Thursday, April 19, 2012

Shoveling the Basketball Court

When I was in 8th grade, I was obsessed with basketball. I ate, slept and dreamt basketball. My fingers itched for the moment when I could hold that orb in my hands, my ears ached for the sound of the bounce and the swish of the net, my eyes grew wide when I passed a basketball court. I began to feel restless and out-of-sorts when the ball was not in my hands and at home and fulfilled when it was. It was so bad that when it snowed in my wintry New Jersey town, I’d go so far as to take my shovel to the court in the park three blocks away to clear off the snow and sneak in a few shots. And here I became initiated into the fine line between addiction and fulfillment of one’s genuine longing.

So much of our life is fueled by our desire. The word comes from “de sidere” —“of the stars” and suggests that our desires both lift our head to the heavens (think of the song When You Wish Upon a Star) and also come down to us from above— another etymological version of the word translates as “awaiting what the stars will bring.” Yet despite all the airy associations, desire roots itself in our earthly body, gets the fingers itching for basketballs or piano keys, the tongue anticipating its sweet or savory reward, the legs pounding the pavement or pumping the pedals, the loins…well, you get the idea. Our longings may be addressed upwards or rain down on us from above, but they manifest in this body, make themselves known through the body’s cravings. In some ways, each itch is a love note from the gods, pointing us toward our passion.

Desire is the engine that drives us and also drives us crazy. The Buddhist notion of Nirvana as the cessation of desire is appealing in the moments when we are driven off the road, but boring when we’re in the thick of the pleasure of both longing and fulfillment. Desire activates the Soul and our particular desires reveal our particular Soul’s journey. What we long for, from the plucking of the guitar string to the sanding of wood to the embrace of our beloved, is both who we are and who we will become.

Desire is also Nature’s strategy for survival. It turns the infant’s mouth to the breast, directs our feet to the cafĂ©, invites us out to the dance floor and adds a subtext to every meeting between the sexes. Our appetite for food and sex is nature’s strategy for replicating itself, from the amoeba to the human being. In the plant and animal kingdom, most of the script is written. All have an intuitive sense of the limits of the appetite and will rarely mate, kill or eat beyond their basic need. Not so in humans. Enter addiction.

We use the term addiction so casually—addicted to chocolate, to jogging, to Seinfeld re-runs, but according to Wikipedia, addiction is something more serious. The tone is a negative one, accenting “continued use of a mood-altering substance or behavior despite adverse consequences.” The drugs or alcohol addictions are pretty clear and pretty clearly bad news. But what about that behavior we continue “despite adverse consequences?” That could define a lot of our relationships, our jobs, our eating habit. Let’s face it—seen in that light, we are a walking bundle of addictions!

Then Wikipedia goes on to describe what happens in the absence of the object of one’s desire. “Symptoms of withdrawal generally include but are not limited to anxiety, irritably, intense craving, nausea, hallucinations, headaches, cold sweats and tremors.” Hmm. Sounds suspiciously like falling in love to me.

Like just about everything in the human drama, the heights and the depths are kissing cousins. The lines between desire and addiction are blurry. I always imagined Charlie Parker’s drug addiction could be explained psychologically as a man battered by a racist culture seeking escape and sociologically by the Mafia’s program of creating junkies. Both have a twist of truth, but perhaps there’s another dimension as well. The guy practiced his instrument for hours on end, “addicted” to achieving the depth, complexity and beauty of musical expression and also longed for and desired release from the brutality of a world that stood in marked contrast to his musical universe. The visionary poet William Blake felt pity for the man whose passions were so weak that they could be controlled. On some level, we simply are at the mercy of our desires and our job is to walk that narrow road between extravagance and restraint. If any of you have figured out to do it, let me know.

Meanwhile, I’m going to shoot some baskets. 

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