Monday, 1 May 2017

Why want anything?

I'm in the process of trying to decide what I want from life, as I've written about previously.

I think it's an important thing for people to do, if the answer isn't readily apparent to them. But it occurs to me that maybe I also haven't given enough thought to the question of why I want to want anything at all.

I wrote in the post I linked to above that "I want to deeply want something." And obviously I want this enough to have spent a lot of time thinking about it and to have written about it at length. But why?

I think it must come down to my being a product of a liberal humanist culture, as I also wrote about, and to my still residing in such a culture. Early novels don't seem to indicate that this endless self-examination and search for fulfilment has been the prevailing condition for very long, for example. Nor does what I've seen of other cultures outside the liberal west.

Evolutionarily, there's no good reason for us to want things other than the essentials for survival and for being a functioning member of a society - people being social animals, who therefore (generally) have strong genetic and psychological motivations to be sociable.

Perhaps our biology does contribute: I've also written before about Christopher Lasch's assertion that people are anxious because we desperately want to recapture the blissful satisfaction of the womb. But this seems to be undermined by the seeming fact that other cultures aren't so relentlessly desirous, and Lasch also suggests that it's advertising and bureaucracy that keep us from being satisfied.

So it does seem that it's the culture I was raised in that is the reason I'm so keen on wanting something. A culture that asserts that to discover what's right we should search within ourselves for what we feel is right. A culture that endlessly seeks to drive us to desire things we can purchase. A culture in which everyone seems to like people "who know what they want from life".

That doesn't mean that wanting is bad: maybe liberalism is right to encourage desires. There are lots of things to like about liberal western culture, after all, like craft beer and the variety of books on offer.

And yet here I am, wondering what's wrong with me because I don't seem to want things as strongly as I should, and paralysed by uncertainty, while the planet overheats, empties of variety and fills up with waste owing to our relentless, unthinking consumption.

I suspect the answer, as with so much, will be: everything in moderation, including moderation.

Take my reading habits, for example. Books are probably my most conspicuous item of consumption after alcohol. I've written previously about how my love affair with books took a hit last year, and yet now I'm back reading almost as much as I used to. Why?

Well, I'm reading differently. Fewer novels, more journalism, more "self-help". I'm reading more discerningly. And reading is a sign of a curious mind, which surely has an evolutionary advantage (albeit perhaps only at the species level, since curiosity kills cats) and therefore an evolutionary drive.

And while I'm not saying we should necessarily always follow our urges (it's ill-advised with food, for example), doing so much of the time seems a reasonable way of avoiding frustration and dissatisfaction.

So reading gets a pass (mostly). But other things society wants me to want might not...

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