The topic of discussion regarding relinquishing something.
Typically, when individuals express a desire to give up, they are referring to habits such as smoking, drinking, or indulging in enjoyable but numbing activities like chocolate. Rarely does this statement involve thoughts of suicide, as people tend to only want to give up habits that are perceived as harmful. While giving up certain things may be beneficial for our well-being, the concept of someone simply giving up is often unappealing. Similar to alcoholics who want others to join in their drinking, there is a strong cultural belief that life is precious and must be cherished.
In simpler terms, there are both positive and negative sacrifices, and the act of sacrificing can create the illusion that we have control over what we lose. Some sacrifices are admirable and something we strive for, while others make us deeply uncomfortable. For instance, what do genuine hope or despair demand us to let go of? What is our intention when we give something up? This concept has a fundamental and wide-reaching ambiguity. We give up things when we believe we can make a change, but we also give up when we feel we cannot.
The concept of sacrificing for a better life, whether it be for our physical or emotional wellbeing, our planet, or the benefit of the wealthy, is not a new one. It is ingrained in both old and new ways of thinking. However, this constant emphasis on self-sacrifice may also stem from a deeper feeling of despair and fear of simply wanting to give up. Despite the efforts of religion, therapy, education, entertainment, and consumerism to help us find fulfillment, there is a growing number of people who find solace in their hatred, prejudice, and scapegoating. It is as if there is a strong temptation towards what Nietzsche referred to as a “will to nothingness,” a rejection of life itself and its most fundamental beliefs.
The widespread disappointment with politics and personal relationships, the desire for and fear of free speech, and the conflicting feelings about consensus and fundamentalist ideologies has created a culture of fear and self-righteousness. It seems that our uncertainty about feeling alive, even for a brief moment, has become an unbearable strain that we must address. Despite our inability to envision or articulate our lives without the concept of sacrifice and its counterpart, compromise, our understanding of what we truly desire and can achieve through sacrifice is murky. Our ideas of personal and political ideals are either too certain or too uncertain, and the concept of sacrifice relies on our knowledge of what we want.
Renouncing something is always a trade-off in pursuit of something perceived to be better. Whenever we are faced with a decision, we cannot avoid asking ourselves: what will we have to forego? Making a choice inherently involves choosing one thing over another and reflects our preferences. There is always an imagined exchange at play; we give up something with the expectation of receiving something in return. Whether we are sacrificing our confidence, freedom of speech, social interactions, desires, sense of purpose, or even our own life, there is always a desired outcome that motivates our sacrifice, even if we are not consciously aware of it. What we hope to gain from any sacrifice is always worth discussing. The concept of sacrifice and its effects is a topic worthy of discussion. Giving up on something or someone exposes our underlying desires and motivations.
Surrendering, in all of its various manifestations, serves as a reminder that it is ultimately an act of giving. It is always a voluntary action, never forced upon us by a higher power. To relinquish something is to seek personal gain or pleasure, but within an incomprehensible economy that defies prediction, much like any other economy. It is as if we are given a command at certain points in our lives to “Let go!” or “Give it up!”, initiating a cryptic process of desiring, wishing, and negotiating.
To the best of our ability, we attempt to determine the impact of our sacrifices and what we hope to achieve from them. It is often unclear whether a sacrifice is a plea, a form of coercion, or a combination of both, or if it is a manipulation or a hopeless surrender, or both. In certain moments of our lives, we question what actions we must take to reach certain individuals, or even to reach ourselves. We wonder what we must give up in order to attain what we desire. These thoughts may stem from the mindset of an all-knowing being who believes he knows what he wants, and for whom understanding his desires and strategizing how to satisfy them is his sole purpose. Sacrifice can be seen as a way of predicting outcomes.
Children are put up for adoption, armies surrender in wars once they are defeated, and passing away is what some people do when they die. In each of these different situations, it is like something is being handed over, a necessary agreement has been made, a turning point has been reached, a crisis has occurred, or an exchange has taken place. Giving up may be just as much about change and transformation as it is about success and failure (the concept of giving up often leads to moral judgments: we cannot resist evaluating the situation when giving up becomes an option). We give up, or give something up, when we believe we can no longer continue as we are. Therefore, giving up is always a critical moment, no matter how much we may want to downplay it.
Surrendering, as a preliminary action, a requirement for another event to occur, a form of expectation, a type of bravery, indicates the demise of a longing; and similarly, it can create space for new desires. In essence, giving up is an effort to create a alternate destiny.
