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Monday, 23 July 2012


While waiting in line at the supermarket yesterday I was stuck behind two women taking care of two whiny little girls who insisted on buying candy. At one point one of the women said "Fine, you can have one, but you can't possibly want two of them." And you know, it's a rather reasonable thing to say, given children don't really want the things they say they do. They just happen to like something and it's the same as wanting it. The whole thing got me thinking (in case you hadn't figured that out already).

If you ask children what they want, chances are they'll tell you things they find enjoyable (or think they do). They want to be doctors, firemen, mothers, models. They want to eat pizza, cake and candy. They want to go to parties and amusement parks. They want to have cool toys. German children are scolded when they say they want things (wollen) as opposed to saying they would like something (mögen). Meanwhile in Spanish, the word for wanting (querer) can also mean "being affectionate toward."  The word comes from the Latin quaerere, meaning "to look for," rather than from volle, "to want." Incidentally, "to want" and "querer" also refer to the lust to be with someone, like wanting is something that comes instinctively to people.

In the woman's answer to the little girl was an underlying relationship between what we want and what we need, or what will make us happy. The little girl didn't need the candy, and if she were to want any at all, she most certainly should be satisfied with one piece. Parents the world over know that children seldom actually need what they say they want. If they don't yet, they'll find out soon enough when they put any effort into getting the child something "wanted" only to find it loses its charm far too quickly. It can be a milkshake that was only good for the first few sips, it can be a toy car that turns out not to be as good as the old ones, it can be a piece of cake that looked great but doesn't taste so good. A fundamental part of decent parenting is teaching children about this, that they may learn to know what things they should want (read:that will actually make them happy). This lesson should go hand in hand with a lesson in patience, because children should also be taught that sometimes getting what you want doesn't come easy and will take effort and time. Apparently, children who learn this last lesson grow up to be smarter adults, knowing to sacrifice immediate satisfaction for something better in the future.

It only makes sense. I remember a character from Tom Sawyer who wished for something very badly and had to pray and ask for it every night for a lot of nights (over a hundred, I believe). It sort of ensures that if you ask for something you make sure you want it even after a lot of time has gone by. If nothing else, it has to be something you're willing to work for. Most adults take quite some time to even realise that they won't be happy unless they work towards achieving what they want, and knowing what they want is actually half the battle. Often enough adults will revert to their childhood selves striving for the things they like. They'd like a big house, the latest technology, lots of friends, nice clothes, a partner. If having one of those isn't it, you keep trying with the others. When you have them all you decide that money either buys happiness or it doesn't. It certainly buys you the time to stop worrying about what you need and differentiate it from what you want. It buys you the time to figure things out and carry plans out. Inevitably, adulthood brings over the realisation that we need a lot of commodities we used to take for granted. 

Unless you had a particularly rough childhood, chances are you never had to worry about keeping a roof over your head or food on the table (I'm sorry if I sound "privileged" to imply this is some kind of norm). Even when money is scarce, decent parents will do everything they can to keep their children unaware of the pains they go through to make it day to day. When I was little (almost?) all my problems began and ended in school. I worried about having friends, being liked, getting homework done, being fancied by the boys I fancied. It wasn't until my dad was fired that I started to worry about money. I now worry about whether or not groceries will last all month, bills can be paid, our tuition can be afforded, or if I should get "nice" things. Mum will insist that my money is mine to spend, and while I took some to myself I couldn't not pay for things I knew were actually needed. 

When I was given money to open a bank account I couldn't open, I hesitated on how to spend it. Rather than buy two lovely dresses I loved, I bought just the one I loved the most and I'm now wondering how good an investment that was. I didn't go out very often growing up and I go out a lot less now, both because I've changed my friends and because even when the possibility opens up I worry that I could need the money for something else. When my dad offers to give me money to go out, or even to get by the week, I tell him I still have some left, not to give me so much, to use it in more important things. While I don't directly worry about paying the bills, I try to make sure I don't use up so much of the money that I get in the way of us being able to pay them. I don't worry that it gets in the way of the social life I don't have, and I daresay both my sister and I have made sure we don't spend much whenever we do go out. I don't have to impress anyone with the things I order or don't order. My friends know I don't drink alcoholic beverages and don't party. 

Ever so slowly, I've grown more used to being myself and recognising the traits in others that should actually be good for me. While I still worry about being liked and having people's approval, I now limit myself to worrying about the approval of fewer people. I'm not quite so embarrassed to be quirky and I don't try so hard to fit in as to find people I fit in with. I don't worry about doing things I don't want to do just because others are doing it. Being different is not so much to be ashamed as to be proud of. I stand up for the things I believe in and don't mind if I stand out for it. While I still hope to be accepted, I no longer want to be liked by everyone. Though I want to have the company of certain people, I'm teaching myself to be more self-sufficient. A love life... the idea makes me sigh yearning, but the realistic/pessimistic me realises it's optional (if at all possible).

All I look forward to in the next few years is financial independence. I don't exactly get to make a lot of the choices on how I get there, but I'm willing to put myself through it. I keep telling myself I'll start deciding then, when it's all paid and accounted for. When I don't have to worry about the essentials any more. I realise that day may not come, and I know I'm just stalling so I don't have to figure out how unhappy I'll be walking that road or deciding which other road to choose. A certain sense of duty calls me. I got it easy for so long, I have to somehow make up for it. My sister got a taste of the worries too soon. Mum has been living below her expectations and above her capacities for too long. I need to figure out a way to help.

It's odd then, when every so often I come by something nice, like a flowery dress, and all I can say is volo!. It's a rather guilty pleasure, fantasising of a happy time when I might wear it which I know won't come for some time (if at all). It's exactly like dressing up, doing my make-up or pampering myself with a whole body scrub followed by body lotion. I indulge in the fantasy that I will have some place to be pretty and be admired, I secretly hope opportunity will find me looking good and will reward me with a love life. These wishes are all related to things I would like, to (who am I kidding) the man I want to be with. Do you suppose daddy God (or mummy Fate) would let me have any of it? Do you suppose they would say: "Fine, go and have _____. See if it's all you hoped for. You're not getting any more than that."?

A vague sense of merit takes over telling me, much like children are told, that if I'm good then I deserve to have good things coming my way. And good things should come in the form of what I want. Children aren't told they'll be awarded with a college education if they behave on command, they're offered things they want, treats. I suppose in the greater scheme of things I hope that if I do well then I will be rewarded, even though I can logically see absolutely no connection between the two. If I work hard and attain financial independence and the ability to pay for all the things I'd like, it will have nothing to do with whether or not I get anything I want for myself. This is exactly the kind of cock and bull story Christians are sold: be good to others and God will be good to you. 

Lucky for me, being good "comes easy," as I've never had a rebellious phase. I suppose the rebellious phase is what happens when you start wanting something other than what your parents/guardians tell you to look for. I don't think I've been told to look for anything other than financial stability (and true love), and I've never thought of looking for anything else. I don't have a dream of becoming a talented anything. I don't hold any real hopes of becoming a famous anything. I am not looking forward to being a housewife with children. I don't even think I'll be able to have a career (as opposed to a job).  If given the chance to pursue something else, I don't think I would: it wouldn't sound sensible.

So, essentially, when asked the fundamental question "what do you want?" I don't know that I want anything (wollen), there are only things I would like (mögen). There are things and people I'm emotionally committed to (querer), things I strive for (quaerere). Some of these are essentials I couldn't easily live without. The others I grew up believing I should have. 

You know, even characters in children's films who wish upon stars have something they want, so badly

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