When I was a baby (and by that I mean, I still am), my whole game plan was: I want. I wanna be fed. I want my diaper changed. I want milk. I want water. I want outta my crib. I wanna go potty. I want mama and dadda. This prune juice sucks.
When we were babies, were all like that. We had to be. And most of those wants were needs. Babies need to cry and scream when they don’t get what they want, don’t they?
As I grew older, two things happened. The first was that some of my needs changed. I no longer needed to be fed, dressed, changed, nursed. I no longer needed mama 24/7. I didn’t have to be held or played with. Yet I still wanted those things. And I needed to eat and change and go potty. And I still hated prune juice.
I could do some of those things for myself, but I still needed them. My need to be dressed became a desire for nice clothes. I wanted my own crib (with its own man cave) and I wanted out of my own crib, for things like vacations, in a nice car, of course. All those needs cost money. So I needed that, too.
And I still needed mama and dadda. Only those needs became expressed in my desire to be with a partner, to have friends and to be popular and to be thought well of. Some of these things, like food and a house and clothes on my back, were still necessities, just like they were when I was six months old. But the way I needed them became expressed in desires. These necessities branched out into my wants as well. I mean: I needed shelter, but I didn’t need a 12-room mansion. I needed clothes, but I didn’t need Gucci. I needed to eat, but I didn’t need fois gras.
And as my needs became more sophisticated, some of my needs weren’t things I needed as a child. Infants don’t need cash. Grownups do. But do we need money to surivive? And if so, how much? Is 10 grand enough? 10 million? Do I need to be rich, to own a car, much less three?
Do I need to have sex? And even if you’d classify it as a need, do I need to have it with the supermodel? If I’m already married and my sex life is nonexistent (because that’s why people get married, right?), do I need a woman on the side? Do I need prostitutes or porn? I don’t do these things (except for the supermodel, of course), because if someone found out, it might ruin my reputation. Do I need my reputation? Or is something I want?
I don’t need fluorescent teeth or fresh breath or black hair (I’m 57) or killer abs or any one of the 1,561,218 things the commercials tell me I need. I don’t need to get buzzed on expensive chocolate Scotch made in Taiwan or to get revenge against the guy who slept with my mistress or to be respected or appreciated. So there’s a big difference between what I need and what I want. That’s the first thing that happens once we move past being babies: our needs evolve into things we want. Yet because we still see things as infants, we can’t really tell the difference. We think we need what we want, because we tend to want what we need.
It’s really not all our doing that need and wants are often confused. Instinct plays a part. I need to eat, but hunger is a want. The civilizations in which we live are founded on desire. Consumer culture hypnotizes us into believing that we we need the things we want, and that we can’t be happy unless and until we have those things. It exploits our infantile confusion between need and desire. Commercials and ads tell us that happiness is having. Happiness is having what we want. We just have to have the stuff they try to sell us, they say, or we can’t be happy. But these are influences, not death sentences. Deep down, it’s we who whisper these lies to ourselves. We want to be fooled. We want to be manipulated.
It may not be our doing that the civilizations in which we live try to make us all into infants in grown up bodies, but it is our responsibility to grow up. The cost is our own happiness. For when we live as children in grown up bodies, we’re more often than not disappointed. We either get what we think we want, and it doesn’t make us happy. Or we don’t get it, and we’re unhappy. Or we get it but can’t hang onto it, and end up unhappy all over again. The problem is that our formula for happiness doesn’t really work. That’s right: those infomercials are lying to you. Happiness doesn’t consist in getting what we want, but in wanting what we have. Happiness is in getting what we need, and accepting it. We need to resolve our infantile confusion between wants and needs, or we never really grow up.
This brings me to the second thing that changes, or needs to change, as I grow older. I need to distinguish between my needs and my wants. This is what it means to grow up. Many of us – and I include myself in this category – have a hard time doing that. When I say ‘I need,’ I usually really mean ‘I want.’ The extent to which I’ve grown up is the extent to which I’ve developed the ability to distinguish my needs from my wants. It’s the learned ability delay gratification. It’s the even more acquired capacity to accept it when I don’t get exactly what I want, or even a little bit of what I want.
The truth is that today, I get most of what I want in addition to what I need. Technology and industrial civilization make that possible. But I’m really not any happier because of it Why? Because what I have is never enough. If I get what I think I want, I just want something or somebody different. If I have this, I want that instead. I want different than I have Or I want more. Different and more never make me happy. Why?
Because happiness is not found in having. Infants believe that it is. Commercials will tell you that it is. That’s why they’re always sending you the message that you need more of something than you already have, or a different something than you have now. In this state, you’re always searching for something more, or something better. What you have is never the right kind, or enough. Happiness will elude you as long as you believe that happiness = having. Doing and accomplishing are different versions of having, by the way.
The problem is that when I don’t get what I want, I’m unhappy. Sometimes, I throw a tantrum. Most of our problems as individuals are about not getting what we want. A guy’s wife stops loving him in exactly the way his infantile self has come to expect, so he has an affair, or kills her. I put a bottle to my lips because I didn’t get what I wanted as a child, or as a grown up. I wanted money so I stole it.
If you look at the world, many of its problems consist of these tantrums. A group wants this piece of land but doesn’t get it so it throws a fit and kills members of the group who live on that land. Maybe there’s a war. One group doesn’t like what another group says, so it oppresses them. This may seem oversimplified, but if you look at the world, it’s really like that. The solution is to grow the fuck up.
To grow up is to want what I need, not to need what I want. To grow up is to transform ‘I want’ into ‘What I have is enough.’ It’s tom work under the assumption that life will probably provide me with what I need, and what I have is what I need.
But I wont grow up until I actually want to, because growing up isn’t a requirement for survival. So my want needs to be channeled into the desire to grow up, the desire to want I have, and to be content when my needs are met, even if some of my desires aren’t.
None of this means that I shouldn’t go for what I want. But my need is to accept it when it doesn’t come. And of course, there are legitimate needs in the world that aren’t met. My happiness will consist in helping others to meet their needs, for happiness is always founds in giving, and not in having.
I’ll never like prune juice, by the way.
© 2019 by Michael C. Just
Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.
You can purchase the book through this website. Or go straight to amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+dirt+journey+of+a+mystic+cowboy&crid=1S40Q4BXSUWJ6&sprefix=the+dirt%3A+journey+of+a+m%2Caps%2C180&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_23
Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002LFMXAW