In her insightful and guiding novel, A Life of One’s Own, Marion Milner discusses the importance of maintaining our vitality: the state of being alive and invigorated that can counteract feelings of surrender. As both an artist and psychoanalyst, Milner shares her journey of determining her life’s purpose.
I discovered that I was completely clueless about this. So, I made the decision to start keeping a journal where I would record the highlight of each day, hoping to uncover my true desires. Montaigne’s essays also influenced me, as he emphasized that the concept of the soul is often contrary to our expectations.
As a modern individual, she initially attempts to determine her desires and then, to clarify, she references Montaigne who believes that the concept of the soul is not what one would expect and can often be the opposite. She believed that her true self, her soul, was based on her desires and what brings her joy. She assumed that she must have a purpose in life, even if she is not yet aware of what it is. However, Montaigne reminds her that there is a part of herself – possibly the most significant part – that is entirely different and may even desire the opposite of what she believes she wants (suggesting that each essence leads to another). This suggests that she may not actually desire a purpose in life and what brings her happiness may not truly matter to her. There could be other things that hold more importance to her. The concept of life having a purpose or happiness being our ultimate desire may simply be a way of limiting our thoughts and oversimplifying ourselves.
In this exceptional undertaking, Milner uncovers a revelation. She comes to the understanding that there are two types of attention for her: “narrow attention” and “wide attention”. It is noteworthy that she only requires standard language to convey her intentions and that it is attention itself that has captured her focus.
Limited focus. The initial way of perceiving appeared to be instinctive, the type of attention that my mind gave to daily matters when left alone … this type of attention is narrow in its scope, selectively choosing what is beneficial in the moment and disregarding everything else. From what I observed, it could be compared to a “questing beast,” keeping its nose close to the ground, following the trail but unaware of its surroundings. It only saw things based on their usefulness, as a means to an end, with no interest in their intrinsic value. This mindset was probably necessary for practical purposes, so I assumed that from a biological perspective, it naturally came to the mind …
The focus shifted when the goals were restrained. Not wanting anything allowed for a broader perspective, rather than selecting specific elements to focus on. The key components of this second method of perception were being attentive without expectation. If we happened to master this skill of expanding our attention, something magical would occur.
The “magic” lies in turning boredom and fatigue into boundless contentment, while the second type of focus brings a sense of joy that was previously unknown. Broad attention revives our perception of the world, while narrow attention can diminish it. Narrow attention confines one’s identity, whereas broad attention offers possibilities and alternative perspectives on ourselves and others. Milner’s definition of broad attention involves a purposeless and selfless state, which she struggled to achieve and described in great detail. This state is free from the constraints of Darwinism, Freudianism, and materialistic desires. It is similar to what Blake referred to as “vision” and recognizes that any idealistic notions of goodness can only serve as a challenge.
In the role of “questing beasts,” having a narrow focus is seen as a deliberate choice by someone who seems to have a clear understanding of their desires and prioritizes the pursuit of satisfaction. However, in a state of broad focus, one cannot anticipate their desires and cannot assume that wanting is the defining aspect of their being or the only action they are capable of (in this sense, all psychoanalytic literature should be viewed as observations or attempts at understanding social interactions).
Milner presents us with two different perspectives, two different lenses through which we can view something. It’s important to recognize that she recognizes the value of both types of focus. Rather than pushing us to choose one over the other or trying to convince us to abandon one, she encourages us to utilize both types of attention for different purposes. This is not a narrative of sacrifice, but rather one of expanding our abilities; as poet William Empson described it, “straddling the contradictions.” We cannot fully reap the benefits and advantages of a contradiction by taking a side.
Is it possible to discuss sacrifice without romanticizing it as a dramatic or comedic event? Can we acknowledge the temptation of feeling superior while also acknowledging the complexity of doing so? In other words, can we view giving up as a way to understand our moral and emotional depth, rather than just another difficult experience?
People may be seen as lacking, but they are not typically seen as not lacking. To be seen as lacking is to not have something, and in a common narrative, it is assumed that we want whatever we are lacking. Our frustration drives our desire; wanting something or someone means feeling their absence. Therefore, acknowledging a lack is necessary for any kind of pleasure or contentment. In fact, according to this perspective, frustration and a sense of lack are essential for experiencing satisfaction.
According to Lacan, “lack” always involves something that is not in its usual place. This suggests that whatever is missing is typically something that is expected or taken for granted, like a mother’s presence in a child’s life or meals in an ordinary day. It can be seen as a response to a sense of entitlement, where we feel the lack of what we believe is rightfully ours. This implies that we always have a subconscious understanding of what we want, even if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge it.
