A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said something that has been consuming my thoughts almost daily. Perhaps intending to be profound, perhaps not, my friend said something that forced me to wonder and ponder about who I am and what I want. What did my friend say? He said, “What I want is killing me.”
The context for this statement as I recall, was that my friend had been thinking about what he wanted versus what he needed. He realized or maybe re-realized – as many of us often do in adulthood – that our needs are actually quite small. It is our wants that are endless. Economics 101, right?
We’re warned from a young age to not want many things. It coincides with universal values that most of us are taught regardless of culture and economic position. Values such as prudence, gratitude, and indeed even the ever-coveted happiness is communicated as intrinsically related to wanting less. It makes sense. Have you ever been happy while thinking about wanting more? Rarely.
So what are we to do with our wants? Popular (and brief and partial) interpretations of religious theologies and philosophies may provide some assistance here. Buddhism, as I understand it, tells us that with enough persistence in meditation and in understanding one’s state in this world, our wants will diminish. Islam offers that God who is all-knowing has decreed all and allows all; but also that as we have the willpower to want, we can have the willpower to stop wanting. Judaism insists that ultimately material desire must be broken because it distances one from God.
The religious theologies I am most familiar with however, come from Christianity, of which there are many. There are those who preach what has become known as the Prosperity Gospel. Often conceptualized in a pejorative way by those who do not subscribe to it, the fundamental idea is that God blesses an individual with material success as with anything else. (So it’s okay to want material things.)
But I am a cradle Catholic, and like most cradle Catholics, not getting what you want is sometimes seen as Divine Intervention. And if you really wanted it? Well, you’re told to “offer it up”- which is Catholic-speak for “quit bitchin’.” (This is of course after the “God helps those who help themselves” lecture you’ll get when you express your wants. Often coupled with a “faith without works” speech.) What did Jesus himself say about wants though? Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)
For all intents and purposes, I do want the kingdom of God. But I also want other things. Some of these things are even holy. But many of them are just human.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting things. In fact, I think sometimes wanting things is good. It shows that you have hope and faith and plans for the future – and those are all good things. But I do think why you want what you want is of utmost importance. Who you think you might become because of these things is something you may want to consider. And what you are and aren’t willing to do to achieve these things is vital.
For me, I know that “things,” and most certainly visible things are probably not the best description of what I want. My wants are often invisible and intangible; experiences, achievements, success, significance, etc. The things that money cannot always buy – those are the things that keep me up at night. To have gone through life ordinarily, never doing what I believe I am capable of doing with all the gifts I’ve been given, and the sacrifices that have been made – this, my friends, sometimes terrifies me to the point of paralysis.
I know how to want less stuff. I know how to live with less stuff. But like my friend, what I want is killing me. But I’m okay with that sort of death because the truth be told, when it comes to at least some of my wants, I’d rather die trying. Death, to me, is not as bad as a mediocre life that never tried for anything because one was much too afraid to want anything.
There is a happy medium though – I’m certain of it. That place where our desires can meet goodness; a place of virtue. That place where our wants do not drive us to death or to a life where we feel like we are dying because of our desires. Perhaps this place, more than anything else, is the thing I want the most.