Our Hearts’ Desire

Sarah Richards
February 14, 2016

Our Hearts’ Desire

When I was four years old, my family went to an international festival, and my older sister and I were allowed to choose a souvenir hat. My sister chose a Mexican sombrero, yellow straw with green pompon fringe. I chose the best hat—it was bright red, pressed felt with a wide flat brim. I’m sure at that age I didn’t have any understanding of what a Canadian Mountie was, but that didn’t matter—it was the best hat in the world. It was windy that day, so my mom offered to hold the hat for me. Why would I want that? When you had the best hat in the world, you wear it! Fate is cruel—we were walking by a fountain, and the wind blew my hat off my head, right into the water. One of the several hard lessons I learned that day is the sad effect of water on pressed felt—it, and I, were very depressed. Of course I lobbied hard for a new one, but my well-articulated argument was rejected. I was heartbroken and angry, and I never forgot my intense desire for that hat and its loss, even as it became a staple of family lore and humor. I use it this morning not as an illustration of the dangers of attachment, but as an illustration of childhood desires as instructive to our adult lives.

Children’s wants correspond to their developmental stage, and so tend to be pretty self-centered at first: when we’re very young we need security, comfort, pleasure. We want the red hat. And a few years later, we start to want justice—not justice for all, but justice for ourselves. “It’s not fair!” might be the most common three words in our vocabulary by the time we’re around seven years old. Another few years, usually in middle school age, and our desires for justice have expanded to include others—and may expand beyond those closest to us, to those like us, to unknown strangers. This is the age where our inner activist is born. Are their other Nightly Show fans here? The other night, the special guest on this very adult satirical news show, was a New Jersey sixth grader named Marley Dias. Marley was frustrated by the “white boys and their dogs” booklist in her fifth grade class, and started a campaign, #1000BlackGirlBooks last November. She wanted to find 1000 books with characters she could identify with, and she reached her goal last week. She’s donating the books to her school library, and to a school in Jamaica. Marley is a shining example for other kids—heck, adults, too, and is an exemplary model of acting on a desire for justice beyond her own life. I’m sure you know some kids, or former kids, who were driven by desire to fight for justice and help others and maybe that desire remains with them their whole lives.

Of course, we also maintain our desires for pleasure, comfort and security throughout our lives, though their specifics change—by the time I was a teenager, I wouldn’t choose a Canadian Mountie hat over a really cool pair of earrings. But bright red is still good.

I invite you now into a moment of quiet reflection, to bring to mind specific desires you had in your childhood or youth. How have these desires remained with you, in adulthood? How have they been shaped by the passage of time and experience? How have you been shaped by them?

In her poem “Consuming Desire,” Katerina Vandenberg tells a story of adulthood’s further transformation of basic desires:

I’m not making this up. In Cafe Latte’s wine bar
one of the lovely coeds at the next table
touched John on the arm as if I wasn’t there
and said, Excuse me, sir, but what
is that naughty little dessert?
And I knew from the way he glanced
at the frothy neckline of her blouse,
then immediately cast his eyes on his plate
before giving a fatherly answer,
he would have given up dessert three months
for the chance to feed this one to her.
I was stunned; John was hopeful;
but the girl was hitting on his cake.
Though she told her friend until they left
she did not want any. I wish she wanted
something—my husband, his cake, both at once.
I wish she left insisting
upon the beauty of his hands, his curls,
the sublimeness of strawberries
and angel food. But she was precocious,
and I fear adulthood is the discipline
of being above desire, cultivated
after years of learning what you want
and where and how, after insisting
that you will one day have it. I don’t
ever want to stop noticing a man like the one
at the bar in his loosened tie, reading
the Star Tribune. I don’t want to eat my cake
with a baby spoon to force small bites,
as women’s magazines suggest. And you
don’t want to either, do you? You want a big piece
of this world. You would love to have the whole thing.[i]

You would love to have the whole thing…without feeling guilty—is the unspoken part of that line. Is adulthood the discipline of being above desire? I think the question comes down to, can we give ourselves over to desire and still think of others? Is desire inherently selfish? This is an important question for us as we explore our theme this month, what it means to be a people of desire.

The obvious answer is, by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve developed lots of different desires, and while some may be very self-centered, many are in relationship to or with something outside ourselves: a lover, a family, a house, a political system, a God, the universe, the earth. It seems to me that adulthood is not disciplining oneself to be above desire, but recognizing which desires to pursue when, and for what reasons. Think back to our reflection on youthful desires that are still with us today, in some form or another. Is there still a glowing ember of passion – for pleasure, for justice? Can we ask ourselves, “where in our hearts is that burning of desire?” Can we let ourselves be driven by that passion? There are at least two forces that hold us back—repression, as Vandenberg described, and hopelessness.

We tend to repress those basic, self-centered desires, the desires that can be fulfilled and give us immediate gratification or a bit of delayed gratification. But then there are desires where there is no chance of gratification, your Don Quixote-type desires. Vandenberg’s poem makes a good case to go for those desires that lead to some pretty wonderful immediate gratification over pursuing a particular social idea of adulthood. But what of Don Quixote desires? Poet and statesman Mohammed Iqbal says,

“The journey of love is a very long journey/But sometimes with a sigh you can cross that vast desert./Search and search again without losing hope/You may find sometime a treasure on your way/My heart and my eyes are all devoted to the vision.[ii]” Iqbal is reminding us that committing to the journey, to the Don Quixote desire, is the goal itself. We learn and grow from those treasures along the way. And, right, the heartbreaks, too.

As the February Soul Matters introduction says,
“We may be able to indulge some desires without much cost, but we are fooling ourselves if we think we can pursue spiritual desires without suffering a broken heart. The desire for a better world. The hunger for deep connection. The longing to actualize our full potential. Leaning into these desires is to let yourself care deeply for what can’t ever be fully attained. When it comes to the most beautiful and noble of our desires, it’s all about loving and pursuing that which will always be out of reach.

And of course we reach anyway. We can’t help ourselves. It’s what it means to be human.”

Once again, I invite us into a moment of reflection, this time, think of an “Impossible Dream,” a Don Quixote-desire of your past or present. I invite you to imagine what it would be like to go all in, to say, “My heart and my eyes are all devoted to the vision.”

You know, we of all ages, have desires ranging from self-centered to altruistic. And we as this congregation have desires as well—those for our Fellowship’s safety, security, and pleasure, those for justice for ourselves, for those in our community, and around the world. Every time we are together: now in the Sunday Service, in coffee hour, in committee meetings, on Trivia Night, in Covenant Groups and Cottage Meetings, every time we are together, is a chance to find a treasure; an opportunity to look within ourselves anew, to listen to each other anew, to deepen and expand our commitments to each other and to our neighbors. Every time is an opportunity for us to fulfill our desire “to become an active presence in our community for the common good.” Friends, the journey of love we are on is a very long journey. May our common desires ignite service, spark compassion, that we may shine together as we go.


[i] http://tinyurl.com/jms4z46 accessed 1/24/16.

[ii] Iqbal, Mohammed, 1993. “The Journey of Love,” in Singing the Living Tradition, Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, #610.