Is it what you need or what you want?
“In America we hurry, which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for tomorrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. When an acre of ground has produced well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks and the edge comes back on its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care on inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people we would be, if only we would lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!”
Mark Twain wrote these words in 1869 and they are as true (or truer) today as they were then. If Mr. Twain were alive today he would probably be amazed at the way that things have changed in the past 145 years, and not necessarily for the better. While it is unmistakably true that we have seen technological advances and developments that were literally unimaginable then, the ‘progress’ that we have made since the middle of the 19th century has not come without a cost.
For many of us the price of what we call success is a diminishment of the quality of our physical or emotional health, peace of mind, relationships, overall sense of well–being, or all of the above. The great scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell reminds us that there are many people who have climbed the ladder of success, only to discover that it is against the wrong wall.
As much as we may cherish our dreams of accomplishment and achievement, it behooves us all to pay attention to the cost that we may be paying to fulfill them. When asked about what it is that they ultimately wish to experience in being successful, many people respond with words like freedom, happiness, inner peace, ease in life, relaxation, fulfillment, comfort, and love. Ironically, these are often the very things that are sacrificed in the relentless quest to acquire the symbols of success that society so highly prizes. The bible asks, somewhat rhetorically, “What profiteth a man if he win all the world and lose himself?” This is a good question for anyone, man, woman, Christian, Muslim, agnostic, or atheist to consider.
We all know how easy it is to lose ourselves in an obsessive quest for something, whether it is a misplaced wallet, a new car, a fat bank account, a life partner, or the approval of others. In the process of winning our desired goal, we may lose that which brings life genuine joy, passion, meaning and purpose. Or worse, we may fail to answer the question of what brings those qualities into our lives and find ourselves forever lost in an endless pursuit of socially approved symbols.
There is a saying that “you can never get enough of what you really don’t need.” The question “What do I need?” is not a generic question. It cannot be answered once and for all, and there is no collective answer to it. It invites each of us to respond from the microcosm of this moment and from the macrocosm of our whole life. Paradoxically, the more we take responsibility for asking, answering and responding to this question, the more we have to give others.
We do not become more self-absorbed by identifying and fulfilling our needs, we become more generous of spirit with others because the process results in us having more to give. When we stop the endless pursuit of what is inherently unfulfilling, find our true purpose and live in accordance with it, our experience of life transforms. When we take the time to replenish ourselves we give a gift to those around us as well because we come to them with a fuller tank, and a more open heart. There may be no greater gift that we can give to those we love than our own happiness and wellbeing. In a world that doesn’t always support this, it can require a fierce commitment and even courage to embody responsible self-care.
Yet in doing so, we not only enhance the depth of our own sense of wellbeing, we offer an example to others of what genuine responsibility can look like. Distinguishing our genuine needs from our desires can be a powerful and challenging step in the process of cultivating fulfillment in life, the kind of fulfillment that doesn’t limit itself to one person, but spills over to enhance others’ quality of life. The process is on-going and does require a willingness to set aside time for contemplation, reflection, and restoration. The benefits of investing our time in that way can be profound and life-long. Mark Twain’s words still ring as true today as they did nearly a century and a half ago. Maybe he was on to something.