Desire Vs. Need: A Very Grown-up Fistfight

This is a difficult subject to leap right into a blog post and write about, because there is no definite point in time when this phenomenon began. It is not tied to current affairs in particular, or to a book being published, or an event in my personal life – and yet it is there, painting the scenery, blocking out the movements, playing the soundtrack for all of these.

It is slowly becoming clear to me that there are two forces, perhaps two among many, underlying our decisions. If I am lying in bed, groggily listening to the birds tweeting (in the way that people used to think of when they heard the word), and trying to calculate exactly what shade of sunrise the sky must be, and therefore how urgent it is for me to get out of bed when I’ve only slept 6 hours, there are two opposing impulses at work:

There is my desire to go back to sleep, which is tussling – very subtly – with my deep need to see the sun as it glides into view above the mountains, to hear the dawn chorus and the orchestra of morning life, to feel the thud of my heart – yes, it is still in there – as the Scots pines on the opposite slope of the valley turn from green to gold. (I could add in all the things I wish I had the discipline to do as well, like half an hour of yoga, a bit of meditation, a little light levitation before a breakfast of carrot sticks and a strawberry smoothie, but as the list grows longer I get less likely to fulfil it.)


More frequent is wanting to achieve a sh*tload of stuff in as little time as possible, which is in tension with my profound wish to get some perspective on all this rushing about, to step back and observe the little whirlwinds of activity that I whip up, while being as quiet and patient as a mountain myself. Desire impels me to notch up trophies, or scars; to have been someone, rather than to be what I am, prior to and beyond any kind of category.

This tension often makes my relationship with my kids slightly fraught. They understand Need very well. Babies smile when they enjoy something, but cry when they need it. There is no ratiocination to get in the way, or experiences to be compared, or theories to muddy this clarity. It is a totally straightforward expression of what is needed, and once the need has been achieved, the previous stress is completely forgotten.

An eye-opening example of this is the Tantrum. Holy shamoley. Once your kid is old enough to have desires, and not just needs, the whines and whimpers and tears and screams are converted into a force of nature powerful enough to shatter windows. He doesn’t really need to play ten more minutes with that toy train, when it’s really very late and he needs to go to sleep. He wants to play, dammit. And he’s going to show you what the argument between desire and need that is going on inside you all the time actually looks like when you take off the well-bred adult exterior.

The screaming bejeezus

The screaming bejeezus

See, we haven’t got Desire and Need equally fulfilled and playing a nice violin duet together in the background of our beings. They are pulling each other’s hair out, kicking shins and biting arms, squabbling over a doll that looks alarmingly like you.

Let’s imagine a woman with so many interests and strings to her bow and, very likely, education that the world appears as an infinite hallway of doors, all of which are tantalisingly open, and yet the sight of so many of them at once makes her run up and down this hallway in a panic, sticking her head in one door before being called by another. Behind one door she might see herself writing a book. Another might be doing a master’s degree. Another might be setting up a charity, another an enterprise, another a local seed bank, or time share organisation, or recycling network. Do you see how the hallway is beginning to spiral  out into the distance? Every one of those door represents a Desire, and each one is clamouring for the woman’s attention.

Now, let’s throw a couple of kids into the picture. (Onto a bouncy castle so they don’t get hurt.) These children, while being in every way the apples of her eye, are also the very embodiment of Need. From the moment they are born to the moment they move back home aged 33 and start demolishing the contents of her fridge, they will be needing her to do things for them. Feed. Burp. Change nappy. Coo over them. Tickle them. Get outside for some fresh air. Administer healthy foods. Nurse them when they are sick. Observe their development and seek advise from experts. Find them things to play with. Find them friends to play with. Teach them to read. Teach them why it is wrong to throw a rock at a dog. Teach them how to deal with unpleasant people in life. Do you see how the hallway is also spiralling out into infinity, in the opposite direction?

But after reading this great article by blogger and mother of two Kim Siegal, aka Mama Mzungu, about how Kenyan women seem so calm when it comes to children having tantrums, it is occurring to me how simple the mothering equation is – on paper, at least. You recognise the needs of whoever is around you, including yourself as one of them, but prioritising the needs of anyone who is, for whatever reason, unable to fulfil those needs themselves. You can always eat/sleep/do that master’s degree/read that novel later.

Nez Perce couple and child on exhibit - A-Y-P - 1909

I read recently in a book about Seneca Native American medicine that Seneca women wore their hair in braids to represent the way in which we are all interlinked with everybody else, and with the animal world, the plant world, the elements, the land, and the spiritual world. Every section is equally important.

This shift of perspective is not as easy as it sounds in practice. But it is surely the best decision we could ever make..

The more I look at my decisions in terms of what’s needed – in a broad sense – and what it is I desire, I am more likely to attend to my kids’ needs without groaning, more likely to get up early and listen to the birds celebrating the dawn, more likely to eat well instead of munching on crap, more likely to listen to a friend’s call for help without listening to my own desire to be a heroine in helping her.

A new view is opening out, similarly endless, but this time there are no doors from behind which possibilities caw. Instead it is a vast, open panorama in which family, friends, strangers, animals, plants, appear as they are: glorious beings, all of them equally worthy of life, and all of them, to some degree, in need.

My role becomes clearer. The clamour of the doors is transformed into the chatter of rooks on a telephone wire. When faced with the decision between reading just one more article online, and paying some proper attention to a loved one tugging at my sleeve, now I can see the polite battle happening between the forces pulling me either way. I know the places each one takes me. And I know which one my heart needs to live in.

(But still, another hour in bed wouldn’t hurt.)

2 thoughts on “Desire Vs. Need: A Very Grown-up Fistfight

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