Monday, October 5, 2009

Want Vs Need

Whenever the leaves start to change, I break out Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It’s so American, the notion of building one’s house from scratch, reflecting that upstart, self-reliance as if creating one’s own identity anew. Since those Transcendental ways, our nation has moved away from our pioneer principles, instead becoming a nation of ‘want.’ Buying on credit, storing our excess in metal units, discarding last year’s model in landfills, the lines between want and need are blurred into an obscure mist. Sitting alone, meditating in nature, watching a pond as Thoreau did, has certainly gone out of vogue, but there are signs of its reemergence. Just this weekend, I read about a woman who learned to fix her own plumbing, about the uptick in craft sales, and about a man who swam across Walden pond. A sign of the times, no doubt. As the recession struck a blow to our consumerist psyche, the collective reassessment of how we spend our money grows into how we spend our time. Is it better to have less stuff, but more time? A year ago, many would have opted for stuff, but the idea that we lose fleeting moments of our lives paying for unnecessary expenditures has become too costly in the end. And yet, a life without a certain bit of clutter seems too orderly for me. Where is the balance?

So I look to Walden. The house, a small shed by today’s standards, reminds us of what we don’t need, and what we do. Thoreau seemed quite content during his time there, but would it work today? As the scale of the average American home has grown, has it made us any happier? Is all that space what we really need, or simply what we want? How has it affected our sense of family and community? The Rural Studio, founded by Samuel Mockbee at Auburn University’s Architecture School, James’ alma mater, has put together a modern Walden. Seen here in Dwell magazine, the house can be built for $20,000, clearly what some could easily pay for kitchen cabinets. Now I’m certainly not a purist nor a minimalist; however I do want to consider how I spend money, how I fill the spaces around me, and definitely how I spend my time. Perhaps the greatest luxury item we can give ourselves these days is Thoreau’s simple recipe: peace and quiet.


Marie Parfacy said...

Up to a certain extent, everything in our lives are categorized as wants. One can argue that humans need basic necessities such as a phone, a computer, or even a bed. But I am certain we can survive without electronics, and learn to sleep on the ground.
Our prehistoric ancestors lived without beds, cots, or even a small $20,000 house. They survived just fine, living on actual human needs; raw food, water, and procreation.
But as humans, I believe we turn our wants into needs. Once we have possession of a want, and we grow accustomed to it, it becomes a need. Take a computer for example; 50 years ago a computer was rare, there were specially trained employees in companies solely for the purpose of word processing. As computers become less and less expensive to produce, it becomes more and more widespread, as a result, more and more people use it. Before you know it, the whole world is computerized, every person, every picture, everything, is stored and archived on some computer, somewhere in the world. If we were to be without computers for just one hour, the world would end(not really). This is when something has become a need, not for life, but the way we live it.
Needs based on a life we craft, is a whole different story based on an actual need. I discovered your blog from a google search linked to a past entry regarding red boots you bought, would that be considered a need? The joy of receiving them, just receiving them, having them, and holding them is enough to "get [you] through the week" is intriguing to me. Perhaps for you, receiving these boots is an actual need, perhaps it's a want, but the decision of what items in our life should be categorized as, should solely be left up to the one living it.

Nadine @ BDG said...

More than a terrific comment-- a thought provoking one-- which is something I think the world does 'need' more of.
When I pose this question, it's clear to me at least, that I am as consumer oriented as the next-- hence the red boots. Sure enough, I could have survived the week, and life's many rainy seasons without them, but their design, their color, and the functionality compelled me to own them as objects. There is this pull to transcend our circumstances, to imagine the world as we want it to be and then to set it in motion. Would walking in the rain with new red boots make the experience better? Dunno yet, I'll keep you posted.
Northrop Frye says it's the educated imagination humans have, with desires beyond survival needs. It leads us to create art, to make music, and develop innovations like the computer. I really liked your discussion about the computer, because need can also evolve as new technologies take hold. Take the car. I can't believe how reliant I am on mine-- much to my chagrin.
I am glad that my musings reached the web and made their way to you. I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment that want and need are incredibly personal decisions--- speaking for myself, I always try to step back and reflect on the choices I'm making. Sometimes good, sometimes not so much. It's in the asking that I am able to see my own hand a bit more clearly.
Cheers and Peace, N