April 29, 2010

Reflections on Craving: Babies, Bottle Girls, and Catholic Priests

We have a little baby girl, almost 6 mos. She’s at that adorable baby stage. We love her to death.

She also has this habit, as I’m sure you’ve seen before, of putting everything she can get her hands on into her mouth.

I was watching this behavior recently and I wondered: what is this all about? I have heard before that this is an infant’s way of “exploring her world.” The mouth, with its sensitivity to touch and taste is just another way for a baby to investigate the world around her. That’s probably true. It’s also probably the case that by putting things in her mouth, she is seeking comfort, like a remnant of the instinct to suckle.

Considering all of this as a philosopher, it occurs to me that the mouth is different than other sensory organs. In particular, we can distinguish sensory organs by the ways they sense. So, for example, hearing and seeing are both distal sensory modes: they sense objects at a distance within a certain range (too far away or too close and we can’t hear or see well). Through hearing and sight we can also locate objects at a distance from us: to our left, to our right, above, below, far, near. Smell also senses objects at a distance, but at least for us humans (with our nostrils pointing downward), we are unable to detect location through smell. Also, smell is unique in that it involves actually ingesting scented molecules in the air. In this way, smell is somewhere between vision or hearing and taste.

Touch and taste, however, require physical contact between the sensory organ and the object. (Touch is actually quite complex, and not likely one single sense, including things like proprioception, temperature, pain, itching, tickling, etc.) Touch and taste are the most intimate senses. But the mouth with its extreme sensitivity to touch and taste is more intimate still. (Did you know that we can sense differences on the surface of our teeth within tens of microns?)

The mouth is one of the few places (apart from sexual and excretory orifices) where the world outside is brought inside and the inside is brought outside. Even though hearing and smell rely on openings through which vibrations or scented molecules in the air to travel into the body, they do not ingest and consume solid and liquid substances the way the mouth does.

What I am getting at in all of this is that I suspect that a baby’s desire to ingest objects from the world around her reflects a deep human desire to make the external internal. Or, to put it another way, to make external objects mine.

This is what Buddhists call craving. It is our desire to expand the limits of the self, to consume the external world.

It is easy to understand craving in moralistic terms. Craving leads to attachment, which leads to suffering and death. Or, alternatively, craving leads to pursuit, indulgence, possessiveness, stinginess, protecting possessions, quarreling, and dispute.

But I like to think of craving as simply a feature of our sensory contact with the world. We have these sensory modalities through which the world appears to us in certain ways. It is “natural” or at least entirely predictable that we would want to make it ours: to understand it, to gaze at it, to hold it, to inhale or ingest it. Natural, indeed. But also problematic. It’s important to be mindful of the ways craving affects us, what we crave and how we crave it.


So many things worthy of fascination have emerged in the wake of the Tiger Woods scandal. Much of it has been covered here at elephant. But I think one of the most interesting revelations is the existence of the (largely) hidden world of nightclubs that cater to the über-rich-and-famous. These are places in NYC, LA, and Las Vegas that you and I can’t get into, unless you (unlike me) happen to (a) have loads of disposable income or (b) be a willing, peppy, sexy, early 20s girl looking for a guy that fits under category ‘a’.

This is not one of those girls. This is Rachel Uchitel–the first (in order of appearance) of Tiger Wood’s mistress. She ran one of those clubs.

If you haven’t read the article in NY Magazine about Rachel Uchitel published earlier this month, you should. The author provides an insider’s look into the hottest New York clubs  and the big-ticket tables that come with “bottle service.” It’s sort of like stripping and not quite like being a hooker. If someone buys a bottle of top shelf champagne, or vodka or whatever, for $500 or more, I assure you, they are not purchasing alcohol. But they are not (exactly) purchasing sex either. This is the gray area of the half-hooker, the bottle girl, who trades in “services” that are only implicitly rendered. Bottle girls are young, pretty, and flirtatious. The good ones bring along a bevy of those young, hot, eager girls (type ‘b’ above). So, the guy who orders the “bottle” gets a table full of fun, hot girls to drink it with. They exchange numbers later, roll to the next club, and then (maybe) on to a hotel… If you want to hear some of the stories, browse on over here.

