The simple life

What’s the difference between saying that I “want” something and I “need” it?

In a culture of endless advertising, it’s getting harder and harder to tell.

Kids learn the language quickly. Telling their parents “I want X” is likely to get them ignored. Or worse, they get a scowl and a growl: “Well, we can’t everything we want, can we?”

Insisting “I need X” instead, however, is often more fruitful. It works even better to pair it with an ear-splitting tantrum or a pitiably sad puppy face. Never mind that “need” just means “really, really, really want.” The word makes parents feel more obliged to pause and consider the request in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. After all, we know it’s our job to curb our kids out-of-control desires. But nobody wants to be the parent who denies a child’s needs.

So where did kids learn this way of talking about what we “need”?

Again, it’s part of our whole consumer culture, like the social and ideological air we breathe. More directly, however, Junior may have learned it from Mom and Dad’s example. They may talk about the importance of saving their hard-earned money. But then they go out and buy the latest, greatest version of some piece of technology, on credit, because they “need” it — even when the old one is working just fine.

. . .

There’s a reason why so many advice books have come out in recent years on simplifying our lives. To often, we clutter our homes with things we buy and never use, simply because, at the time, we convinced ourselves that we needed them.

Think, for example, about the gadgets you have in your kitchen. How many of them do you actually use? Some you use every day, even multiple times a day. Others…? Well, look through your drawers and cabinets. I’ll wager there are things in there you don’t even know you have, because you haven’t used them in years. If ever.

You can do the same thing with your clothes closet. How many things just hang there gathering dust, never seeing the light of day?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the spring cleaning type myself, though I can be ruthlessly efficient in getting rid of stuff if I have a mind to do it. I just rarely have the mind. But part of me knows that life would be a bit sweeter if it was a bit simpler.

. . .

I’m reminded of this when I read the Shepherd Psalm (Psalm 23). In the classic King James translation, the psalm begins, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (vs. 1). That word “want,” however, carries a lot of baggage from our buy-first-ask-questions-later culture. Not want anything? Good luck with that. That’s why the Common English Bible translates the phrase as, “I lack nothing,” as in, “All my needs are met.”

But even here, we need to remember that we’re talking about the needs of a sheep, not a human being with an image problem.

The psalmist goes on to describe what life is like for a sheep that lacks nothing: “He lets me rest in grassy meadows; he leads me to restful waters” (vs. 2, CEB). Fresh green grass to eat? Check. A cool, still body of water from which to drink? Check. What else does a sheep need? High speed Internet?

In short: “He keeps me alive” (vs. 3a). This way of translating the Hebrew is much more pedestrian than the classic “He restoreth my soul,” but there’s a point to it. The Hebrew word nephesh means something like “vitality.” It needn’t refer to the “soul” in any technical philosophical or religious sense, and can be applied to any living creature, including, of course, sheep.

That is part of the theology and worldview of the Psalms: the very existence of creation depends moment to moment on its Creator. But here, that relationship is cast in familiar terms as a sheep’s dependence on a shepherd who actually cares about the sheep’s well-being. The shepherd guides the sheep to where it needs to go to find the pasture it needs.

The question is whether the sheep will cooperate. We’ll explore that in the next post.

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