by Morgan Beard
It’s human nature to crave things. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “Hey, I could go for some ice cream right now.” Sometimes it’s a deeper desire, like craving money or fame. It may not seem like anything unusual—after all, who doesn’t like something delicious to eat, and who couldn’t use a little extra cash? But Emanuel Swedenborg says that what we crave might reveal more about us than we think.
What we crave sometimes tells us what we lack. If we’re craving specific types of food, our body might be telling us that we need more vitamins or other nutrients. A desire for sweets could mean that we need a pick-me-up from the jolt of energy and the feel-good chemical serotonin that comes with eating something sugary. On an emotional level, craving items that we don’t need might indicate stress or negative feelings—getting some new luxury can give us a little rush of pleasure. Or, on a less tangible level, craving attention can mean that we feel unloved or unappreciated.
Swedenborg writes, “Craving is love reaching out. Whatever we love we constantly crave, and it is our delight, since we feel delight when we get what we love or crave. There is no other source of our heart’s delight” (Heaven and Hell 570). From the context, it’s clear that love here means something broader than love for another person. He’s saying that when we love something, it fills us, and we seek out more of it.
This can work in good ways or not so good ones. For example, let’s say a woman grows up without a lot of money, goes to school, gets a good-paying job, and is suddenly able to buy herself all the things she never had. Her self-esteem goes up; she feels better about herself. She works to get more and more money until all she can focus on is making money so that she can keep feeling better. Swedenborg calls this “love of the world”—a situation where people keep chasing material pleasures and are never satisfied with what they have. That love of wealth, power, or whatever it is we’re chasing becomes a fundamental part of ourself, the core of our identity. And no matter what, we always crave more.
Let’s say that same woman who grew up without a lot of money but got educated and became a wealthy professional puts love of others over love of self. Now she donates money back to the community where she grew up and mentors kids growing up in limited circumstances to help them achieve career success. This is what Swedenborg calls “love for one’s neighbor”—when we focus on using what we have to help other people rather than helping ourselves. And again, he says, the more we do good, the more that we want to do good. We crave opportunities to help others.
People are complicated. All of us are capable of being selfish one day and selfless the next, and it can be hard to know if we’re on the right track, spiritually speaking. Are all of our actions adding up to a positive inner state or a negative one?
When Swedenborg writes, “craving is love reaching out,” he’s letting us know that just as our physical cravings can be an indicator of our body’s health, our emotional cravings give us a barometer for our spiritual state. Those little impulses, itching desires, and outright compulsions that strike us throughout the day are indicators of what is happening within us. The things we are pulled to do tell us which way our inner status—or our “ruling love,” in Swedenborgian terms—is leaning. The things we crave most often are the things that dominate us mentally and therefore spiritually.
But what if we find that we’re being drawn toward these selfish types of desires? Swedenborg says there’s a remedy for that: regeneration, the path to spiritual growth. You can read more about it here, or for a really in-depth discussion, check out this compilation of Swedenborg’s writings on the subject.