Wants and Needs: Trying to Figure out Which is Which

Ask yourself: What is the single most basic human need? There are a lot of needs and I suppose they do coalesce somewhat into a hierarchy—starting with what will keep me alive and for how long and morphing into what will make my life enjoyable (ie what will make me think least about the fact that I will die sooner or later), and probably ending with something like “what will make my life meaningful?”

But, anyways, if you said that anything other than oxygen is the most basic human need, I must call you crazy and disagree. If you can’t breathe you can’t eat. You can’t pay rent. You can’t, for more than at most 60 seconds, ponder your existence.

“Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.”

“Down again?”

“Down. Dead. Ridiculous.”

“It works for me. It’s quite fast actually. See, look I’m watching a video.” I smirked.

“Well, fuckin’ A. It doesn’t work for me.” Mr. Yang has the foulest mouth in the history of second grade teachers. He’s an epic malcontent—a man so irritable he is irritable about how irritable he is. “I’m so pissed off today. It’s pissing me off.”

On a cold day: “Freezing my damn balls off. Everyday. Cold. Bullshit.”

On a hot day: “Sweating like a pig. No AC. Bullshit.”

On the most beautiful day in recorded history: “Clear blue sky, billowy white clouds, soft breezes cascading off the early spring harvest, butterflies alighting to caress my face. Buncha bullshit if you ask me.”

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Today, Mr. Yang is pissed off at the teacher’s lounge wifi, which was installed a few weeks ago. He’s not the only one. Most teachers have been complaining about its efficiency since the day this particular series of tubes was tubed-up. In most cases—Mr. Yang turned out to be no exception—the teachers had simply neglected to enable wifi on their phone. I instructed Mr. Yang how one might do that. He began to flash a smile, but quickly shook his head and remarked on the inherent and profound bullshit coursing through the situation.

Now, obviously, there is something that needs to be addressed between the bullshit. A month ago, there was no wifi in the teacher’s lounge.

There’s this interesting interplay in life, one that plays differently based on different inputs. That’s the interplay between wants and needs. On a macro, societal, human level, the interplay between wants and needs is a complex series of promotions and demotions—a rather fluidly progressing shift in perceptions and expectations. How we distinguish—honestly distinguish—between the two tells a great chunk of the story of our societies and us.

One thing is clear about this interplay: It is much harder to go one way than the other. Promoting a want to a need (expectation works too if need seems to strong) is a satisfying process. It’s nice. It means things are better than they were. The prospect of demoting a need to a want is the type of shit that people fight wars over to avoid. No oxygen, no wars. No food, no politics.

I’ve thought about this more than I’ve thought about nearly anything during these last couple years. And that’s probably due to a rather drastic recalibration of my wants and needs—a shift in my expectations for my world. Obviously, my revision has been tangibly downward. I need less. It’s less a function of self than circumstance. To rapid fire a few things that have gone from habit to afterthought: Internet, heating/cooling, daily showers, consistent access to food, weekly showers, infrequent but existent sex, a new outfit everyday, clean water, sitting down to poop, refrigeration, driving……. Are any of these things people need? Obviously, the answer is no. Are these things people need as certain societies are presently constructed? That’s a little more complex, but yeah, probably.

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Even during these two years—as I have reconsidered the interplay—I have witnessed a lot of those wants being gradually converted into needs on a grander scale. Boxes checked off, one by one, signaling “progress.” Ding, ding, and ding. Half the teachers at my school bought new cars and learned to drive. We installed a flushing toilet (https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/commode/) We got that bullshit wifi. Slowly, where there was once nothing, there emerges that which one cannot live without. Crazy. So quick. Kind of, in many ways, like hard drugs. Once you get a taste, you’re fucked. It’s a lot easier to live without them until you’ve lived with them.

I went to India last summer. India and China are special analogs. Similar in perhaps only that they both have a whole lot of people and are both romanticized by hygienically challenged Brits in dreads and parachute pants. One thing struck me pretty hard though: India, economically speaking, is in a different universe than China. Compare Shanghai with Mumbai. Compare Yunnan (where I live), one of the poorer parts of China, with the Indian countryside. There is almost nothing to compare. To be clear, there is still intense poverty in China. But, I couldn’t help feeling that it was a little—nah, a lot—different.

