Thursday, January 13, 2011

Want Is Not Need

While the title of this post is one of those "Well, duh!" aphorisms, I find myself lured from lethargy to type those words. I'm by no means certain that I need to type this but I certainly want to type this because it seems to me that much of the trouble we bring on ourselves is a result of our conflating and confusing the simple concepts of want and need.

While discussing this subject with my lovely and talented spouse, she reminded me of a time long ago when our kids were still kids and learning the ways of the world and the ways we use language to make sense of things. In the store and on a budget, Christine tried to teach the boys the difference between want and need. "You don't need Oreos," she explained, "you just want them." Our boys were sharp students and learned quickly. Needs trump wants so from that day forward they learned and practiced the mantra of the marketplace, a grating whine centered on the word need with the pronunciation drawn out so it sounds like neeeeeeeeed. Christine really did need some quiet and a respite from the high-pitched pleas, so more than a few times we found ourselves with the Oreos we desperately needed.

The problems with the tricks we learn as children is that we often keep using these tricks past their useful lifespans. We believe our own words and build a world where happiness is always just a few key objects away. Whether we're lusting after the latest iPhone or we've convinced ourselves we would really be happy if we could only get down to 57 good things, we seem to think stuff is the problem. We have too much or too little, but either way it's a drag. Stuff is sticky and it's hard to let it go, but stuff seldom falls cleanly into the need it or not piles. In some sense, we need to want, for want is what keeps us moving. Our goal often turn out to be mystical macguffin, but it doesn't matter if our Maltese Falcon turns out to be a cheap forgery, if it has gotten us in motion. I suspect the value lies not in the goal, but in the pursuit.

When stuff, either a lack of item A or too much of item B, is seen as a need when it is in fact a want, we run the serious risk of either delaying our departure or riding with the brakes on. I was prompted to write these words after reading this blog post:


The man describing himself as "Average Joe Cyclist" does a good job describing how his e-bike helps him ride more, gets him in motion and made him stronger and that's all well and good. If e-bikes help more people ride, exercise and do more with less, more power to 'em. But I think Average Joe missed an important lesson in his tale: he made it up his big hill, carrying the motor and batteries as dead weight. Yet he concludes that he needs to ride with an electric assist. How does he know? The evidence I see in his story leads me to a different conclusion.

I love all different kinds of bicycles but something strikes me as a bit off when I hear people say things like "you need a Long Haul Trucker to tour cross country." A Trucker is a fine machine and if you want one, go for it. But do you need it? Or do you just want it?

We gain strength and grace by moving forward, pressing ahead when we're not quite sure we have all we need. We seldom have all we want. But if we try sometimes we just might find, we've got what we need.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA
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