“If You Wanted to Live on the Moon, What Would You Need?”

I’ve asked this brainstorming question to many different groups of students from adults to kindergartners and their answers are about the same: air, water, food, shelter, clothing. My point was to establish how very little we all need and how readily and generously the Earth supplies for many of our needs.

​Of course there may be many things we would want to bring to our hypothetical moon colony, extraneous to these needs. Needs and wants are two very different, but often confused, concepts. Back on Earth, where our quality of life is higher, it easy for lines and minds to blur.

A Want and a Need

I am overwhelmed by all the lovely gifts people have bought or handmade my child. I am very grateful, as I’m learning babies need a lot of things and have a lot of needs. They enter the world with their innate set of needs, but no established wants. When we start experiencing things as babies, our powerful minds quickly develop preferences which become the basis of our first wants. Wants are not inherently bad. Recognizing the difference between wants and needs, then making choices based on this distinction, is an awareness I want to teach my child. I feel wants are best if they are in alignment with needs. That is: we need what we want and want what we need.

This alignment is rarely the case in a consumer based society. Whether it’s advertising or our own destructive tendencies, our needs and wants are typically out of balance. We often want what we don’t need; which, in turn, can contribute to us not wanting what we do need.

​Food choice is one example. Many of us know the types of foods we should be eating to properly refuel and rehydrate our bodies; we know what our bodies need. Yet it’s easy to make food choices that are based on wants, wanting the large soda over a glass of water, wanting french fries over broccoli. When we learn to want the vegetables and water our bodies need, we become healthier and happier.

Conversely, not wanting what we need is just as detrimental to our well-being. Now that I have a child to consider, I must aligning my own wants and needs. I’ve been told, and I do realize, despite not wanting to ask for help, I’m going to need it I may want to do things myself, but I will need help.

Layers of Needs

We have more than just our physical needs. We have emotional, mental, and spiritual needs as well. Here too it’s important to consider and reflect on whether we are motivated by a need or a want. Are we allowing a want to guide our trajectory, our decisions and actions? Wants can feel like needs until, when forced to live without them, we survive. For example, people often feel that they need to create a perfect and peaceful life. However, we cannot control everything and when bad times eventually come, we deal with them. Only then is it clear we don’t need perfection and peace; we just want it. We are always stronger than our wants!

Needs are the basic motivation behind our most important goals. As we work toward those goals, we may feel our wants and needs are in alignment. However, we still can’t cling to the want aspects. The universe may serve us something different and we need the flexibility to adjust our needs. Clinging to a specific want would kill our momentum towards our goal. ​

Perspective: Do We Need It Or Do We Want It?

When I was in my late teens, I fell hook, line, and sinker for the whole premise of Buddhism; it just makes sense. Basically, wants and acquiring “things” creates attachment. Once you are attached to something, you fear losing it. This brings about unhappiness. I will teach my child “things” cannot fulfill us. There is joy that arises from limiting the mind’s wants. The ability to live simply brings a freedom not typically experienced by many in the United States. This is a sprawling country, and its space is reflected in our attitudes, conspicuous consumption, and ecologic footprint.

My mom was born in France, at a US military base. As a teenager, she spent several weeks there, immersed in the French language and culture. As children, we loved to hear stories about her time there. One we found particularly funny was in regards to the nightly, dinner arguments her aging hosts got into. It all centered around one thing, a car.

Cars in France, as in the rest of Europe and much of the world, are compact. They’re just large enough to fit the occupants and some storage. In comparison to their American counterparts, with their big block engines and oversized bodies, European cars are small. Nightly, the arguments swirled around the husband’s desire for a large American car. The car wasn’t the only point of contention, it was also the garage. Garages in Europe are naturally petite too. There is no space to waste on large garages.

The fight was never resolved before my mom returned home, so it was unclear whether Maurice ever got his boat of a car and a place to park it. What is clear is that in the vast majority of countries, outside the US, people live off way fewer resources. Carrying capacity is maximized when the average person consumes and wastes less. More people can survive in a smaller area when demands and consumption is decreased.

My Chinese friends always marveled at the space Americans are blissfully unaware of, from our spacious, single family homes, sitting on large plots of unfarmed land, to our comfortable, partially filled restaurants and coffee shops, or our wide streets and empty sidewalks, or our beaches, sprawled out for miles with the blankets of revelers spread out to give the impression of privacy. This is not typical of other countries around the world, this luxury we are unaware of. Here, we can go for a hike in the woods and be the only human for miles. Around the world, crowds and congestion abound, space is limited, a hot commodity. These examples are an artifact of a country’s size and population density, but it trickles down into the mindset of citizens.

In the US, we are wasteful in many ways with our abundant resources. We create an overloaded and rapidly moving waste stream, while a percentage of our citizens still struggle to survive and feed themselves. The mindset of many in this country is that wants are needs; that the concepts are synonymous.

Learning to Lessen Wants

My father is a chemical engineer, a calm and fair person, one of the brightest people I know, intellectually and emotionally. When I was 10 years old, my father made his first trip to India. He was there over a month to start-up a chemical plant in the middle of nowhere. On weekends, he had time to travel their vast country and was haunted by a lot of what he saw. Despite having an “American chef” to attempt “American cuisine” he returned home to us in very frail condition. I’ll never forget running out to greet him on the driveway; he was hauling in his bags and staring directly at his home. He said, “we live in a castle”. He said this with so much conviction that I knew it reflected all that he had witnessed in India.

​He had kept a travel journal and allowed me to read it. It was written with a tone of awe and disbelief. Nearly 30 years later, I can still conjure some of the images his writing created in my young, impressionable mind. Images that spoke of desperation, unfathomable poverty, and the senselessness of everyday tragedies. His experience has been formative in my life.

My child is blessed for being born in the United States but will not be a complete product of it. I want to create a grateful child, one who is aware of the difference between wants and needs and easily chooses between the two. A child who’s life is richer for having few wants and flexible needs.