What is this thing in both men and women that longs for love, respect, and attention, where does it come from and why does it get so screwed up? Sarah Wells writes about her journey and how Jackson Browne, War and Peace, empty houses, and John Milton influenced her understanding of desire.

This Part 2 of a four part series on our Desire to Be Desired. Access the rest of the series here:

The Desire to be Desired | What Good Guys Do | Empty HousesThe Directions Desire Can Take Us


 

 

One night, my husband and I were out at a country line-dancing bar. He got up to pay our tab and I watched the couples waltz on the floor.

 

“Hey, how ya doin’?” a voice came up from behind. I turned on my barstool and grinned at a guy obviously looking for a dance partner.

 

“I’m fine!” I said cheerily. He glanced down at my hand resting on the bar.

 

“Oh, you’re married!” he said, his arms flinging up in the air into the “I surrender” position. “I’m sorry!”

 

I nodded, still grinning as he walked away and Brandon came back. They exchanged glances, the guy smiling meekly and my husband giving him a nod of acknowledgement.

 

“Ready to go, Tiny Dancer?” Brandon asked.

 

“That guy was trying to hit on me!” I said with astonishment.

 

“Yeah, I figured,” he said, wrapping his arm around my waist and guiding me toward the door. I continued grinning, the warmth of admiration and the heat of my husband’s palm on the small of my back making me glow faintly on the way to the car.

 

*

 

Have you felt it, that light quickening of pleasure, that sugarplum of affirmation, that surge of joy that someone finds you lovely, desirable, attractive, and worthy of affection? I long for connection. I think we all have that longing, really, but some of us hide it better than others. Some of us gobble it up, no matter the source.

 

Healthy connection requires boundaries. I haven’t always known that.

 

*

 

It isn’t fashionable or trendy in most circles to read literature by dead guys, but I am a huge fan of classics, probably for the same reason I am a huge fan of Biblical analysis and midrash: by reading stories, we discover the universality of the human experience. My heart quakes and my spirit sings, Yes! That’s it exactly! Me too!

 

That’s why I have to tell you about War and Peace now. I know, it’s really, really long, but bear with me. I thought it would be drudgery—I listened to the audiobook, which is 61 hours long—but it was worth every single second.

 

I have a long commute.

 

In Chapter 10 of Book Eight, Anatole Karagin, a shortsighted, pleasure-seeking, secretly married son-of-a conniving politician, discovers Natasha Rostov, young, beautiful, naïve darling who is betrothed to another man. They are at the theater, and Anatole’s equally terrible but admired sister Helene invites him to meet Natasha. Anatole is the male version of the Proverbs adulterous woman. Check out this scene (emphasis mine):

 

“And do you know, Countess,” [Anatole] said, suddenly addressing her as an old, familiar acquaintance, “we are getting up a costume tournament; you ought to take part in it! It will be great fun. We shall all meet at the Karagins’! Please come! No! Really, eh?” said he.

 

While saying this he never removed his smiling eyes from [Natasha’s] face, her neck, and her bare arms. Natasha knew for certain that he was enraptured by her. This pleased her, yet his presence made her feel constrained and oppressed. When she was not looking at him she felt that he was looking at her shoulders, and she involuntarily caught his eye so that he should look into hers rather than this. But looking into his eyes she was frightened, realizing that there was not that barrier of modesty she had always felt between herself and other men. She did not know how it was that within five minutes she had come to feel herself terribly near to this man. When she turned away she feared he might seize her from behind by her bare arm and kiss her on the neck. They spoke of most ordinary things, yet she felt that they were closer to one another than she had ever been to any man.

 

Have you ever been there, in Tolstoy’s theatre? Have you ever encountered the adulterous man, the adulterous woman? Have you been the adulterous man or woman?

 

That “barrier of modesty” is the boundary of respect for another person’s humanity. I am not a thing to be possessed or conquered. You are not an object or an “it” or a prize. You are God’s creation, holy and lovely and beautiful. We can admire beauty all day long—it is one of the transcendental characteristics of God defined by the philosophers of the ages, along with Truth and Goodness. We should acknowledge beauty. It is part of God.

 

What Good Guys Do | Off the Page

 

What is the difference between Anatole and my country bar encounter, besides that one is fiction and the other nonfiction? It’s all in the boundaries. When the guy in the bar saw my ring, his hands shot into the air and he leapt back (maybe that’s an exaggeration, I don’t recall). That’s what good guys do.

 

What does Anatole do when he finds out Natasha’s betrothed?

 

“Don’t say such things to me. I am betrothed and love another,” she said rapidly…. She glanced at him. Anatole was not upset or pained by what she had said.

 

“Don’t speak to me of that! What can I do?” said he. “I tell you I am madly, madly, in love with you! Is it my fault that you are enchanting?… It’s our turn to begin.”

 

The barrier goes up, however weak and terrified and soggy with her own confusion, and Anatole leaps right over it. What is he to do? He is passionately in love. She is enchanting. He must have her.

 

I can hear the words of a father in the biblical book of Proverbs as directing some hormonal teenaged boy on the cusp of adulthood in the ways of men and women. Beware the men who will entice you into violence, beware the men who lure you into theft, the father tells his son. Turn to wisdom, the father says, “discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.”

 

Over and over, the father pleads with his sons, listen to me, heed my words, “that you may maintain discretion and your lips may preserve knowledge.” Later, he warns his son about the adulterous woman, whose lips “drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword… She gives no thought to the way of life; her paths wander aimlessly, but she does not know it.”

 

“Now then, my sons, listen to me;” says the father, “do not turn aside from what I say. Keep to a path far from her.” Without these warnings, how are we to know? How are we to build up our boundaries, how are we to be aware that we are all susceptible to temptation, we are all vulnerable? How are we to know when a relationship is safe, boundaries intact, and when it is time to leap back and run, as fast as you can, the other way?

 


 

This Part 2 of a four part series on our Desire to Be Desired. Access the rest of the series here:

The Desire to be Desired | What Good Guys Do | Empty HousesThe Directions Desire Can Take Us