One of my favorite stories comes from the Sufi tradition of mystical Islam. It is a tale that tells us exactly what we will have to face if we endeavor to walk the path of desire. A man sits in the center of a Middle Eastern marketplace crying his eyes out, a platter of peppers spilled out on the ground before him. Steadily and methodically, he reaches for pepper after pepper, popping them into his mouth and chewing deliberately, at the same time wailing uncontrollably. “What’s wrong, Nasruddin?” his friends wonder, gathering around the extraordinary sight. “What’s the matter with you?” Tears stream down Nasruddin’s face as he sputters an answer. “I’m looking for a sweet one,” he gasps.
It is one of Nasruddin’s most endearing qualities that he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Like desire itself, teaching stories about Nasruddin always have two aspects. Nasruddin is a fool, but he is also a wise man. There is an obvious meaning to his actions, containing one kind of teaching, and a hidden meaning, containing another. The first meaning jumps out from the story right away. It is the basic message of both Buddhism and Freudian theory. Desire never learns; it never wakes up. Even when eliciting nothing but suffering, it perseveres. Our indefatigable pursuit of pleasure keeps us doing some awfully strange things. Certainly, Nasruddin is modeling our lives for us: Struggling against the tide of disappointment, we continue to search for a sweet one. As his friends must be wondering as they gaze at him incredulously, would it not be better just to give up? In this version of the story, Nasruddin is rendering a conventional spiritual teaching. Our desires bind us to the wheel of suffering. Even though we know that they bring us pain, we cannot convince ourselves to relinquish our grip. As Freud liked to say, there is an “unbridgeable gap” between desire and satisfaction, a gap that is responsible for both our civilization and our discontent.