“The only thing she always knew she wanted was love, was Derek, was her boys, but then even that went wrong, and she didn’t want anything at all. And so she began to feel as though there was no want, there was no you.
What do you want?”
-J. Robert Lennon, Familiar
It’s hard for me to figure out how to want. I certainly have wants: today, when I got home, I wanted to sit down and nothing. That’s often what I want at the end of a work day. Sometimes that’s what I do, and sometimes the nothing turns into an hour, or two. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with resting, but I don’t feel rested at the end of the two hours. That happens with a lot of my wants: they lead me toward places I don’t want to go, they conflict with other wants, or they don’t even get to the thing they’re after.
Maybe the problem is that my nothing isn’t really nothing: like many Americans, it’s the static of screens and entertainment, the muddied mumble of webpages, TV, changing light and catchy sound. If what I really want is to rest, to find a place of quiet inside my body and my head, then all that stimulus isn’t the right road to walk.
Thinking about my wants seems useful. It’s a way to try to understand, to weigh them against each other, to choose. At the same time, I don’t want to be some martinet, forcing each song to quietly raise its hand before it sings. Where’s the place for dancing? On the other hand, many of my wants really do seem like poor guides. If a cool looking dog kept leading you into a swamp burping with foul gas, you wouldn’t keep following the dog. What do I do when I am the dog? And the swamp? And the person deciding whether or not I’ll follow along?
Sometimes I think there’s something important in the fire of want. It certainly gives you a nice little shove. It might be an ingredient in the paint that gives things color. Sometimes I think letting go of my wants lets me see the rich color that already exists all around me, swirling through the world. Sometimes I watch myself sleepwalking along, “wanting” the things I’ve been told I should want. Sometimes a passion comes like sunrise, and I look away. Sometimes I warm myself. Most of the time, I’m confused.
Today, instead of sitting down after work, I chopped some veggies for dinner. I felt the knife rock back and forth across the cutting board. (“Chop wood, carry water,” my mother would say; maybe that means take the step you can, or focus on some work in the world). I didn’t really want to, at least, not when I started chopping. By the end I was smiling. Had I disciplined my wants, or followed them, or understood them?
“What do you want?”
Do other people have an easy time answering that question? And how important is that question, compared, for instance, to ‘What does the world need?’