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.

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