Lately, I’ve been hearing an uptick in a different kind of need. I’m not going to go into it too much until I’m back under the watchful eye of the NSA and not the PRC. But, you can venture to guess what it might be. It’s got something to do with that third type of need/entitlement/expectation. The one about meaningfulness—fulfillment of self. It’s another area where India and China are very different. One’s system is inherently considered right. The other, scary and dangerous. It’s a thought I couldn’t disengage myself from after seeing family upon family of shoeless, clothes-less kids on the streets of India’s biggest cities. What, I often thought, are the priorities here?

Everyone has their own kneejerk reaction to stuff like “communism” (quote unquote because what they’ve got here isn’t really that), human rights, will of the people, freedom. These are issues of great importance. They cause wars and highly intelligent/intellectual/well thought out/factually-supported debates on the Internet. They are inarguable dogma to most everyone. But, where do they fit on the hierarchy? Would you rather eat, would you rather sleep in a bed, would you rather have a road from your tiny village to the hospital 20 miles away, or would you rather have the right to say, talk about all the idiots in congress and choose the president? Please do not for a moment think I am advocating for less rights. Each and every government in the world deserves to be subject to their iteration of the first amendment. I am not trying to speak for anyone. I am simply trying to ask some questions—analyze some of the stuff I’ve seen. In many instances, you can have both basic needs and basic freedoms! But just think about the choice. If you had to choose? Where is the line? Where is your line? Perhaps if you have never been hungry, if you have never slept on the street, you—like me—are unqualified to draw one.

We are lucky, many of us, that we will never have to draw this line. Many of our revolutions have already happened. But, there will be more.

Oxygen–the kind that isn’t bound to two hydrogens. That’s all I would think about if you tied me up to a bunch of cinderblocks and tossed me overboard—not dinner, not the Keystone Pipeline, not whether or not the wifi password is capitalized. This is obvious, perhaps a little preachy. But, it’s just a good starting point. It scales up rather smoothly. Check the box, move on. Check the box, move on. That’s kind of what we do, how we measure our progress. We check a box and then start searching for the next one—kind of like leveling up in Q-Bert or something. You can’t just go skipping around all out of order, it’s against the rules! Maslow would be pissed. You can’t be stressing about cancelling your colonoscopy when you’re underwater. That would be a pretty depressing last thought, anyway.

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Where is your line? Are you lucky enough to be able to choose your line?

It’s been pretty damn fascinating to watch how quickly a new status quo takes hold and becomes something of an inalienable foundation for living in the world—how stuff that didn’t even exist seems to materialize out of thin air and morph into something impossible to exist without. Because, innovation is a drug. It starts out as an added bonus—a cool new experience. But, then it becomes just another part of life. Something you need to function. Something that clouds your perspective of what life was like before it arrived. A box cast in stone that you just can’t uncheck. It’s a good thing though, as long as you remember the oxygen.

The Bearable Lightness of Heqing

“What do you think?” Big Brother asked me.

He’d made a common error. I’m sure he meant to ask, “What are you thinking about?” But his intended question was lost to the nuanced flexibility of language. Anyways, I understood and took another sip of beer.

It was a radiant early Saturday afternoon. I stared out the second story window of the only bar in the fledgling municipality of Songgui. I had a good view. Directly below the window stood “The Intersection.” It’s “The Intersection” because there is only one in the fledgling municipality of Songgui, so “the” functions as both article and adjective. There’s a woman selling oil-drenched potatoes and dubious reddish cylindrical things on a stick that she insists on calling “sausage.” Across the small passage that makes up the lesser contribution to “The Intersection” is a tiny shop for cigarettes, chips, a gratuitous selection of alcoholic beverages that strike fear in all passing esophagi and livers, and other basic needs for the living of life. A group of elderly women play cards, drink hot tea, and squawk at each other in a way that suggests an imminent elderly woman brawl, but is really just passionate friendship.

