What do you need? What do you want?
We need…food, water, shelter, rest. We may want…a better car, a bigger home, whiter teeth, and the latest gadgets and toys.
Why is this question important?
How do we make our way through these choices?
Freedom and Peace
For us to have some freedom and peace, it is critical to distinguish our needs from our wants. Our needs are few. Our wants are unlimited. We must get clear on knowing what it is that we need versus what it is that we want. If we can know that much of our wants are simply a natural human insatiable inclination to want more, then perhaps we can let go of some of our striving and angst. If we can know our true needs and be grateful in having those needs met, we can have some liberation and quiet.
I have spent too many years thinking that I needed all sorts of things. Truly, most things were just stuff I wanted. My list included a better vehicle, a bigger house, whiter teeth, and the the latest gadgets and toys. Oh the agony when everything I thought I needed did not come to be! Oh how unnecessary to have that agony.
For many years, I obsessed and drooled over the big houses in our leafy village of Elmhurst, Illinois. It was the era of knockdowns. Small, old (and functional) 3 bedroom frame ranches were being leveled for 4+ bedroom, 3+ bath, 3+ car garage, McMansions. How I longed for such a castle. A big house would increase my stature, pump up my self esteem and prove my worth to the world. In my want driven mind, and greedy heart, I would reach true happiness if we only had that big impressive dwelling. Surely, we did move up from our starter house, onto to a mid level house, and then onto a house that was in a “prestigious” neighborhood.
Lo and behold, we then separated and divorced! How much energy and time I put into making money in order to “move on up.” How much more stable my life, especially family life, could have been if that time and energy was put into soul work and relationships. It was a valuable and painful lesson. Since being broken down by the divorce, (and built up by grace and friends), I have attempted to be ever mindful of not getting too stuff oriented. It is a daily challenge.
We have guidance from wise men on how to work through the issue of needs versus wants:
The body’s needs are few
“How little it takes to support a man. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish thirst and hunger with nourishment; if we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices not our needs. Nothing satisfies greed, but a little satisfies nature. It is the mind that creates wealth.” Seneca, On The Shortness of Life, Life is Long if You Know How to Use It. 49 AD.
Seneca was a first century Roman philosopher and statesman. He reminds us that our true needs are “few.” He says our needs are satisfied by just a “little.” He warns us against submitting to the endless dissatisfaction of our wants. Lastly, he states that our wealth comes from our attitudes. This is a challenge and encouragement to keep our minds strong and free from never ending desires.
“Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand…keep your accounts on your thumbnail.” Henry David Thoureau, Walden. 1847.
Thoreau was 19th century American author, philosopher and tax resister. He went to live the Spartan life for 2 years in a cabin on Walden Pond in New England. He wished to “drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.” His focus was to find what was necessary versus what society told him was necessary. His lesson, so forcefully and repeated stated, is summed up in the call for “Simplicity.” Much easier said than done especially in our complex society. Yet we have control over our thoughts and actions.
Do not expand your needs
“The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom. It is also the antithesis of freedom and peace, Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear. Only by a reduction of needs can one promote a genuine reduction in those tensions which are the ultimate causes of strife and war.” E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 1973.
Schumacher was a 20th century European economist and author. He has much to offer on how to cleave needs from wants in in our lives. He consuls that growing our “needs” is a path to tension, fear and strife. As an economist, he speaks to both the society and the individual. He warns that we must keep wants from creeping into being needs. Reducing our needs, he advises, gives us “freedom and peace.”
Each of these men have something to say to us about drawing a line between needs and wants. We have to ultimately decide these things for ourselves. There is no formula for such an exercise, but we must, if we are to have freedom and peace. A home a need? Surely, but a massive monthly mortgage, with taxes and upkeep? A want. Transportation a need? Yes. The newest $50k plus car a need? No. Food a need? Yes. Dinner out 5 times a week a need? No. That would be a want. For ourselves, for our families, our communities, and future generations we have a duty to do put needs simple and doable to put wants in another box.
My suggestion is simply to make an account of what you truly need and record them. Write down your physical needs. Everything else? Wants only. Write them down too so that you have awareness of what are wants, so that they do not sneak up on you from behind. It is ok to have wants. We all do. Wants are endless. But chasing wants is a sure path to stress and unhappiness. Knowing your true needs, meeting them and feeling that accomplishment is good. You are likely to find some freedom, gratitude, and peace with resting in that simplicity.