What’s the first thought that comes into your mind when you hear or read the word “lust?” Something lascivious, perhaps, something sexual and out of control? Not me. I think of the biography of Vincent Van Gogh by Irving Stone, “Lust for Life,” which was probably my first exposure to the word “lust.” I was in a biography-reading phase from about age ten through my early teens. I wanted to know everything about famous artists, athletes and political figures, people who were known in the world. This book was more a novel than a typical biography. Stone did his research, but his style was decidedly vivid and sensational, his imagination embellishing the facts he’d uncovered about his subject. I loved his writing style back then and went on to read his books about Clarence Darrow, Michelangelo and Abraham and Mary Lincoln. I interpreted that word “lust” to mean deep passion for being alive, for needing to paint, to sculpt, to improve a country, absent the more commonly accepted subtext of sexual intensity. I didn’t know anything about sexuality at that early age and had no concept of lust as one of the “seven deadly sins.” Those are not part of my world view, at least in the religious sense. I thought the “sins” were biblical, at least until I did some research about them. I discovered that they appeared in the lexicon sometime around the fourth century.
How the Seven Deadly Sins Began as ‘Eight Evil Thoughts’
The idea of listing the vices began in the fourth century. In the fourth century, a Christian monk named Evagrius Ponticus wrote down what’s known as the “eight evil thoughts”: gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, sloth, sadness, vainglory and pride. Fast forward to the 13th century, when theologian Thomas Aquinas again revisited the list in Summa Theologica(“Summary of Theology”). In his list, he brought back “sloth” and eliminated “sadness.” Like Gregory, Aquinas described “pride” as the overarching ruler of the seven sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s current capital sins are basically the same as Aquinas’, except that “pride” replaces “vainglory.”
I have a personal moral code and consider myself a spiritual being, but I operate outside any organized group of believers. Whatever your values, I think it’s clear that we can agree that ultimately, we humans are all mortals, with different limited amounts of time we’ll spend on this earth, and that how we spend that time is highly diverse.
What I also know is that while ultimately death is the inevitable end for all those born into this world, there’s no rhyme or reason to much of it. Happening every day, everywhere, we don’t often dwell on death unless someone we love, or someone we know personally or through the public eye, either is close to death or has died. Thinking of how ephemeral life is too heavy a burden for daily contemplation. In these pandemic years, when millions of lives have been snuffed out, along with all those lost in conflicts unseen, or ones like Ukraine, when we watch bodies tossed hastily into mass graves, we are reminded of our fragility. We are so delicate. Who knows what gifts to the world vanished with a sudden last breath?
And so here I am, thinking about lust. Lust for life. Lust for learning. Sexual lust. All the types of lust, so easily extinguished. What’s this all about, this little word that has multiple meanings to different people. How does it work? I have my own ideas. But I decided to explore both dictionary and encyclopedia definitions so I could make sense of this term.
Definition of lust – Merriam-Webster dictionary
1: usually intense or unbridled sexual desire : LASCIVIOUSNESS He was motivated more by lust than by love. 2a: an intense longing : CRAVING: 3a: lust to succeed: 3b: ENTHUSIASM, EAGERNESS : she admired his lust for life.
The dictionary definition covers a lot of ground. Starting with the sexual connotation, it then moves into what my impressions of lust were from my first exposure to the Van Gogh book. No one ever likened the words passionate, enthusiastic or ardent as sinful. But look at the dictionary definition of passionate.
Definition of passionate:
1a: easily aroused to anger- a passionate but not a vicious boy— H. E. Scudder b: filled with anger : ANGRY; was passionate in her defense of her cub, and rage transformed her— G. D. Brown; 2a: capable of, affected by, or expressing intense feeling a passionate performance, a passionate coach b: ENTHUSIASTIC, ARDENT is passionate about basketball.
Things get even more interesting when you simply add a “y” to lust to create the word lusty. I thought it would be reasonable to assume that lusty would fall into the same sinful category as lust. But no. Here is the first dictionary definition I found for lusty.