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Across the big road, the one that chops the town in half and connects the touristic hellholes of Dali and Lijiang, is a bank—the only one for a long ways. There’s an old security guard in there that once told me that I couldn’t use the ATM until three minutes after the previous user, because the machine “needed to rest.” I sat confused on the chalky steps with my empty wallet for a while and watched as customers flagrantly disobeyed the three-minute rule and marched on ahead of me until I realized I was either lied to, misinformed, unable to understand, or a sucker. I can just barely make him out now. Across the little alley by the bank there’s a fruit stand where a sly old woman double-charged me for a kilo of bananas. When I told her I knew what she was up to, she laughed, denied it casually, and offered to sell me oranges and sweet potatoes at a discount.

I can see beyond the intersection too, down the big road a little ways toward Lijiang and its endless markets of fake everything and oversized visitors wrapped in cameras. Then there are the mountains that restrict the rest of my horizon and there’s nothing more to say. I guess, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think that was it. If I didn’t know that that dusty strip of concrete chewed you up and spit you out in the frenetic capital of kitsch, and that mountains have an up and a down, and that the money in the bank comes from somewhere past the road and over the cotton candy peaks, I’d have no reason to believe that I wasn’t looking at the entire world from where I sit.

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“I was thinking that I could live here for a long time. I really could do it.” I answered Big Brother, in Chinese. The words—even the thought—felt blasphemous. This has always been a two years and out deal.

“Do you mean like Walden. Did you ever read, Walden?” Big Brother has a Master’s degree in Literature.

“Yeah, in high school. But, I don’t mean like that. The general concept sure, but I don’t need to pick berries and collect firewood. I mean every thing someone needs or even wants is outside this window. What do you miss about Beijing?” We clinked glasses and I took another sip.

“My family, my girlfriend. I miss them very much.” He said in earnest.

“OK. That’s important and I’m with you. And that’s why this can only be hypothetical. But, you would miss them wherever they were. What do you miss about the place?”

“I guess I miss… I guess I don’t really know anymore.” He answered, genuinely balancing the scales.

“I don’t know either, anymore. I used to think I did, you know. I used to truly—passionately—miss cheeseburgers, Butterfingers, and shit, avocados. I guess I missed food.” I laugh.

“What about being at the center of everything? That’s something to miss. When you’re in the heart of the world and you can be anything, you can make any choice. Don’t you feel like you miss out here? Like you can’t be satisfied?”

I’m sure that missing out and dissatisfaction are modern humanity’s two biggest non-eight-legged fears. It comes with the territory, I suppose. Every minute is one less. Every year that goes by is full of things that weren’t. The clock ticks and we feel the squeeze. Maybe, by being in the center of things, we minimize our chances of missing out. Maybe we increase the possibility of avoiding dissatisfaction.

Maybe. But, I’m not convinced at all. Maybe we’re so focused on minimizing the potential of missing out that we don’t even know why we don’t want to miss out. Maybe we’re so focused on avoiding dissatisfaction, that we don’t even know what it means to be satisfied. That’s not just empty existential window dressing—I really believe it as I look out and happily listen to those women verbally bombard each other.

I continue. “It feels so authentic here. Enjoyment just comes so easily. I never have to go out of my way for it. Don’t you like it?”

“I do, very much. More and more.” He says.

I wonder if that’s good enough. Is it possible to convince ourselves that there’s nothing (better”) over the mountains? Is it possible to see the road and not be concerned with its direction? Is it possible that “The Intersection” is the center of it all?

Is it even possible to be satisfied? I reckon it is. But, you have to do the opposite of what you think it means. Because, we are at odds with satisfaction. We aren’t convinced we believe it when we see it. Satisfaction is always over the mountain, down the road, a couple clicks away. You know the clichés. The fact is, if you want to ascribe to the conventional meanings of “missing out” and “being satisfied” you’ll always miss out and you’ll never be satisfied. Maybe missing out is a good thing. Maybe it’s the only way to be satisfied.

Don’t drop everything and move to the wilderness. It will be difficult and you will surely get mauled by a wild beast and/or contract a life-ending disease. I’m certainly not saying that you’ve got to be in an empty bar in a fledgling municipality surrounded by mountains to discover satisfaction. Absolutely not. But, I’m just saying, you can find it there. Or perhaps, I’m just saying that you can find it. Period. Just stop looking so hard.

“Let’s go.” He said.

“Where?” We simultaneously drained the last drops from our glasses.

“I thought maybe we could climb the mountain today.”P1000365 Me, Bolin, Big Brother, and Jasmine