Tag Archives: need

What to want

If you’re regularly exposed to adverts or anything offering lifestyle advice, you’ll be used to being told what to want. We are encouraged to want consumables, objects, the latest, newest thing because it’s faster and shiner than the things we already have. As though emotional needs can be answered by spending money. As though identity and self can be best explored and expressed through the brands we chose.

Who are you, and what do you want? *

What do you want in your life from day to day? What do you want to do with your time? What matters to you? What do you need in order to express yourself? What do you want from life? How do you want to live? What inspires you? What makes you happy? What do you find meaningful and rewarding?

Given time and quiet to explore these questions, my guess is that most people would not make a list of products by way of answers.

Some years ago when I started exploring this in earnest, a person I knew told me that I was just kidding myself. My growing investment in local landscape and walking was, he said, just making a virtue out of necessity. If I could afford better I’d let myself want better. If I had the money, I’d want the same kind of exotic foreign holidays he went on. I could afford to do that now. I find it isn’t what I want at all. My desire is not for fleeting thrills in distant lands. My desire is for deep connection with the landscape I live in.

For anyone who is all about the money, my life must look rather small and shabby. But it is increasingly a life driven by my passions and desires. I know what I want, and what I need, and increasingly, I know how to find those things. I know what uplifts and enriches me. I know what sort of thing I find meaningful and fulfilling. I’ve also got a good deal better at going after the things I want. Having taken some months to think about my options, this week I went after two things I had worked out that I wanted. One of them was an instant ‘yes’, and the other was always going to take more time. I am making the life I want, piece by piece.

Adverts teach us to be dissatisfied with the lives we have and to try and answer that need through spending money. It’s only by really exploring what we want that we can change this. Satisfaction and contentment have much more to do with how we live than what we own. Once our basic needs are met, happiness is not found in stuff. Where it is found, is part of the mystery of who we are, part of the adventure that is ours alone to undertake. Part of the possibility in our own lives that’s been hidden from us by a story that tells us to want things that can never satisfy us.

Do something radical. Ask yourself what you really want.


*yes, I have seen Babylon 5.

Entitlement and need

To be ‘needy’ is to be a problem to the people around you. We all of course have needs, many of them very similar. We need food, shelter, warmth, water.  We need to feel reasonably secure and acceptable to those we spend time with. Most of us admit to needing affection and goodwill from others. Somewhere, a line is drawn, and certain people are ‘too much’. Too needy. If a person is designated as ‘needy’ then dealing with what they need ceases to be anyone’s problem.

It’s interesting to ask who is allowed to need what. Who is likely to have their needs met, and who is not? To what degree is there exchange or barter in the mix? We may be more likely to accept the needs of people we easily empathise with, and people whose needs are convenient and do not require much effort to sort out.

Need has the scope to create a sense of social duty. This can turn into feelings of martyrdom and being put-upon. The more obliged we feel to answer someone’s inconvenient need, the more we may resent them if they cannot obviously recompense us. Much may also depend on the presence of an audience who can be impressed by how good we are. It’s always easier to be kind and generous when you can see how you will benefit directly from that.

It is worth paying attention to who we cheerfully help on request, and who we write off as ‘needy’ and try to ignore. Think about who you take seriously and who you don’t and whether you in turn expect to be taken seriously, or tend to be one of the people whose needs are not reliably honoured.

Of course there’s a political angle to this, too. A politician in the UK can expect to claim thousands of pounds of ‘expenses’ on things most of us would have to fund for ourselves. A person too ill to work is expected to live on far less. What we’re happy to accept that the Queen ‘needs’ is not the same as what we think old people in care homes need.

Often it seems to me that the scope for getting your needs met is directly proportional to your wealth and power. Of course it’s the people with least wealth or power who tend to have the most need.

Things we do not speak of

I need your acceptance.

I need you to stand in this space with me,

And let your body speak of tolerance, to mine.

I do not always know how to be

In this skin, with these bones.

I need your time, today, now

Because tomorrow one of us could die,

The vital things left unsaid and I need

To speak the unspeakable things with you,

The soul bare vulnerable things that are too much,

Salt tear words, heart words, foolish words,

And the things that can only be said

Palm to palm in the language of skin.

I need to swap funeral plans with you.

Is it reasonable to be afraid of everything

That currently frightens me? Not just me?