Lusty – adjective – healthy and strong; full of vigor.”the other farms had lusty young sons to work the land.” (Really??)
I can’t tell how many definitions I might unearth if I keep looking for them until I found no different nuances. But I can say how I’ve personally chosen to view lust and why right now, I’ve been thinking so much about it.
In the nature versus nurture debate, some people line up in favor of one philosophy or the other. I’m sure those individuals have an easier road than me. I think it would be simpler to believe that everyone is born with the traits that will determine their futures regardless of their environments, that nothing external will change their destinies. That ideology has produced some of the worst prejudices on the planet, in my considered opinion, prejudices that to me are utterly repugnant, like eugenics. On the other side of the debate are the people who believe that given the right environment, everyone is playing on a level field and that we all can be anything we want if we have the same advantages. I don’t think either of those premises are right. In my life experience, albeit its limits, I think we all fall somewhere in between, in the murk between nature and nurture. We all carry genetic traits that are handed down to us through our DNA. Certain external variables, environmental, physiological, nutritional, societal, economic, educational and so many more factors, influence how those genetic traits may manifest themselves over time. Pretty complicated stuff. But that gray area is where I place my beliefs, although sometimes I wish for absolute certainty so I don’t have to ask so many unanswered questions, as I have for most of my life.
This April will mark 50 years since I moved in with Michael. The end of May will be the fifth anniversary since his death. These are the kinds of numbers that are cause for reflection. We both knew long ago that there would never be enough time for us to be together on this planet. We were one of those fortunate couples who lucked out with each other. We grew up together, always going in the same direction. Of course we had our towering battles and disagreements, but our fundamental connection was unwavering, growing stronger with time. As his death grew closer, Michael encouraged me to find new companionship after he was gone. I had no idea what I thought about that, a topic for later, in my mind. He said I had too much life in me to wind up on my own. He didn’t want me to be by myself. Not long after these conversations, he was gone. The time came for me to recover and to consider how I wanted to live the rest of my life. Which is why I consider the meaning of lust.
I think Michael was right about me having a lot of life left in me. I’d actually call it lust, the kind that doesn’t exclude sexuality but that embraces it as part of the deeper more existential lust I think was in me from birth. The lust for reading that’s kept books in my hands since I could hold them. The lust for learning about nature and science, psychology and philosophy, history and archaeology, geology and geography. The lust for immersing myself in water and expressing my inner aquatic self. I lean toward dolphins and octopuses if I should wind up swimming. The lust for learning about birds and thinking I’m part albatross, which can fly for thousands of miles without landing. The lust for words that makes me subscribe to dictionaries so I can receive a new word a day,while also playing forty Words with Friends games daily along with Wordle and any other mental twister I can find.
After Michael died, I was exhausted from our five year ordeal. I knew that the many times I’d been a caregiver in my life had been eclipsed by this most painful, wrenching experience and ultimate loss. I knew I was permanently changed and that the self I’d been seemingly forever had left the building. I still believe that for the most part. But what stunned me with its resurgence was my lust, my primary characteristic that continues to bubble up, even when I’m sad or deeply lonely. That powerful drive surprises me constantly, wiping away gloom and despair as I thrill at the sight of a new bird at my feeder, spy a place of spectacular beauty and immediately try to see if I can get there, or when I discover some random fact that fits perfectly into a hole in my education. And weird though it may seem to some, I lust for Michael, the person I still love so deeply, despite the fact that his corporeal being no longer exists. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’ve stared at a photo which emphasizes his gorgeous biceps for a long time, filling me with a desire I didn’t know I’d sustain just this side of seventy-one. It’s still all about him. No substitutes required.
So yeah. Lust. I understand it’s darker implications and how bad they can be in this scary world. But that’s not for me. I’m taking my interpretation from Irving Stone’s “Lust for Life.” I feel glad I still have some lust for living. Michael would be glad, too.