To my mind, the existence of this service (apparently widely consumed by investment bankers, oil tycoons, star athletes, and celebrities) explains why someone like Ben Roethlisberger could possibly think it was ok to invite drunk girls back to his VIP room and then have his body guards stand in the way as he forced himself on them. The reason: he’d done it (or similar) before, countless times.

If you have loads of money or celebrity, you can put whatever you want into your mouth. You can consume without ceasing. If you really want to.


As I say, I appreciate (what I understand of) the Buddhist approach to craving. They see it as fact of life, like feeling chilled in an air-conditioned room. In the Christian tradition, the religion I practice, sensory contact with the external world that leads a person to want to possess objects in that world is usually call sin.

I’ve got real problems with the concept of sin.

I’m a Christian, and I’m pretty serious about my faith, but I get uncomfortable when Christians talk about sin because I get the sense that they are either demonizing a fact of life–you’re cold and you shouldn’t be cold!–or they are offering an easy way out of a very tricky problem–repent! and then ::poof!::.

It seems to me that if you believe that your inevitable physical and psychological attachment to the world around you is fundamentally evil, then you are prone to self-loathing. If you think you can solve the difficulties you face in managing your appetites by repenting, then you will respond to urges wrongly.

If you have a problem overeating, then you do not need to repent for your evil lust for food. You need to develop a healthy relationship with food. If you have a problem with smoking, or drinking, you may need to take slightly more drastic steps (some people cannot have a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol). Whatever the case, you do need to come to terms with your difficulty. You may need to seek assistance. But I don’t think you need to denounce what is an entirely predictable behavior of a being like yourself. We are, after all, animals.

In a way, I’m the anti-Brit Hume.

I think the Christian attitude toward the sin-repentance-forgiveness model of how to handle craving is one fundamental reason for the systemic failure of the Catholic church to respond to pervasive sex-abuse scandals.

Actually, this is not my insight, but I believe it’s the right one. Several years ago, when I was living in Boston, the sex abuse scandal hit the Boston diocese particularly hard. I was a graduate student at Boston College and a number of my professors were Jesuit priests. I remember asking a professor and friend of mine about this issue and his response was so succinct that it has stuck with me: “The problem is that they had seen this sex abuse as a matter of sin.”

You see, if it is a matter of sin, then it is a matter for repentance, forgiveness, and personal transformation. If it is a matter of abuse, then it is a matter of the law. Because of the overriding paradigm of sin-repent-forgive, the Catholic Church could not understand that what was going on was a deep and pervasive problem of abuse. This was not a matter of the individual facing up to God, but of an institution facing up to society.

It is a fact of life that we, small-minded, little selves try to consume and incorporate the world around us. It’s how we grow; it’s how we live. But some of our consumption is deeply and obviously harmful to ourselves, our society, and other things we love.

Perhaps this is sin, but don’t think that any measure of self-loathing and repentance will change how it affects ourselves and our world. I also think this is just the wrong way of looking at things. Craving is a part of life, in the same way that drinking water, eating food, breathing, and procreating are parts of life. We are not self-sufficient beings; we are radically dependent on the world around us. This is not bad, but it needs to be carefully managed.

There is one Christian theology that I think approaches this issue with some insight. It comes originally from Paul, and through Martin Luther. This is the theology of grace. The basic idea is that grace comes first. Then faith. And finally action. See, if the process starts with grace, if grace is fundamental, then it is obvious that it doesn’t stop there. Instead of starting with sin and ending with forgiveness, I think we start with grace and end with right action.

On my view, grace is the bedrock that we can always fall back on, rest with, and find comfort in when we need it. But you can’t stop with grace because grace overflows. In a sense, you are compelled to act differently, act for the better, act with grace.

And if the Catholic church, Tiger Woods, and Ben Roethlisberger have in one thing common, it is that they have (dramatically) failed to act with grace.

Read 10 Comments and Reply

Read 10 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Nathan Smith  |  Contribution: 2,760