Greeds and Needs
“How are you doing for clothes?” my Dad asks. We’re in his car. I’ve been going with him everyday to help him with work, but mostly to spend some time together. “Do you need anything?”
I sigh. “Well, no, not really. I bought a couple pairs of jeans this fall and some new running shoes, so I’m okay.” I didn’t sound very enthusiastic.
“What about shirts?”
“Well, I’ve got enough. I guess I just kinda get bored with them, ’cause they’re very plain and I wear the same thing over and over again. I guess I’d really like some new sweaters. Those two I have, the red and black turtlenecks, are about seven or eight years old and they’re faded and just a little shrunk. But I don’t need anything,” I add.
I made out well over Christmas and I am glad of my family’s generosity. I wasn’t expecting anything other than candy in my stocking, because most of their holiday money was spent on my flight home. That was the real present. I still received several lovely presents (including Bhikkhu Bodhi’s two volume translation of the Samyutta Nikaya!). Strictly speaking, I didn’t “need” any of them. But I sure enjoy them.
Despite my family’s generosity, no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop dropping hints about how poor I am and how much I do without. I know, deep down, that I’m fishing. I’ll take pity or sympathy or compassion or whatever you like to call it, if it generates money or a gift. When opportunities present themselves, as with Dad in the car, I try not to take advantage. I tell myself “No” very firmly. Then I tell Dad “No” very halfheartedly, with lots of hemming and hawing and ‘don’t you feel sorry for your poor deprived daughter’ subtext, and lots of conflicting emotions. Desire to have fights with a desire not to want.
In “One Foot in the World: Buddhist Approaches to Present-day Problems” on Access To Insight, Lily de Silva reminds us:
Buddhism firmly believes that evil increases stress while good increases happiness. In addition to the observance of the Five Precepts throughout life, Buddhism advocates the periodical observance of the Eight Precepts by laymen. These additional precepts attempt to train man for leading a simple life catering to one’s needs rather than one’s greeds. A frugal mode of life where wants are few and are easily satisfied is highly extolled in Buddhism. It is the avaricious and the acquisitive mentality that is responsible for so much stress that we experience.
Have you ever really noticed how people in Western, particularly American, culture use the word “need?”
“I need a new pair of shoes. These are out of style.”
“I need an SUV because I like to go camping.”
What they really mean is they want new shoes or a new car. These things would be pleasing and convenient. I am as guilty of thinking this way as anyone. However, human needs are really much simpler. We need air, water, food, shelter in the form of clothing and housing depending on climate, security, and love. Yes, I believe as social animals, humans need love, but you could just as simple say humans need companionship. Without it we tend to go somewhat insane. Nevertheless, we do not need much more than that.
I am a product of my materialistic consumer culture, a culture of greeds over needs. There is no doubt, but there is also no excuse. Karma is a reason, not a justification. Seeing our karma helps us overcome it, but does not give us license to shrug our shoulders and let it continue to push us around no matter how strong it may seem.
I was starting to get a handle on the difference between needs and wants before my study of Buddhism, and afterward I earnestly began to simplify my life. I’ve been the happier for it, too. I no longer agonize over what I can’t buy or don’t have or ought to get. But this karma runs deep and the pleasure I take in material possessions is genuine. In fact, it has increased in recent years because everything I acquire seems all the more precious to me, all the more like a gift (and many are gifts). All the while, I fight this mental battle between feeling enormously fortunate and pathetically deprived.
Sometimes I am envious. Sometimes I give in to self-pity. Sometimes I just feel sad and tired. But these are passing things, and certainly not the mainstay of my emotional life. It is mostly during times like the holidays that I wish I had more. I wish I could have gotten my mother more for Christmas than a wind-up robot toy and some seashells from the beach. I wish I could indulge some of the beautiful and creative clothes-makers I see on Etsy. I wish I could buy every book I wanted (but that’s it’s own issue) without begging my parents for just one for me, please!
Sigh. But these are passing things. And I console myself with two thoughts almost at odds with one another. First, this collegiate poverty will not last forever. Second, as I continue to practice the buddhadharma as best I can, these cravings will continue to lessen. Theoretically, as I move forward I will want less and have more. However, I cannot rely on the future to solve the present moment. All I can do today is accept what I have, what I do not have, and be content with that.
So, no, Dad, I don’t need new clothes. But I sure do want some. That’s workable, but the solution probably isn’t buying new clothes.