We all have basic needs: food, water, shelter and clothing. Some would argue that we need love too or at least human connections, though plenty of people live without those things. Look at people with severe dementia or brain injuries, people in comas, or many of the homeless. They are often unaware that they are loved and yet they soldier on. So I think we can state that love is a want rather than a need.
But even if I’m wrong about that, my point is that we need relatively little. And most of us have what we need almost all the time. Very seldom do we go hungry or thirsty or want for clothing or shelter.
We have serviceable sustenance, yet many of us feel dissatisfied with what we have. We want nicer clothes or housing or comestibles. We want a newer car or a fancy vacation or the luxury of working only when we’re in the mood for it. Or we want the world to be a certain way, with a certain president or a certain weather pattern.
Why is that?
If our needs are being met, shouldn’t we be thankful? Shouldn’t we accept our stations and not worry about the might-have-beens of our existence? The answer, surely, is yes. But that’s not how most of our minds work.
We are driven by our wants precisely because our needs are largely met. We see others with more or imagine ourselves with more and that creates a spark of desire that can ignite into a conflagration with only the slightest breeze.
If we had a different governor, then life would be better. If we didn’t have so little rain, we’d be happier. If my neighbor’s dog would stop barking all the time, then I’d finally get some peace and quiet and be able to enjoy myself.
None of these are necessities and yet we feel extremely passionate about many of these wants. Protests in the streets, people shooting those with different ideologies – anger and resentment and fear building to a crescendo of negative emotion.
Conversely, people screaming their delight at a football team, anguishing with each bad play, celebrating every touchdown as if it were some momentous occasion. People tattooing a celebrity’s likeness on their body. All these circumstances deal in wants, not needs.
That doesn’t mean people are wrong to feel the way they do or to focus on intangibles that add a little spice to their lives, but it makes me wonder why we care so much about so many things that only indirectly affect us.
I think it’s because we want to feel. We desire the sensation of belonging or love or of being scared or outraged. All these emotions make us feel alive. Otherwise, we think, we might as well be robots. Yet, taken to extremes, these emotions wreak havoc on our lives. They push us to actions that are often not in our long-term best interests.
The Buddhist who claims that all suffering is caused by desire is onto something. The absence of desire (or more correctly, the control of desire) leads to a kind of inner peace, a calmness that slowly works its way outward to our fingers and toes and beyond, radiating out into the world, to an acceptance of those things that are not threats to our needs.
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