I was at a holiday party. Stranded. Cornered in the kitchen. Forced to answer the question, “What do you want to do with your life?”
I was evasive. Slippery. Mouth full of platitudes: “Well, I like what I do…”
“I didn’t ask you what you like. I asked you what do you want to do?”
“What I’m doing, I guess…”
“You guess? What do you want?”
“I want to write…”
An exchange that left me anxious. Panicked. Feeling empty in my guts.
“I want to write,” was more a safe word, really. A euphemism. “Stop!” is what I really meant.
I write currently. I occasionally teach classes about film and about monster make-up. I work with children with disabilities, and let me tell you, they’re the coolest kids you’ll ever meet.
So sometimes…man, sometimes I feel like a king.
And other times I’m miserable. I feel as though that’s a fair description of most people.
I have a hard time with the concept of wanting. I think a lot of us do. So much so that a simple conversation about what I want reduced my tongue to jelly.
What do you want? Like, really, really?
My problem is that I’m not sure wanting is such a good thing.
I feel like it’s selfish. Which makes me feel stupid, because I like hearing what other people want, and I don’t think they’re selfish.
(I really don’t! Tell me what you want, what you really, really want, I won’t judge).
Which means I’m a hypocrite. Or just disingenuous. Maybe both.
This must be deeply ingrained in me on a subconscious level I don’t fully understand, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I’m gonna attempt to pick apart the clots of blood that make up this irrational belief, and you’re welcome to join me, if you wish.
Culturally, we seem of two minds on the subject of wanting.
On the one hand, spiritual people and wise guys of all stripes seem to think we should want nothing. That wanting itself is the root of unhappiness. Even evil.
The Ten Commandments are pretty specific about it: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…your neighbor’s wife…his manservant…maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Which is sticky, because…I mean, how did your neighbor wrack up all that stuff if he didn’t covet it to begin with? Is the implication that he’s evil? For ever wanting the things he eventually got?
You could read this commandment as some sort of opiate for the poor. You know: Don’t want the things rich people have! Not because you’ll never have them, not because of limited resources, but because it’s bad to want. They’ve got stuff and seem happy, but they wanted it and now they’re going to Hell, so what do they know? Read this way, the commandment looks pro economic inequality. A soft tranquilizer against rebellion.
There’s a lot of reaffirmation of the status quo in religion.* Reinforcement sculpts behavior, and this commandment reinforces poverty. It says “You, poor as you are, are actually doing the right thing. Good job! Keep it up!”
What is it that Christopher Hitchens said about Mother Teresa? That she “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said suffering was a gift from God” and that she spent her whole life “opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
Which is a lot. For our purposes, it could seem that neglecting basic wants is a bad thing.
Which leads me to the other point of view: that wanting is actually good.
It indicates freedom, our most cherished state, the first symptom of emancipation.
Spiritual people say life is a mystery. Something to be unraveled, solved. That, to do that, we should ignore our own impulses, act in favor of a higher morality, ignore the distracting things we want. We should strive for Nirvana: a quiet, blissful nothingness, as far as I understand it.
(And I really don’t, so know that going forward).
Many people (most people?) reject that. They embrace the things they want, if not just so they can formulate goals. Build a life that they can measure. By achievements, yardsticks reached, milestones conquered. Sculpt their own order, exercise their own independence.
They pursue the things they want, because those things make them happy, and who’s to say life is anything but the pursuit of our own happiness?
Nothing wrong in that, so long as you don’t find happiness in skinning people alive or something repulsive. People want Nirvana, or Heaven, or whatever comes next because they’d like to be happy, I think.
We know different shades of happy, of course. A spectrum from immediate pleasure to deep satisfaction.
Some would say the rejection of immediate pleasures is the only way to attain that deeper satisfaction.
Others, “The hell with all that.“
They’d say that rejecting your wants in favor of some higher morality are like fairy tales. Pretty lies we tell ourselves to avoid facing the fact that we failed in achieving the things we wanted (“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” – Bruce Springsteen, thanks Boss)
Christ, maybe the only reason I’m scared to admit the things I want is because it sets up a situation where failure is an option. When you admit a desired outcome, and then don’t achieve it, that’s a failure, isn’t it?
But then again, what does it matter? If life is a happiness game, and if the striving for wants actually makes you unhappy…
And then again, there’s that common wisdom: the only real failure is in not trying at all.
(Then again, there’s Yoda: “There is no try”).
And I don’t know. I know there has to be some middle ground. That the reproduction and survival of our species depends on us at least pursuing the one want: a desired mate. Day to day living requires the satisfaction of even baser wants: food, water, shelter.
Needs, not wants, but these are words we made up to describe similar phenomena. A spectrum of wants, then, that’s not so dissimilar from our spectrum of happiness.
We’re talking about drives. Some are just more abstract to satisfy.
I think, though, this wanting thing has gotten out of hand, because if you spend your whole life pursuing the things you want, you might miss out on what you have.
Because you’ll never get it. You’ll get something, but then new goals will crop up a little farther down the road, and unless you find happiness and solace in the now, in that space in between yardsticks, then it doesn’t matter anyway.
Satisfaction. Can that be a want? Though I’m not sure you’ll get it if you’re even pursuing it. That distracting carrot on the end of a fishing line.
I’ve made this complicated. I’m obfuscating the point.
