Wishing and Willing
(The following is an excerpt from Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering by Dr. Peg O’Connor.)
A person’s attitude matters enormously. Does he wish to stop using or does he will to stop using? Willing and willingness need to be distinguished from desiring and wishing. The latter two can lead to incredible frustration and suffering. The former makes possible great transformation. James defines desire as wanting to feel, to have, or to do what presently is not felt, had, or done. Desires can be about anything. We desire material goods like cars, houses, a good meal, etc. We also desire immaterial goods such as relationships with others, acceptance, happiness, success, etc. The line between material and immaterial is not always hard and fast; one may physically desire another person in large part because of the love she has for him, her, or them. Physical desire may also increase love. Desire can increase when we want more than we presently have, and it can decrease when we no longer want what we have.
James’s point about desire is there’s always a gap between the wanting and the having. While in many cases the gap between wanting and having is traversable, the gap can increase when one is not attentive enough to both the strength and direction of desires and how those desires fit with what one already has. Paying more attention to what one wants rather than what one has may lead to growing dissatisfaction.
According to James, we wish when what we desire is accompanied by a sense that it cannot be attained or achieved. Wishing is defined by the sense that one cannot realize her desires. There are all sorts of reasons why someone’s desires cannot be met and those reasons are not created equal. I wish I had won the $2 billion lottery drawing, but the odds were astronomically stacked against me. Wishes like this are not bad or dangerous and in fact can provide a welcome flight of fancy. Who wouldn’t wish they’d have the opportunity to quit a job, pay off debt, help friends, etc.?
Problems begin when the reasons for something not being met or achieved have to do with me or what’s in my control. I can wish until the cows come home that I will get the promotion at work. I can wish that tomorrow I will stop drinking or using drugs. I can wish to the point of pining for the partner of my dreams. Bigger problems follow when my wishes become wrapped in expectation. When expectation takes over, my focus becomes less on what I am doing and more on what I deserve. Putting on the “I deserve” lens renders us unable to see clearly the relationship between our inactions and our desires not being met. There’s a good reason why many people in recovery define an expectation as a future resentment. That resentment is almost always directed at other people or more vaguely, “society.” We fail to recognize that our inactions in many cases play an important role in our desires not being met.
James claims that we will when we believe we can achieve what we desire and we take appropriate actions. Willing necessarily requires action. This is what distinguishes wishing from willing. When a person wills, she recognizes that she is in a position to actualize something that she desires. In most cases, willing is a necessary condition for us to realize our desires. If I want the promotion, then I better work hard and finish my projects by the specified deadlines. If I want to stop drinking or using, then I need to take some action such as driving home a different way to avoid the liquor store or the place where I usually buy drugs.
Willing is a necessary but not sufficient condition to realize desires. Each of us has plenty of examples of acting to realize our desires in ways that fall short, go haywire, or bring about the exact opposite of what we want. That I will get a promotion is not simply a matter of my will alone. Too many other factors beyond my control are at play. There may be people who are far more qualified, or equally hard working, or the job description is not a match for my experience. Stopping drinking and using is not fully a matter of my will; I may need medications to curb cravings. I may need a much stronger support network than I presently have.
When I assume that realizing my desires is completely a matter of my will, frustration and overflowing resentment usually follow. If I am convinced that I am doing everything right and still I am not getting what I desire, then I might just keep pushing myself to do the same thing only harder every time. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results. I may start to resent both those same results and other people who get different results from doing the same things I am.
When we will too much and try to force the world to bend or we will in the wrong direction—for example, willing to control something far beyond our control—we become unhappy. We can become miserable and susceptible to the world sickness discussed in chapter four. The solution is not to stop willing since that throws us back to the unhappiness that comes from unrealized wishes. Rather, we need to recognize what is in our control and what is not and then calibrate our expectations and act accordingly. We may need to be willing to act even or especially when we don’t know what the results will be. In other words, we may need faith.
Acceptance and renunciation go together; they are flip sides of the same coin. Acceptance is the recognition that a situation is bigger than I alone can handle or comprehend. In the course of our daily living, we accept that many things are too big to handle alone. I cannot lift a 200-pound box without the assistance of another person or the help of a mechanical device. I accept that I cannot understand how to file my tax return without the aid of a certified public accountant. I accept that I cannot understand myself fully or accurately without the help of others. My friends give me a reality check and tell me, “No, you definitely don’t want to do that if you also want this other thing to happen.”
Acceptance involves activity and agency. Acceptance requires that my actions are responsive to changing realities as well as the recognition that my actions cannot guarantee the outcomes I want. Many external factors are beyond my control. What I can control is my attitude. This, too, involves a choice. By acting in deliberate and responsive ways, I may change both myself and my reality. This is what James realized in the throes of his panic fear. He not only needed to act differently but he also had to believe his actions would make a real difference.
We have no problem with acceptance in the vast majority of our lives. Yet, when it comes to quitting alcohol or drugs, we think that it should be within our control. Control is often about holding tightly to something—if I can just hold on tightly enough, I can retain control. Renunciation is, as I said above, about loosening that grip. Instead of clutching something familiar but harmful, I can reach toward something unfamiliar but helpful, or at least not harmful. In the process, I may become a little bit more tolerant of uncertainty.
Uncertainty can be terrifying, which is why people would rather stick with the devil they know than face the unknown. Each of us has an uncertainty threshold. Put another way, each person has his own point of tolerance for uncertainty. A person’s uncertainty threshold is directly related to their faith. I am using “faith” in a much broader sense than belief in religious entities or a wider universal order. Faith can be about anything: I can have faith in institutions (I have faith the courts will uphold the rule of law), other people (I have faith this person will keep her promise), or myself (I have faith I will always do my best to be honest). The hallmark of faith, according to William James, is to believe in and act from possibility. Faith is a willingness to live in possibility and act on the maybes. It is the willingness to act as if what you do makes a difference.
Peg O’Connor, PhD, is a recovering alcoholic of 34 years and has been a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN for 27 years. She believes that philosophy helped her to get and remain sober. She avoided Alcoholics Anonymous for the first 20 years of her sobriety because of the concept of a “higher power.” Dr. O’Connor is the author of the new book, Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering (Wildhouse Publications, 2022) and Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery (Central Recovery Press, 2016). She also writes a column, “Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken,” for Psychology Today that has nearly 2,000,000 total views and select columns have appeared in the print publication.