The Tantalus Effect

Always just out of reach.
Painting by Gioacchino Assereto, ca. 1640s

In Greek mythology, the gods punished Tantalus by banishing him to a pool of water beneath a tree with low-hanging fruit, but cursed him so the branches would rise when he reached for them, and the water would recede when he bent down for a drink. To most of us, the first part of that deal doesn’t sound too bad at all; it’s the second part that makes it sheer torture. Having something you want, always dangling right in front of you just out of reach, is painful — but its presence makes you only want it even more.

This is something I like to refer to as the “Tantalus Effect.” Humanity has always had a fascination with the forbidden: we need look no farther than the first few pages of the Bible to see it happen. Adam and Eve had the entire Garden of Eden, any tree to pick from — except one. And yet, the very next event recorded after the creation of Eve is them doing exactly what they aren’t supposed to (see: Gen. 3). Our penchant for the profane comes literally right after humanity is created. We saw something metaphorically “out of reach,” and our interest was piqued. Eve could have walked right by and ignored the serpent, but instead she decided to have a nice chat under the shade of the tree, admiring the fruit and contemplating its beauty. Eventually she caves, and you know what happens next.

This concept is really not limited to what’s prohibited or taboo; the mere fact that we have to work for something makes it more desirable. Humans love challenges (to a degree, of course), and the less attainable something is, the more novel it appears.

Sometimes this works for our good: take, for example, countries in which Christians are persecuted. These people have to fight and work to nurture their faith; they risk their lives simply trying to gather and worship. So much effort goes into their discipleship, and they cling to Scripture with everything they have. It is in places like these that Christianity spreads like fire — the very realness of danger makes the immediacy of the gospel that much more apparent. While tragic, it’s also beautiful.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. In places like the United States, where religious freedom is a legal right, Christianity’s growth rate is in the negatives. More youth than ever before identify as nonreligious, and those of us who do hold to a faith do so in a much more casual way. I don’t remember the last time I voraciously consumed my Bible like it was oxygen itself. I frequently skip church when I’m tired on Sunday mornings (aside from the whole it’s-scary-and-homophobic part). Obviously I’m not the best example of a gold-star evangelical, but I really don’t know of too many people who live for God so fervently every day you’d think it was their last. We take our faith for granted here.

Ubiquity steers us towards apathy. When we have easy access to something, its glimmer dulls, its urgency slacks. Syndrome in The Incredibles says it best: “When everyone’s super, no one will be.” (Which makes me want to call this the “Syndrome Effect,” just because I like naming things.) Within certain limits, attainability is inversely proportional to desirability — supply and demand.

But we don’t always have to let this work against us. I don’t want to overstate its power, but the Syndrome Effect can also help work in our favor.

For instance, I like soda. Especially orange soda. So I was pretty thrilled to find out that my college’s Dining Commons had soda machines, from which I could get as much soda as I wanted. For the first week or so of freshman year, most of my meals were accompanied by either Sierra Mist or Fanta. But as it turns out, soda’s terrible for you. Nowadays my beverage of choice in the Dining Commons is just water; or if I’m looking for a little something extra, it’s hot water with some honey. After making a conscious decision to cut down on my soda intake, I found it wasn’t very difficult at all to maintain the switch — the ever-presentness of soda made it easy for me to think, it’ll still be there tomorrow. For now, water.

For a more serious example, I’ve noticed that the Syndrome Effect plays a small role in my own personal fight against lust. As most guys my age do, I struggle with a porn addiction; the good news is that, as of the time I’m writing this, I’ve successfully resisted for three and a half weeks. That’s the longest I’ve ever gone since I was probably 11, and hopefully it will continue.

While I don’t want to advocate this as a good method for overcoming addiction, it has been my observation that my current situation — in the absence internet filters or accountability software — I have unlimited access to online pornography. The thing is though, after meeting with my pastor three weeks ago and making a conscious decision to resist temptation, preventing a relapse has been surprisingly easy. Obviously, there are many complex factors at work here, but I’ve come to believe that the Syndrome Effect has something to do with my lack of interest. Perhaps my brain has quite literally had enough.

However, let’s not forget about the Tantalus Effect. When it comes to this situation, I fear that once I resume school at my Christian college, with all its internet restrictions and barriers, I’ll fall again. This is completely counterintuitive, but the presence of an internet filter only makes it more difficult for me to resist temptation. I’m a problem solver, and I get a sick sense of satisfaction out of defeating the system. Removing obstacles is a pleasurable activity for my mind, and the endorphin rush I get from sidestepping a firewall only adds extrinsic value to my shady activities. (However, theoretically my brain chemistry should be reregulated itself and the need will subside by the time September rolls around. This situation is purely hypothetical.)

Understanding the concepts of the Tantalus and Syndrome Effects can be useful in our everyday lives, but again, I don’t want to make it seem like these are the most powerful factors involved in human desire. Life is more complex than that. But sometimes it’s comforting to know I’m not crazy for developing crushes on straight guys because they’re unattainable. It’s empowering to use ubiquity to help avoid unwanted influences in my life. And really, it’s pretty satisfying to know myself just a little bit better.

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