful deeper pursuit, but stays at Meryl Lynch year after year, “just until I get my bonus and go”?

It is difficult, I admit, to look at our current lives not as dress rehearsals but as expressions of our essence, but it is very important (and so helpful!). It can help introduce us to our innermost selves (admittedly a worthwhile acquaintance) and point out our ambivalence, our conflicts, and our stumbling blocks. Someone told me, years ago, “if you want to understand what kind of life a person wants, take a look at the life he has.” That’s well put, isn’t it? This statement upsets many (since it’s easier to believe that circumstances seemingly beyond our control derails us, and not we ourselves), yet the “genius” or the “daemon” within us is powerful enough, somehow, to weave the fabric of our lives in accordance with his pattern. This may sound borderline mystical, but it doesn’t have to be. The tiniest of decisions, lingering over some situations yet somehow easily dismissing or overcoming others, picking certain people but not others — all not quite consciously — get us through the years to the place we are today. To know this may help us gain awareness, and prevent us from walking blindly through life, so that tomorrow we can say that we are exactly where we wanted, and needed, to be.