Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Want versus need

(Rachel Poletick)

As a child, I spent a lot of evenings out shopping. My mom — dedicated and overworked, often tired and looking to unwind — treated big box stores like a respite for us. After commuting home from work by train and picking me up from daycare, we rejoiced in our daily retirement by gallivanting long white aisles in celebration of American consumerism.

While we picked up odds and ends, my mom might ask me what I needed. New shoes? Underwear? A jacket to replace one that I’d lost?

I’d respond. Dolls? New gel pens? A colorful boombox to play my Aaron Carter CDs?

While for me shopping was a coveted opportunity to obtain the latest toys and clothing, for my mom trips to stores weren’t just for fun. They were a chance to breathe. A necessary break from thoughts — from life.

Since March of this year, I have been forced to sit with my thoughts more than ever before. Isolation, boredom and quiet all seem to breed a kind of hyper-focus. And with so many things missing, so much that I can’t have, I’ve had no choice but to reflect on what I want and need.

Being lonely and driving to a friend’s house for company. Want.

Feeling my body ache from being sedentary, then exercising to revive my sore muscles. Need.

Craving food and going out to my favorite restaurant for dinner. Want.

The distinction, while seemingly obvious, can be pretty hazy in practice. As a child, even more so. But for the first time in my life, I am starting to gain more clarity.

So what is the difference, then?

I want something because it is desirable. I need something because it is not negotiable.

But it’s even more complicated than that. Because for many of the things I want, there is a root need that must be addressed.

While being lonely and driving to a friend’s house for company is a want, I do need company when I am lonely. But that company doesn’t require me to visit anyone. I can call, or text, or video chat. My need is still met.

While craving food and going to my favorite restaurant is a want, hunger is a real need. But I don’t need to be at a restaurant to eat. I can make food, or I can get some take out. As long as I eat, I am meeting my needs, even if I am not quite getting what I want.

For me, shopping was simply a want. When I was walking those aisles, I could ask to buy what I desired. But if I didn’t buy a single thing, life would go on just the same.

For my mom, shopping felt like a need, but was truly a want. For her, it symbolized letting her hair down. And in that respect, if she’d denied herself the privilege, it might have made her life unhappier. But there were so many ways that my mom let down her hair — she watched mindless reality TV, crocheted beautiful pieces of art, rented every horror movie from Hollywood Video, cuddled with our cat. She did not need to shop.

We do not need to shop.

We do need peace. And comfort. And joy. And occasionally we also need to do something we want, even if it isn’t necessarily something we need.

Right now, I’m waiting to do the things I want. I wait out of respect for others, because my wants do not come before their needs. I wait out of respect for myself, because I believe in my strength and self control.

And I wait because waiting is something I need to do, even if I don’t want to do it.