I need to speak of grief loss failure apathy,

Hear your awkward stories echo my own.

Sex, politics, toilets, religion, aging, bleeding

Being lost, losing, looser, all the things

It is not acceptable to talk about.

Let us sit in concealing darkness and voice it.

Stand together and be unreasonably real.

Reasoning the need

“Reason not the need” is, if memory serves, a line from King Lear in which the King is declining to discuss what he needs in terms of entourage now he’s retired. Of course he doesn’t need a vast horde of people to follow him round, costing his hosts a small fortune, but he wants them, and so he doesn’t want to talk about need. It’s an interesting example in which being reduced to having to talk about what you need feels, for some, like a loss of identity and dignity. To be important, we have to feel that we have far more than we need.

I think reasoning the need is something we could all afford to spend more time doing. Both in terms of identifying what we don’t need and could cheerfully do without, what we really do need, what we actually don’t need and would be far better off for freeing ourselves from, and what we want alongside all of that. It’s also worth asking why we want, and what meanings we are attaching to our wants. Are we, like King Lear, inclined to think we can’t be ourselves, and can’t be respected, unless a great deal of material goods, or in his case chaps with swords are part of our setup? How much are cars associated with identity and status, for example?

The question of need is one I revisit, regularly. Partly because it changes, partly because my understanding changes. In the last six years or so I’ve come to recognise how much I need good quality sleep in a bed that feels safe. I’ve learned that I need very little space to live in, but I also need access to a great deal of outside space in order to be happy and well. I need people in my life, but I also need quiet – a balance I’m constantly trying to figure out. I need to be active and I need to rest. I need intellectually stimulating experiences, and I need to minimise the unnecessary drama.

It doesn’t matter so much whether what I think I need is available to me – figuring it out helps me to shape my life. It helps me move towards the things that actually serve me, and to recognise the things that, to carry on my Lear references, mostly result in wandering round in the cold and dark feeling very confused about things. We’re constantly sold a lot of ideas about the things we can’t do without – things marketing departments wish us to purchase for the seller’s benefit, not necessarily our own.

What King Lear thinks he wants is his retinue, his pomp and ceremony and kit to give him a sense of status and significance in retirement. By the end of the play it’s obvious to him and the audience alike that what he’s wanted all along is the love of his daughters, but he’s far too proud to admit it, until they’re all dead. Life is like this. Most of us won’t make an embarrassing shambles of dividing our kingdoms and end up with war and madness to contend with. Most of us will get caught up in the surfaces of our lives, in the superficial wants that we are willing to convince ourselves are needs, so that we don’t have to even look at the needs, which might make us feel small, vulnerable and powerless.

Why are we not helping these other people first?

It seems like a fair point. Why are we getting so upset about refugees from ‘away’ when we’ve got our own homeless people, our own families in poverty depending on food banks, our own vulnerable, suffering people? Why divert resources when we can’t look after our own?

It’s a clever card to play, and it’s worth looking at the people playing it and casting your mind back a bit. Are these people volunteering in food banks? Are these people below the poverty line themselves? Are these people you’ve ever seen raise a hand to help another human being? I notice that the answer seems to be ‘no’. The people keenest to say we should look after our own first, have been reliably not doing that for some time now.

What this does, and is designed to do, is have us wondering about the various merits of people. Who deserves our help? Who is most vulnerable, most in need, most deserving? And of course the more time we spend arguing with each other over whether person A is more or less deserving than person B, the more time we spend talking each other into the idea that maybe these people aren’t very deserving at all. Right wing agenda success achieved!

It’s about judging people. It’s about looking at need, and finding reasons to say ‘no’. It’s about the idea that there’s a hierarchy of need based on worthiness, not on vulnerability. All people need warmth, shelter, food, clean water and physical safety. All people. Some people are less able to provide that for themselves than others. If we have to choose, need should be the priority. That and whether we can do something. You might as well do what you can rather than fretting that you should have gone out and found someone worse off to help. Deal with what’s in front of you.

There are people who would like us to choose. It supports the story that resources are scarce. We can’t house our own people so we can’t house refugees. Bollocks. Shelter reckons there are about ten empty homes for every homeless family in the UK. We’ve got money for weapons, for MP pay rises, for a nuclear submarine we can never use and a vanity rail project so that people can get out of London a wee bit faster. We don’t mind epic tax dodging by big business, and we subsidise inadequate wages out of the state purse to make life easier for business. It is a lie that we don’t have the resources. We do have the resources. What we don’t have is the will to distribute those resources even slightly fairly, or to deploy them based on need.

