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something wild, something hidden
On Sustenance, Craving, and the Human Hunger for The Next Big Thing
We held our breath last week, so many of us, and expected — assumed — success: what came to mind were the Chilean mine rescue of thirty-three workers below the surface of the earth, and the Quecreek Pennsylvania mine rescue of nine. But we knew.
We alternately went about our business and were glued to the news, and once there we could not look away. Because we knew.
In How the Light Gets In, author Pat Schneider writes about searching for something wild, something hidden, human hands reaching for that wildness, touching it. What does it mean—our violence, our hunger, our need?
I spent much of last week thinking about craving and the human disease of soul hunger and existential need; an old and dear friend of mine, very long in recovery and a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, calls addiction, in whatever form it comes, the disease of more. It is human instinct to chase the next big thing: the next mountain conquered, the next dive, the next drunk, the next high. In Pali, it’s called Taṇhā and is part of the Four Noble Truths, of which Duḥkha — commonly translated as pain, or the suffering that stems from the unsatisfactoriness of mundane living — is a core concept. Duḥkha coils around us like a snake, insists on bigger and better, and drives us to distraction. It is a perfect manifestation of the way we live now, and is as ancient as the stars that reflect back to us who we once were thousands — millions — of years ago, where boredom and the need for more were as much a part of the human and pre-human existence as they are now.
Years ago, someone who had once been very close to me was so completely enraptured by expensive acquisitions — the most exclusive tennis club membership; the priciest car made unidentifiable by the brand insignia she had pried off by a custom body shop; the largest sterling silver belt buckle in the shape of a grizzly bear upright on its hind legs; the rarest Hermes Birkin Bag — that she lived minute by minute, hour by hour, in a prison of her own desire. I grew up in New York City in the seventies, and was a young teenager when heroin and cocaine replaced marijuana as the drugs of choice; people began dying in droves, always searching for more, and the next faster, stronger, more powerful high. The next big thing. There was little difference between the chemistry behind their addiction and my friend with the unidentifiable expensive car and the purse and the sterling silver belt buckle: what the heroin addicts had was never enough, and what she had was also never enough. What separated them was her socio-economic status and the means of achieving her high: she was a billionaire, with an endless stream of available money to help her feed the monster of want, and to power her chase.
We have to talk about it culturally and spiritually; we have to talk about it as being the result of need, and want, and the desire for acquisition of exclusive experience.
On social media last week, I wrote a brief paragraph about the tragedy of the OceanGate submersible: five people, one of them the leader to whom safety was admittedly less important than the experience itself, another a French Titanic expert, two of them father and son, and one of them a British businessman. As the news began to emerge about the fate of the submersible it seemed clear to me: we have to talk about this. We have to talk about it culturally and spiritually; we have to talk about it as being the result of need, and want, and the desire for acquisition of exclusive experience. Someone who follows me on social media — I could not otherwise pick her out of a lineup — was quick to admonish me for reprinting Stockton Rush’s own hubristic words: we can hold them accountable without gloating, she said. In fact, what she was saying was this: we cannot talk about the submersible at all unless we stick to a pre-approved cultural script, because to do so would be to reckon with our own very human need for more, for greater, better, and bigger. And that is a very frightening place to cast our gaze.
There was the inevitable gloating, though; we live in a world where it is acceptable to mock disabled journalists, to chuckle at border guards who lock children in cages, to laugh at billionaires who plummet to the depths of the ocean. And the jokes when they came were not at all surprising, given where they came from. There is nothing funny at all about what happened to the men on the submersible, and just the fact of their financial status does not mitigate the horror of the event. The fact is, though, if we are to ever look at the relentless drive of the human soul to attain attain attain — to have more, bigger, better; to separate the haves from the have nots in the most overt way and to do so in the guise of so-called exploration and science —- we have to examine this drive vis a vis the questions of Taṇhā and Dukha, and how the mundane has somehow become synonymous with human failure, and the extraordinary what we should strive for at all possible costs, even life.
On any given Saturday night during my college days in the eighties, hundreds of people would throng at the velvet ropes of The Limelight and The Tunnel, begging to be selected by the gatekeepers for admittance to the clubs. To be chosen meant that you were different, better, more fabulous; once inside, you had access to the best music, the best people, the best sex, the best fashion, the best champagne, the best cocaine. Everything was possible; anything was possible. I once got in to Studio 54 when I was in high school and two years underage, but only because Joe Eula — Halston’s creative director and a friend of my mother and stepfather’s who had drawn my mother many times — recognized me. I was plucked from behind the rope, and I danced with strangers in my Carbers and my Jordache jeans to the point of overwhelm and blackout not because of substance use, but because of the sheer magnitude of the excess: the lights, the music, the smoke, the bodies — they overtook me and overwhelmed me, and at some point, I forgot to breathe. I was no longer on the outside looking in. I was in. I was suddenly different from my friends who were still stuck outside, standing under umbrellas in the rain, glittering Stagelight makeup running down their cheeks. I had what they wanted, what we all wanted. When I left the dance floor and stepped back outside onto West 54th Street, my friends were gone; I was alone. That’s how these things go; I never went back. Over the next few years, I rarely tried to get in to any of the clubs that separated the extraordinary from the mundane, the fabulous from the ordinary.
How did you feel, my mother asked me the morning after I’d danced at Studio 54. I bet you felt like a million bucks.
Hedonic adaptation insures that eventually, we will become bored with what we have, our dopamine hits will become depleted, and we will need more and more pleasure to reach a place of satisfaction.
The tragedy of the OceanGate submersible was made even more profound by its destination: each passenger paid a quarter of a million dollars to gaze at the remains of another catastrophic tragedy. This was no exploratory journey; this was an example in action of five humans flying too close to the sun despite all sound warnings, and believing their wings would never melt. But humans, it seems, are hard-wired to always want more; hedonic adaptation insures that eventually, we will become bored with what we have, our dopamine hits will weaken, and we will need more and more pleasure to reach a place of satisfaction, which is evanescent. Couple hedonic adaptation with insatiable desire and addiction, and the result becomes a dangerous cocktail of seeking that can never, ever be satisfied; the thrill becomes the journey itself, and once rewarded, the stakes continued to be biochemically raised. I never went back to Studio 54, and I never wanted to, but I continued to chase that extreme feeling of jubilation and ecstasy I got by just stepping inside, and that chase continued for a very long time.
Last week, there were the gawkers and the gloaters, the politicians and the explainers. In truth, as we continue to talk about OceanGate, all we are left with is duhka: the unquenchable yearning for more that every human carries in their heart, and the intolerable suffering that travels along with it.