What Do You Really Want in Life?

So you find that magic bottle, give it a rub, and a genie grants you three wishes. What are you going to say? What do you crave most? And is that the same thing as what you really want, deep down inside?

James K.A. Smith, an author and philosopher at Calvin College, explores that topic in this thoughtful talk, brought to you by The Veritas Forum. (Podcast also embedded at the bottom of this article.)

He says that the epitome of who we really are is hidden just behind whatever it is that we truly want. And Smith explains that what you think you want may not be what you really want. Because often what we think we want has been somewhat “manufactured” within us by society, by the media, by the things that occupy our eyes and ears and brains throughout the day. Even our smartphones have a role to play in “telling” us what we crave.

“To get to know what makes a person tick, I’m not going to ask, ‘What do you know, or what do you believe?'” says Smith, adding that the answers to those questions won’t say much about who you really are. “You’re not just a thinking thing. You’re not just a brain on a stick. [But] what do you want? Your desires, hungers, cravings, longings, loves—that’s the real animating center of your identity.”

Springsteen and Tarkovsky weigh in

Smith quotes “that great theologian, Bruce Springsteen,” and his song “Hungry Heart”: “What does it mean when he sings that everybody’s got a hungry heart? That hungry heart is really the engine that drives you.”

But, Smith adds, what if I don’t know what I want? What if I don’t love what I think? He cites “a discomforting epiphany” when watching the 1979 Russian film Stalker from director Andrei Tarkovsky. The story takes place in sort of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, featuring three key characters—a writer, a professor, and the “stalker,” who isn’t really as creepy as the name implies, but serves more like a guide to the other characters. He is leading the others in search of a mystical place called “The Zone” and, ultimately, “The Room,” a magic place where all your wishes are granted, where you get exactly what you want.

But right on the edge of “The Room”—pictured at the top of this page—the sojourners “get cold feet,” Smith says. “Why? Because it dawns on them: What if I don’t know what I want? What if the desires they are conscious of are not actually their innermost, deepest longings? In effect, what if they’re not who they think they are?”

Smith goes on to bring in more pop cultural references, including Bob Dylan’s “Serve Somebody” and a Michelob Ultra commercial, to drive home his point: That the things we crave may not indeed be the things we’re truly longing for, the things we’re made for.

Near the end of his talk, Smith reads aloud the poem “Staying Power” by Jeanne Murray Walker:

Staying Power

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside to the yard and question the sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t there

that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.

You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

“Don’t ignore the ringing,” Smith urges. “Pick it up. What have you got to lose? What might you find? Might you be found?”

Click below to listen to Smith’s talk:

Photo credit: Scene from Stalker (Janus Films)


Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine