Saturday, January 01, 2011

Eliminating Desire

“Eliminating Desire” is the perplexing personal interest Mark Zuckerberg lists on his Facebook page. The Facebook founder has become an Internet icon as the number of users of his social network, already more than 550 million, approaches a billion. The company got tons of publicity when Zuckerberg was selected as TIME magazine’s 2010 person of the year. Facebook overtook Google as the most visited site in the U.S. in the past year, a phenomenon unthinkable only a few months ago.

But back to that desire thing.

In an interview, Zuckerberg explained: “I just want to focus on what we’re doing … I think it would be very easy to get distracted and get caught up in short-term things or material things that don’t matter. The phrase is actually ‘Eliminating desire for all that doesn’t really matter.’”

Now, whether history will judge Facebook to have been a transformational or a frivolous innovation is unclear. But that intriguing, enigmatic sentence bears reflection: “Eliminating desire for all that doesn’t really matter.
The idea of what matters and what doesn’t is, of course, unique to each of us, shaped by faith, culture, passion, inclination. To a technologist like Zuckerberg, connecting people across the globe in a seamless digital network is probably all that matters. Everything else is peripheral. To a scholar, seeking knowledge, and adding to it if possible, is paramount. To a writer, unlocking the mysteries of the human heart is the point. And so it goes.

But then, desires find a way of weaving themselves into our goals and the effect is to scatter focus, as a prism scatters light.

One such desire is more like distraction but it has become so overpowering in our times that it is indistinguishable from what we call addiction, which is desire running rampant. It is our constant need for digital stimuli, one of its chief architects being, ironically, Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, iPhone, YouTube, Texting, Email – such are the mind and time-sucking vortex of the Web, and many of us plunge headlong into it from the moment we wake up until a few hours of nightly shut-eye. (What some of us would give to dispense with sleep if that were possible!) Work is now in our pockets, literally, keeping us in a 24x7 state of connection.

But this state of affairs is also what makes Zuckerberg’s statement all the more intriguing. Here is a 26-year-old billionaire who has the means to fulfill any desire that glides into his mind, yet he is singularly focused on his goal. And while his goal may be to create an even more seductive vortex, we must give him credit for resisting desires that afflict most of us – more stuff, more money, more vacation, more everything.

The summit of all desires is, of course, the desire for “things.” Very few of us resist the siren call of materialism. If my neighbor has a 50” TV, why, I must have the biggest HDTV in the market. If he drives a Cadillac, I must drive a Mercedes. If his home has eight rooms, mine must have at least twelve. And if there is no one in sight who can compete with me in possessions or power, does it mean that I can rest? No! Like a shark, I must be constantly moving, even if it means to remain at the same spot.

The unbridled acquisitive instinct that lies dormant when the means aren’t there but blooms instantly when they are, is what causes so much despair and heartbreak. Wise travelers inform us time and again of seeing people in distant lands, whom we regard as dwelling in adversity, who get more out of life’s simple joys – family, friendship (real, not virtual), community, nature – than affluent people living in mansions and surrounded by stuff but surviving on Prozac and therapy. Yet all of us who engage in materialism in one form or another know that the charm of new purchases - a car, a pair of shoes, a watch – wears down in days, until we get the next new “thing” in a deadening cycle of diminishing sensitivity.

So, how to eliminate desire for “all that doesn’t really matter”?

Sometimes it is forced on us, as the Great Recession did, and continues to do. Many Americans have discovered that giving away stuff – clothes, gadgets, cars – and living with less clutter makes life more meaningful. Millionaires have discovered that instead of fretting about the first million begetting the next, they can lead a more satisfying life on, say, $40,000 a year. (Americans living below the poverty line will consider that a sign of affluence). It is no wonder that the top word that we searched for in 2010, according to Merriam-Webster, was “austerity.”

But reflecting on life’s purpose can also have a salutary effect. What exactly do we want out of life? Is it to be the envy of our neighbors, the toast of our societies? Is it to dazzle others with our knowledge, to make lesser mortals tremble with our power? Is it to climb the greasy pole of success on the backs of others? All these desires have shallow roots, however worthy they may appear. Perhaps it will dawn on us, if we can be alone with our thoughts, that happiness often flows from outlasting our impulses.

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone, said Thoreau. It is an insight we should put to use as we welcome a new year.

The Muslim scholar Al-Harith bin Asad al-Muhasibi (165 A.H – 243 A.H) left us with this instruction for achieving our dreams: “You will not achieve what you want unless you give up what you desire, and you will never achieve your dreams until you are patient with what you hate.”


Anonymous said...

Very inspiring article on "Eliminating Desire". Great many insights to ponder upon!

Z. Maria Wang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Beautiful and inspiring writing. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful and inspiring writing. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. It's touching. You have a beautiful mind. Also inspiring, helpful to ease my unsettling mind.

Anonymous said...

Nice! Very inspiring.

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Guy Paris said...

Brillant insights wow, every sentence is clear and punchy, I found your article after discovering that mysterious sentence "elimating desire" on Zuck's profile. I'll check your other articles