Help whoever you can help. In whatever way makes sense to you.

The needs of the many

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” Mr Spok, dying heroically in a Star Trek film and reducing my child self to tears.

It’s a powerful thought, this. How do we measure the importance of our own needs, even our own lives, against the needs of the many? For the rich and the powerful, it is pretty much taken for granted that the needs of the few (ie them) outweigh the needs of everyone else. The poor are statistics, collateral damage, their deaths and suffering an unfortunate cost that history will soon forget. Western culture tends not to give a shit about the needs of the many, and the quality of life experienced by the many. The needs of the few, or the one are only an issue if you are the right one, part of the important few. As ethical approaches go… it isn’t one.

The needs of the many can be a great silencer. I wonder how many people turned a blind eye to child abuse in the Catholic church, and amongst the powerful in other places because preserving the reputation of church, government, institution seemed more important than the needs of the few. How often are the needs of the few the needs of minorities, victims, outsiders? How often are the few vulnerable and lacking in power and not making the choice that they are expendable because the grand plan is more important than them?

But of course what underlies all this is the importance of who gets to choose. When the state decides that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and leaves some of its people to die in hunger and misery (as in modern austerity Britain) this is very different from one person deciding that the bigger picture is more important than them. It’s still worth being wary. Most of us are not Mr Spok facing the melt down of a ship and the imminent deaths of everyone on it. Mostly the needs of the many are not as immediate or powerful. Mostly there is more room for negotiation. The many are all individuals too, and if we can only value people as a block vote, anyone may find themselves on the outside of that, othered and irrelevant.

Better on the whole to live in a culture where everyone matters and you start from that premise to do the best you can with whatever you’ve got.

Accumulation sickness

There’s a certain amount of stuff, both physical and more ephemeral, that is necessary for a reasonable standard of life. I’m repeating an old idea here. We need shelter, food, warmth and affection to function. Sometimes objects give an illusion of security, and we cling to them for that, for imagined status and imagined need. Accumulation sickness is much more than that, though.

Where there is a flow of resources, quite a lot of things can and will move around sustainably and to good effect. From love given and received to quality work honoured with an appropriate payment, flow spreads the goodness. What happens when someone in the flow wants to accumulate excessively? All the love should flow to them, not anyone else. All the money should flow their way, not to flow on, but to stop there and pile up. There are plenty of people in our world who have more wealth than it would be humanly possible to use, stashed away in imaginary piles that reduce the flow of money and therefore energy for everyone else. There are people whose desire for importance diverts social flows in wholly comparable ways.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting what is needed, or even in having a safety net, something to fall back on. A little layer of insulation for the hard times is a natural enough thing to seek. Creatures do it, laying down fat in the good times so as to survive the winter, or the drought. But they never get so fat as to be unable to function. If they did, something else would eat them. Plenty of creatures store and accumulate. Bees with honey, squirrels with nuts, but the relationship between storing and need is pretty transparent. Nature doesn’t stockpile much, and when it does, get carried away, it’s usually an accident, as with the way wood becomes coal, or things collect up in one place by chance.

There are many reasons why wild beings do not do as we do. Most have their tools, weapons and insulation built into their bodies, and we do not. All other creatures are their own modes of transport. We mostly gave that up. Other creatures make homes and nests, but none quite like us. Somewhere along the way, the reasonable fear of death and the reasonable desire to have resources stored to avert that threat, became this other thing. This insatiable appetite to own stuff way beyond our capacity to use it, and to attract wealth and power way beyond any scope of either understanding or enjoying the implications of it.

All the while the mantra of ‘work harder’ is chanted at us by our politicians. Why? What do we need that we don’t actually have? What are we working so hard for? No matter what they tell us about working hard to get rich as an individual and do your bit for the economy, (poor, needy creature that it is) the reality is that resources tend to flow towards those glitches in the system where resources have already accumulated. The damns in the stream, if you will. There’s a thing about damns though. Every now and then, the blocked stream picks an easier path and stops piling more debris against the damn. Perhaps if we all recognised that we don’t need to keep accumulating, we could take the stream off in another direction. Anyone with a good vision of how to do this, please say!