“The amount of suffering in our lives reflects the gap between what we crave and what we have.” Those words were written by Roger Walsh in Essential Spirituality. Immediately following that profound sentence Walsh adds: “Craving creates suffering by producing emotional anguish and by being insatiable.” (Kindle edition, p. 37)
Yes, Walsh is offering a critique of many of the superficial things we crave in life—things of privilege and comfort. He’s urging us to reject our worldly cravings in exchange for something more meaningful. But I’m going to flip this narrative. I’d like to focus on the righteous suffering and emotional anguish of essential cravings unrealized.
Walsh’s words are a powerful lens through which we can understand the depth of anguish many of us are experiencing right now. The Trump presidency and now the emergence of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 have heightened our collective cravings, shifting the attention to more fundamental aspirations in our lives. Some crave courage and integrity in our politics. Some crave decency and fairness in the operation of our institutions. Some crave good health. Others crave the touch of family. Some crave the opportunity to gather together to grieve. As you reflect on the cravings that this period has laid bare, extend the metaphor just a bit.
People of African ancestry, and marginalized groups in general, have been craving things for generations that (if attained) would nurture our souls and fortify our bodies. We craved freedom from bondage and that was denied for too long. We craved literacy and that, too, was denied for too long. We craved the 40 acres and a mule we were promised, and when we built our own, you burned it to the ground. We craved the right to vote and to participate in the governance of a country we helped build, and in many places that is still being denied. We craved education, and an opportunity to live where we wanted, and a chance to work in good paying jobs.
For centuries, these and other cravings have been denied, and now the gap between what we crave and what we have has created anguish that is untenable (and unnecessary). Yet, when a few angry people loot and steal shoes, jewelry and electronics, some commentators fixate only on those cravings. There is something deeply problematic about a mindset that refuses to see all of the other cravings that define our humanity. Think about the history of our cravings and all of the insincere appeals for us to wait; appeals for us to suppress our cravings until some magical moment in the future.
Remember what George Floyd craved with his last breath: he called out to his dead mother.
If you are not a person of color, yet you too are experiencing emotional anguish, perhaps it is because the events of the last few weeks have heightened your craving for something that you had learned to suppress more times than not. You reject racism. You try to live your life inclusively. But you find yourself confronting emotions you didn’t quite know you had.
It would be reasonable for you to deal with your own emotional anguish by suppressing your craving for the justice and decency that you know is warranted and that ought to be extended to all of us. We need patience, you tell yourself and others. Time will heal these wounds, you convince yourself. Progress is coming, you hope.
Perhaps this week has given you a taste of what so many have craved for so long. Now that you have a taste of it, what will you do with your craving? Will you suppress it? Will you bury it deep inside somewhere, telling yourself you’ll get back to it in time?
Here’s why you can’t wait.
Time is a force multiplier. If you deny a craving, it often only gets stronger until it consumes your life. Unhealthy cravings, over time, can become destructive and crippling. Our president exemplifies this in bizarre ways. But healthy cravings, over time, make us stronger. They become protective factors in turbulent waters.
This is what you can do to help reduce the emotional anguish within and around you.
Recognize the totality of another person’s life. People don’t come in neat little pieces. We are complex beings with complex cravings—some temporary and others superficial. At the core, however, are cravings that are so deep and so fundamental to our lived experience that they must be recognized and nurtured. If you can manage to recognize the totality of your cravings, do the same for others. It’s possible that some of the things you want, and have attained, represent things others may want, but can’t attain. That recognition alone is a first step.
Expand your circle—morally, emotionally, and socially. Scholar and activist john a. powell teaches us “that the ‘moral circle’ is the boundary we draw around those entities in the world we deem worthy of moral consideration.” It’s time to extend the boundaries of your own circle. Ask yourself who you’ve excluded and why. You might be surprised by the justifications you reach for as you try to explain why your circle is so small or exclusive. Build authentic relationships with people, especially people who may live in worlds very different than your own.
Share your future. If your future looks promising, share it with someone whose future looks less promising. This is going to require you to put self-interest aside from time to time and that doesn’t come easily to any of us. When the door opens for you, hold it open for someone else.
Redesign the game. When you suspect, and certainly when you know, that the rules of the game are not fair, do something about it. It’s not fair when people change the rules of the game in the middle of the game. When you see this happening, speak up and stand up. Most importantly, we need you to redesign the game. Give new voices new experiences. Love someone different. Hire someone different. Promote someone different. Invest in someone and something different. Change the game.
What can you do to make the world a better place?
Well, the formula is really simple: Transformation = You + Me. That’s it. If you transform yourself and I transform myself, we can accomplish extraordinary things. Then, we move on to others.
About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.