There’s a lot of advice out that revolves around doing what you believe in. Follow your dreams; never, never, never give in; believe in yourself; you can do anything. We’re taught to believe in a rhetoric which tells us we can succeed in anything we choose. We’ve even heard stories whereby individuals have used these iterations as the prompt for despicable and disgusting acts; I’m thinking specifically of the Columbine shooters. But certainly, yes, if you put your mind to it – dig in – use that ninety nine percent perspiration for your one percent inspiration – certainly you can find, achieve, earn, anything you want.
I don’t want to disparage these views. Believing in yourself, knowing you’re capable of greater things, wanting to achieve more, is something that seems worthy almost without that effort and belief to be committed to any particular thing. But it seems to me that all of these encouragements, exhortations, to achieve whatever you choose, ignore the fact that some people simply don’t know what it is that they do want. And without that essential initial basis, all of this exhortation to be, do, achieve what it is you want – becomes somehow directionless, almost meaningless.
I also don’t wish to disparage anyone who doesn’t know what it is they want. I suspect it’s more common than we’re lead to believe and that it explains a lot of unhealthy things about human societies, particularly western societies; consumerism, environmental damage, obesity, anorexia, alcoholism… off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m missing a thousand things which misdirected longings could help account for. Because we are taught to want, and most of us don’t have a single thing which we want and would give anything for. We’re taught to think now that it’s love, or family, or God, and maybe for some people it is. That pursuing these things long enough will ‘fulfill’ us and make us happy.
Well, beyond thinking that pure happiness is overrated, I don’t think any of those things ever make anyone happy forever. The trick to happiness is supposed to be wanting what you have, and Buddhism states that longing or desire is one of the things making people unhappy. I don’t want to deny the wisdom there, but it’s plain to me that we don’t seem to be able to stop wanting, and that achieving any one of the things we wanted merely prompts us on to wanting other things.
Then, too, in the absence of a greater ‘want’, we’re easily persuaded in the direction of small wants, which as expressed have almost no resemblance to the actual desire underlying them. Examples from the last hour include me thinking “I want to go home” when what I really want is my friends and family, and to feel loved by them; and thinking “I want my good hairbrush” when what I mean is I want to feel prettier. Sure, it’s easy to say that this is sophistry, and my underlying wants were what I have just stated, and their expression is merely of seeking a physical approximation rather than the ideal. But we do this all the time. We think “I want a cup of tea” when we mean that we’re bored, or “I’m hungry” when we’re lonely and sad; children say “I’m bored” when they mean “I want you to pay me attention”. We pursue ideals of fulfillment that I’m not convinced can even be attained, and I think that explains a lot of our consumer culture. I don’t feel good about myself or my job or my relationship with my children, but I’ll buy a new entertainment unit we’ll use together, and then we’ll finally be a happy family. Never mind that the unit will be almost unused before it’s out of date, and in the meantime, most young kids say what they want is more time with their parents. No, back to work to buy a treadmill.
All of this is to say that I don’t really know what I want. I can name you a dozen things off the top of my head that I care about, but also a lot of things I thought I wanted that haven’t made me happy. I used to think I wanted a steady relationship, but I had one of those. She dumped me like a dog on the side of the dirt road, and I realised that what I really wanted was safety, security and love. As it turned out, she offered none of those, and I think I knew it for a long time before my girlfriend left me “to go be irresponsible and disappear in South America”. I used to want a steady full time job, and then I found that the one I had, despite paying well, left me so exhausted and with so little time to myself that I gave up being social and my reading and writing pursuits. It turned out they meant a lot more to me than money and security. I managed to find a happy medium on that one, but it isn’t going to last forever. And at that point, I will have to figure out what it is that I want most, next.
What I’m saying is that I don’t believe that we all have some singular, great, underlying desire or ambition, that once satisfied, will leave us content as human beings. I think to be human is to strive, and also that sometimes, we don’t know what it is we are striving towards. We’re driven, that does’t mean we aren’t also directionless.
So really? What I’m doing here is figuring out what it is that I want most, right now. And for more than the next five minutes. I can tell you that I care about the environment, animal rights, human rights, the death penalty, literature, the arts, dying cultures, refugees, climate change, permaculture… I could go on. But all I can promise is that at any point in time, I will care about something. And I will want to talk about it.
And that is what this blog will be about.