I propose that there is a component within oneself that requires knowledge of its actions, and another component that does not. Similarly, there is a part of oneself that desires to know one’s wants and a part that does not. Both aspects offer freedom, and they interact with each other – our desires rely on our knowledge and lack thereof. There is a sense in which our desires and lack of desires are intertwined, but in a paradoxical rather than contradictory or conflicting manner.
In everyday language, our desires range from urgent needs to simple wants. We can often go without what we want, but we cannot survive without what we truly need. Our desires may blur the line between need and want. It is unclear why we cannot go without what we desire, but it is important to recognize the distinctions between these states of appetite. Appetite requires examination, discernment, and control. It is something that we must agree upon, whether by force or mutual understanding, because our desires seem both dominant and essential. Like Henry James’ definition of reality, our wants are impossible to ignore and something we cannot afford to be uncertain about. In secular societies, appetite has replaced God as the expert in determining what it is and what it should be. When Darwin proposed survival and reproduction as the driving forces of evolution, he essentially made appetite the core of the matter, the true driving force.
Babies are not typically engaged in debates with their mothers over appetite. However, as they grow up, they often find themselves in the familiar conflict of family life, where they must balance their desires for food, sleep, and assertiveness. Parents are expected to be experts and managers of their children’s appetites, responsible for knowing and fulfilling their needs and wants. Unlike other animals, humans struggle with appetite and eating, even though scarcity and competition also affect other animals. The study of animal behavior has not provided us with a solution for managing our desires. It could be said that throughout human history, our appetites have caused us great turmoil and unease, despite the pleasure they bring and their crucial role in our survival.
Freud’s psychoanalysis aimed to investigate the concept of desire from a scientific perspective, influenced by Darwin’s theories of evolution. This included studying child development and the role of language in development. The modern society, driven by consumerism, is heavily influenced by acculturation which shapes our desires from infancy to adulthood. Parenting and education play a crucial role in teaching us what to desire and what to avoid. Religion and political ideologies also play a role in dictating our desires. The popular child-rearing manuals of modern times follow similar patterns, focusing on what society deems as necessary wants and needs.
The narrative of psychoanalysis explores the transformation from simply wanting things to desiring to be good, bad, kind, cruel, honest, or cunning. It delves into the progression from biological needs, accompanied by emotional involvement, to moral values and the resulting emotional conflict. This is the account of how our biological makeup merges with and influences our ability to interact socially. It also examines the evolution from basic desires to empathy and the lack thereof, and how our needs can drive us to both kindness and cruelty. In modern societies, individuals often leave their homes in search of what their parents were unable to provide and to discover themselves. The family shapes and restricts a child’s wants, but in contemporary times, these desires often surpass what the family is capable of fulfilling.
However, the family serves as both a source of education in desire and also in the experience of frustration. As our needs and wants are largely met within the family, it also becomes a place where we learn about the feeling of frustration. According to Freud, humans are inherently ambivalent beings, as the same person who can fulfill our desires and make us feel good, is also capable of causing frustration and making us feel worse. This ambivalence is rooted in our constant need for others and our dependency on them for love and fulfillment. This idea aligns with the modern view that our lives are driven by our materialistic and survival instincts. Despite any personal aspirations or goals we may have, they are ultimately driven by our primal desires and need for survival.
Freud and subsequent psychoanalysts have successfully demonstrated how and why we often misunderstand our desires and experiences, leading to discomfort and disturbance. Even if not entirely incorrect, our perspectives on wanting can be overly frustrating. As James puts it, we may simply be mistaken in our understanding. Wanting itself may always bring some level of frustration, but our methods of discussing it or the way we discuss it can also contribute to that frustration.
It is quite ironic that the ways in which we discuss and define appetite often portray it as a potential danger or source of suffering. For instance, wanting could be reframed as simply exploring attraction or testing our preferences. If the very thing that gives us sustenance also appears to be the root of our problems – if our means of connecting with ourselves and others leads to feelings of disconnect – we may question, like Freud, what purpose we are assigning to our appetites. Additionally, we may observe, unlike Freud, how skillful we have become at generating images and descriptions of appetite that hinder its fulfillment.
This is a revised excerpt from the book “On Giving Up” released by Hamish Hamilton on January 11, 2018.
It takes time to create great stories. The Guardian Long Read magazine brings together the best long-form journalism from the Guardian on a variety of topics, including politics, technology, food, cosmology, literature, and sex. This 100-page special edition is beautifully designed and can be ordered from the Guardian bookshop or purchased at select WH Smith Travel stores.