Shortcuts and counterfeits
Queen Karina and I live in St. George, Utah, which is about an hour and a half north of Las Vegas. We recently went down to Vegas to see a show.
While walking down a crowded sidewalk, we passed a man who was wearing a t-shirt that said this:
The fundamentalist, self-righteous judge in all of us sees gross, degenerate sinfulness in the strange declaration, and we condemn people for such sinfulness.
But when we look deeper and see beyond “right and wrong,” “good and evil,” we see a much deeper story. And our response, rather than self-righteous condemnation, is heartfelt compassion.
What we all really want
I saw on that man’s t-shirt something entirely different than what was actually written. Here’s what I saw:
Why does any man want promiscuous sex and women throwing themselves at him? It’s not because he’s evil or gross. It’s not because he just wants the physical sensation of sex. What he really wants, whether he’s consciously aware of it or not, is connection.
Why do we value money so much, and why do we want other people to know we have it? Because it makes us feel important. In feeling important, we feel valued. In feeling valued, we feel connected.
Why do people take any drugs on a regular basis? Because they either give us the illusion of connection, or numb the pain of the lack of it.
When this understanding clicks for us, we no longer see “sinfulness” in any behavior (though we do not justify unskillful and harmful behavior). We see loneliness and sorrow, anger and grief, agony and confusion. We see how everything revolves around the desire to connect.
One of the most profound truths we can ever learn was spoken by St. Augustine:
“Seek what you are seeking — but don’t seek it where you are seeking it!”
What people are seeking in “pussy, money, weed,” and any other substance or behavior is good: excitement, happiness, peace, contentment, well-being, connection.
But these types of substances and behaviors — all drugs of choice — are shortcuts and counterfeits to those needs and feelings. They may make us feel good — at least for a short time. What we really want is a lasting version of the feeling, which the drug can never deliver.
When we engage in shortcuts and counterfeits, the need we’re seeking to fulfill isn’t met, and we feel emptier than before. The problem with them isn’t that they’re “morally wrong,” but that they simply don’t deliver what we think they promise.
This is why addiction starts — when the drug subsides and the emptiness arises, we take more of the drug to stifle the emptiness. It’s a vicious cycle that can only be stopped, not through willpower, but by identifying and meeting our core needs.
Shortcuts and counterfeits don’t just include hard addictions like illegal drugs, pornography, sex addictions, and the like. They manifest in a variety of ways:
- Reacting in anger and flipping off the person who cuts us off on the freeway is a shortcut to the need of safety. It doesn’t give us safety, and it only makes the other person react against us.
- Criticizing our spouse for not cleaning up when we asked him or her to is a shortcut to feeling respected. We don’t get the respect we want, and he or she pushes us further away.
- Berating our children for getting bad grades is a shortcut to helping them learn so they can thrive in the world. They don’t learn, and they resent us.
Seeing the goodness underlying all unskillful and harmful behavior
Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of Nonviolent Communication, used to work a lot with convicts, especially repeat offenders of things like sex crimes.
He tells the story of working with one man who was in prison for molesting several children. When Marshall asked him why he did it, the man responded belligerently, “Because I’m a horrible person, and that’s all you need to know about me.”
Marshall patiently explained, “I don’t believe that. I think you had unmet needs that you didn’t know how to fulfill. Let’s dig deeper and see if we can find them.”
He patiently worked with him for a couple hours and slowly, the man started opening up. Eventually, he broke down with this realization: “I did it because I desperately needed someone to understand what it felt like for me when it happened to me as a kid.”
His core need was empathy — a good and beautiful thing. But how he went about it not only didn’t meet his need, but also caused untold harm to others.
Although what this man did is extreme, he’s not alone in seeking to fulfill legitimate human needs in misguided ways.
All of us engage in misguided unskillful behavior and turn to multiple forms of drugs, not because we’re “sinful creatures,” but because we’re trying to meet core needs and we don’t know how.
How to identify core needs
Finding our core needs is a challenge. What we think is the core need is often just a superficial, egoic expression of it.
Here’s the question to explore to identify your core needs: Can this need actually be satisfied?
Real, base needs can be satisfied, whereas counterfeit needs can never be satisfied. If we take a drink but are still thirsty, we’re drinking from the wrong well.
- You might think, “I need to make $150,000/year to feel important.” But if you were to reach that level of income, would you really feel important, or would you be left wanting more?
- You might think, “I’ll feel better if I indulge in eating this doughnut.” But will you really feel better, or will you feel worse?
- You might think, “I have to cheat on this test to get good grades so that my father will approve of me.” But will cheating really give you true approval and acceptance?
We can meet our need to feel valued and important by valuing ourselves. But as long as we don’t identify that as the core need, we’ll forever seek counterfeits.
The needs to feel safe, to have purpose and meaning in our lives, to feel like we belong — all base human needs — can all be met in healthy ways. The first step is identifying the core need in the first place.
When we have clarity around our true needs, we stop looking to meet them through shortcuts and counterfeits.
The key is to see the goodness in all our desires, however “evil” we’ve judged them to be. Only when we can see the underlying goodness in our cravings for counterfeits can we begin to find lasting peace.