And I don’t want to argue against ambition. But I do want to argue against a life built entirely in the future.
What do I want to do with my life?
This. I’m doing it. Now. That doesn’t mean I’m one hundred percent happy, or even one hundred percent successful. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to change it from time to time. Do other things, explore other possibilities.
The real problem isn’t that I’m modest, but that I want everything. I want it all. All of it, all the time, because that’s what my biology is telling me. I spend so much time dreaming and writing stories because I’m exploring the things I want (or often times, the things I don’t want in the form of horror stories). That’s how I’ve learned to compartmentalize it, maybe. Or maybe that’s hogwash, and it probably is, because I’m not sure I really know anything about the subject.
I know that I think we’re all born a little bit broken. That we spend most of our lives trying to mend whatever those things are, and hopefully our wants service that. Hopefully they aren’t just pleasant distractions, like fake fruit without real nourishment.
I also know that sometimes I feel like what Sylvia Plath described in The Bell Jar: sitting at the bottom of the fig tree. (Quote at length, because it’s a good quote):
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Yeah. That makes sense.
Wanting is sometimes frighteningly inseparable from the quiet depression in that quote.
So, while I know my wants, I’d like to keep them on a short leash.
I don’t want to feed them too much, lest they become a pack of bloody, toothy, salivating monsters that eat my current happiness.
I know they can, because they have. They do it often.
I also feel that wants can eclipse duty, and they shouldn’t. That we have some sort of debt to the world that we can’t ever really pay off, and I feel sometimes that that obligation is more important. I don’t want to be self-righteous, more neurotic and guilty. I have no argument here, only that I’m a slave to my obsessive-compulsive guilt and I swallowed that religious pill a long time ago. Despite my best efforts, I’ve never really been able to throw it back up. So wanting sometimes smells like sin to me.
This, of course, doesn’t even begin to cover how material wants seem capable of quiet murder. Tyler Durdan, “The things you own end up owning you,” and I’ve found that to be true, too.
So what it is it I want to do with my life?
I don’t know. I want to be happy, I want to be helpful. All I can say with absolute certainty is that I’d like to leave behind a body of work after I die. The things I did, and I hope they’re positive. And I guess I hope my funeral is packed, if you want to know the truth of it (and very, very far from now, as well).
So tell me: what do you want?
What do you really, really want?
To zigazig ha?
[TWO WEEKS LATER: *This isn’t a fair thing to say, even if it is true. Chicken and egg scenario: which came first? Poverty or religion? Regardless of whether or not religion(s) are true, I’m going to assume man is aware of his own poverty first, so the place of religion (and particularly the place of Christianity) in reaffirming such a factual state of existence is nebulous. For we can see in religion either a sort of bitter pill, an aphrodisiac, to just get impoverished people through the day. Something to help lighten the load. Optimistically, it is hope. Or we can see in it a kind of nefarious lie, trickled down from powerful people to make the poor happy while they work. While they prevent the world of the rich from falling apart. My original statement isn’t fair because, true or not, religion is analogous to a tool in this context and, like a tool, isn’t necessarily responsible for how it will be used. Or interpreted, for that matter, when the Bible itself has been through countless translations and revisions, written originally at least decades after the events were said to have taken place, and even then probably reinterpreted and truncated themselves through the process of oral tradition — yet there are those who will hew to some kind of divine authorship when it comes to trampling on peoples’ basic human rights because of what they’ve read in this imperfect Bible. The religious right’s crusade against homosexuality is the most obvious example that springs to mind. However, even in the face of these gross injustices, I cannot comfortably slam religion with anything like nonchalance, because (a) I was raised Christian, and my own moral compass has been so powerfully influenced by the people who raised me, the people who I admire, and the people whose faith I feel enormously uncomfortable questioning, and because (b) in at least Christianity, the central narrative is so transparently populist that I can’t help but admire it. Jesus Christ, born from an unwed mother, so poor they are staying in a barn. He spends his first nights on Earth literally sleeping next to animals and in a cradle of hay. He grows up to reject society’s goals of wealth accumulation and instead wanders the countryside fraternizing with lepers and prostitutes, preaching that we should all share our food, that we should wash each others’ feet, that we are only as good as our poorest member — that we are all the same, all God’s outsiders, regardless of accumulation. And he dies, essentially, for that message — that to live a life for greed is wrong. That the only way to live is for charity, for community. He dies for community, against the outsiders, the purveyors of power and exploitative wealth. This does not strike me as a comfortable reaffirmation of ones’ poverty — it strikes me as radical and optimistic and just dangerous enough to get a man crucified. I admire this story and am amazed to see it warped and used against the poor, against people who don’t fit comfortably inside the higher stratums of society. Basically, I am alarmed any time I hear these stories invoked by anyone who isn’t a political radical. By anyone whose own idealism doesn’t somehow defeat their cynical, pragmatic politics. By anyone who thinks the word “welfare” tastes bitter. Where were we? I don’t know. It isn’t entirely fair to say “There’s a lot of reaffirmation of the status quo in religion”. A better statement would be: “There are a lot of vague platitudes in religion, stripped of context through translation and what have you. And sometimes these vague platitudes go a long way towards reaffirming the status quo…” Something like that. Wasn’t this fun? Ranty, ranty internet footnote! Peace be with you. Michael out.]