Desire: Awakening to Possibility

By Paolo Mecacci

Paolo Mecacci describes the importance of desires and social ties for living in the real world with a sense of the possible.

Some time ago, while analyzing data for the development of a social empowerment program related to young people and employment, I discovered what was for me a new social category: NEET. This stands for Not in Employment, Education or Training; in other words, people--particularly youth--who do not have a job, are not studying and are not in any kind of training or job seekers scheme. According to Eurostat and surveys by Youth Forum and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, this phenomenon is growing at a worrying rate in Europe and is considered to be a critical indicator of contemporary social, economic and cultural change.

In this article, I will approach empowerment through the back door; namely, by looking at non-empowerment.

The Gestation of Impossibility

In the 1970s, Professor Martin Seligman carried out research focused on what has been defined as the process of "acquired impotence": long-term exposure to critical circumstances in which people feel at a "dead end" and, therefore, "impotent." This increasing sense of uselessness blocks the will to mitigate or resolve difficult situations and leads people into a gradual abandonment of "a sense of the possible." This soon transforms into apathy, withdrawal, inactivity and a belief that events are out of their control. In effect, they abandon their sense of personal power and, therefore, also their own fundamental self-worth. If this happens at an individual level, as in the case of NEETs, there will certainly be repercussions in society.

Professor Ugo Morelli has described the influence of cultural processes to which the collective consciousness quickly adapts, creating what he called "passive conformity." This term describes the process whereby feelings of impotence and anxiety caused by uncertainty lead to an acceptance of unfavorable situations. For this reason, it is always easier to limit and contain desires and expectations in order to avoid disappointment, failure and frustration. Gradually, the ability to "desire"--to create and control one's own future--dissolves and is extinguished in a blackout of hope.

It is in the "womb" of this mindset that feelings of impossibility take shape, feelings which freeze those essential human traits of spontaneity and creativity. These traits are the embryos of the human imagination, enabling one to make coherent choices in order to attain an objective and turn a desire into reality. Poetically, we might say that hearts which stop dreaming of the future go out like a light.

In considering the linkages between these problems and macro issues such as the economy and structural processes in contemporary society, we must remember that human beings are the creators and primary components of these processes, and therefore the transformation of these problems cannot occur apart from a transformation in the human heart.

The well-known anthropologist Arjun Appadurai recognized that a significant cause of the current unease of society was the fragility of the social fabric in "communities with weak social ties"--a distinguishing feature of postindustrial societies which place emphasis on individualism--and a pervasive sense of disintegration. Professor Appadurai, however, encourages us not to let ourselves be crushed by the weight of these situations and by the sense of impotence they cause, but to foster what he calls "the ability to aspire"--to cultivate desires and the vision to make them reality.

People Desire What They Can Imagine

According to research into the idea of empowerment, in order to activate this process, a person must go to the root of their desires, that is, to the primary elements of hidden or forgotten potential within themselves.

To begin this process, a strengthened ability to imagine desired situations is needed, enabling the person to begin to connect these desires coherently and concretely to the reality in which he or she lives.

Therefore, desire--the first step toward empowerment--needs to be given form, a concrete representation that can be shared with others in order for it to produce a change. Along with this, there needs to be a recognition of belonging to something larger, be it a family, a clan, a community or a society. Human beings can only live if they perceive themselves integrated into the warp and weft of the social fabric. For this reason, the capacity to create relationships and significant ties with others needs to be supported.

The process of empowerment leads to a profound transformation of consciousness, allowing the uncertain and impotent perception of the self, of "myself, alone and isolated," to mature into wisdom to perceive the degrees of interrelationship and interconnection which join people together.

It is this perception, what we might think of as a kind of fertile humus of sociality, which enables us to realize that we do have the power to make decisions and transform reality. People who work hard to realize their own and others' happiness build something that we might define as a new sense of "we," creating informal networks with others that allow them to live in the real world with a sense of possibility.

Empowerment manifests itself where people express trust, belonging, spontaneity and creativity. It is here that individual desires interact, and each person can give expression to his or her own self-worth. Empowerment is simultaneously an individual and a collective process. Empowerment links both micro and macro social systems, giving people an essential sense of belonging, personal choice and self-worth. Perhaps it is best expressed in poetic form:

Empowerment is like a marvelous sculpture
to be found within a rough block of marble.
The eye (and the genius) of a visionary artist perceives its existence.
With his chisel, his sweat and rhythmic blows, he uncovers it.
When the work has emerged, all can see, admire and desire.

SocialÉmpower is an association in the field of psychosocial studies, founded in Italy in 2014. The association develops programs for individual growth and social change, and creates programs to stimulate empowerment through counseling approaches and the "Action Method," using techniques of psychodrama and socio-dramatic play. This work is carried out within both public and private organizations as well as in small informal groups and with individuals using methods typical of relationship counseling. The users are people of all ages who are facing deadlock in their lives, including young NEETs.

Using techniques such as psychodrama, people can tell their own personal or collective story, which is brought to life with the guidance of a director. They can explore unusual, unexpected or until then only dreamed-of scenarios. For example, a young unemployed person who has no hope of finding a job, or who is unaware of his own talents and aspirations, by working through his own life experiences on stage and sharing them with others, may discover that his problem is actually a condition of contemporary society shared by many others. He can also build on insights learned from the spontaneity and creativity of experimenting in "new roles" and thus feel able to open new doors for his own future, a future full of possibilities and connections with the world around him.

Paolo Mecacci is the founder of SocialÉmpower ( and a member of SGI-Italy.