“I’d never be a member of any club that would have me as a member”
Those immortal words of the most famous of the Marx philosophers have guided most of my major life decisions. Well, not really, but it could explain my antipathy to things like co-ops and communal living. Or maybe it’s I just don’t like people?
Whatever the reason I’ve been more than reluctant to join anything that involves more than one other person. That’s probably why I’ve never had a problem with monogamy and adjusted to married life without a problem. But ever since those early report cards saying I didn’t play well with others the story hasn’t changed much.
Which makes it all the more surprising that I’ve joined two groups on the net. All right one of them is mandatory and I don’t have to really chat with anyone. But the other is on a strictly volunteer basis. What’s fascinating about this group is that they are talking from a completely different cultural perspective than the one I’m familiar with.
Instead of hearing thoughts shaped by the Western Judeo Christian ethos that developed my thinking process, I am privileged to listen, and occasionally comment, to a group composed primarily of people with Asian and Indian heritage.
As it is primarily a literary discussion group, the majority of the time I’ve never even heard of the book, or series of books under discussion. But since most of the titles talked about deal with lessons on how to live a good life, or other philosophical notions, I’m not totally left out of the loop.
I’ve long been opposed to the practice of what I call culture dipping. That is, taking an aspect of someone else’s belief system and applying it out of context in your own culture. Not only is it usually inappropriate, but it’s also insulting to the people whose ideas you are appropriating.
On the other hand, learning another person’s perspective is one of the things that allows for the discovery of common ground between cultures. If we continually look on other cultures and beliefs as “different” instead of trying to focus on similarities, we will continue to be a planet of strangers.
When the moments of synchronicity do occur it feels like a ray of sunlight has broken through a cloudbank. All of a sudden something that had made no sense a second before is a concept that you have always espoused and valued. Such a moment occurred during a recent discussion about the difference between needs and wants.
For the western mind the problem usually is learning how to separate the two. Most of us here in North America have no idea that there is even a difference. Take a look at our obsession with material wealth and that’s not too great a leap of logic is it.
But as far as I can tell from experience, and that’s all I have to go by, what it really comes down to is gratitude for the gifts we have. Once we learn to be grateful, our wants requirement is lessened.
Needs/wants tend to spring from some sort of dissatisfaction with our lot in life. When I find myself needing something I closely examine my real motivations for that item. For example I recently fixated on getting myself a laptop for writing. It would not have been the end of the world if I couldn’t get one, but the reality was that it would make my wife’s and my life easier.
She uses our desktop for graphic design, and right now is currently recording a CD of her music on it. We were starting to run into conflicts; with me needing to write and her needing to do her thing. My wanting of the laptop was to fulfill the need to satisfy both of our desires to be creative.
It is not the same as shelter or food or health, which are basic needs, but as the old union song says, “give us bread and give us roses too”. There is more to life than just survival, quality of life must enter into the equation somehow.
Where the real problem lies is in a definition of quality of life. Accumulation of material goods of any sort does nothing to improve the quality of anybody’s life; it just adds clutter.
In order to live a want free life one must have the awareness to understand where ones own personal fulfillment lies. For me it was having the means to write whenever I needed to. For my wife it was having the means to work on her artwork and music as required. The $100 Canadian I spent on the laptop was a cheap price to fulfill all of that.
With that one purchase we are each able to do what is needed, and in the process find we want for less. Both of us had gone through periods in our life when we would buy things in an attempt to fill some hole or other in our lives. All that usually resulted from that was guilt over spending money we really couldn’t afford.
Now this is a discussion that could occur quite easily between two western people. What made this unique for me was how it came up. Instead of simply being about the relative merits of material wealth it began with a concept alien to my way of considering things.
As I understood it the topic was responsibility to one’s choices and ambitions. If we have striven for years to accomplish something, whether professionally or personally, it becomes our duty to fulfill that attempt. In that fulfillment all of our needs will end up being met.
I think of myself in this context and I realise the truth of that statement. Since a very young age I have always wanted to write. For a variety of reasons, I have never been able to commit myself to it in a serious manner until this year.
In the years leading up to now I have always experienced a level of dissatisfaction no matter what it was I was doing. Even when I thought that I was following my dreams, working as an actor, and the theatre, I was heavily addicted to alcohol and drugs. Which suggests a certain level of unhappiness.
It wouldn’t matter whether or not I had the means to buy anything I wanted, or was stone broke, both of which I have experienced at various points in time. I could never eliminate that empty feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Despite living in circumstances that most people would consider unfortunate: I have a chronic pain condition requiring heavy medication and painful treatments, and which limits my physical activity to short walks; around the same time that I became disabled my wife’s life was affected in a similar manner through a recurring condition of her own; we are now living on a provincial disability pension which barely meets our needs, let alone cover our debt payments from before we both took sick; I’m more content with my lot in life than ever before.
It is a rare occasion now that I find myself wanting something that isn’t needed. It’s not like I spend my whole day writing either, so it’s not as if I don’t have time to brood upon things. It really is a matter of getting fulfillment from fulfilling my duty to myself
When I read that last sentence I can see how people might interpret that as very selfish behaviour. What about the needs of others, and your responsibilities to them and society as a whole? What about working for a living and all those things that have to be done whether we like it or not?
But how many of those responsibilities are dictated by wants instead of needs? If we desire to accumulate stuff, then we need the money to pay for it, then we require the means of obtaining money. Since that does seem to be the prime motivation in our society, then things like getting ahead and working yourself into an early grave become a responsibility.
This is where it is important to learn to differentiate between needs and wants. If raising a family is what you need to fulfill yourself than you do what you can to achieve that end. Since everything you are doing is helping you achieve that goal, than no matter what you are doing will be satisfying because it pertains to the primary need.
It’s the difference between being forced to get a job and give up your dreams to raise an accidental family, or one that was not planned, and setting out with that goal in mind where the distinction is made clear. In the former everything is a responsibility and a burden, in the latter, you are doing what you want to do.
We’ve been raised in a society where we are told it is our duty to go forth and work to make money and raise a family. When you look at it dispassionately it’s a pretty joyless existence. For a society of so-called individuals there is very little true individual freedom. We are born, go to school, work for x number of years and than die. Maybe along the way we raise a family.
Is it any wonder that artists are looked upon with suspicion? They are one exception to the Protestant work ethic that dictates how we live our days. They are doing what they want to do and appear to be turning their back on responsibility. In truth they are being just as responsible as the next person, but instead of the dictates of our society, they are being responsible to themselves.
Who do you think is leading a more truly fulfilling life; the artist living in his garret painting, or the banker sitting in his office forty hours a week for forty years? Who’s truly getting their needs met?
I made certain choices a long time ago, choices which a lot of my friends and immediate family didn’t and probably still don’t understand. I chose the path less traveled in our society of working as an artist, with all the risks and economic insecurity that accompanied it.
The thing is though, that because of that choice all those years ago, I’m sitting here today doing what I want to be doing and feeling like I’m not lacking for anything.
Different cultures have different views and attitudes towards the same subjects. These views are often reflected in the makeup of their society and how it operates. As the world continues to shrink and contact between cultures continues to grow, we need to take advantage of any opportunities to explain ourselves to each other.
The more we know about each other the less chance there will be for misunderstanding and uncertainty. I don’t know if I completely grasped the topic that was under discussion in the group that day or if I’ve even been able to explain it clearly, but every little piece of information I collect helps me piece together the puzzle that is our world a little more each day.