“That’s not a need! That’s a want!”
How often have you heard this? How often have you said it?
We throw the words “need” and “want”around but do we really know what they mean? Somehow, by labeling something a “want” many people–parents and spouses in particular–feel that they have a right to deny someone something. Or, if we think something is a want and not a need, then we will often feel guilty even having it much less expressing it.
What is a need? What is a want.
A need refers to anything that sustains my overall well-being and fosters the full development of my physical, psychological, spiritual, or relational health. In Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), Pope Paul VI argued that all individuals have a God-given right to receive everything they need to develop fully as persons. As St. Irenaeus put it, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” In fact, as I argue in Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart, properly understood, all our needs and our wants ultimately point us back to God.
Now, that said, no one has an unlimited, completely unfettered right to meet their needs however they want whenever they want regardless of how it affects everyone else.
Which brings us to wants.
A want represents the way we would prefer to meet a need. If a need is the “what” we want, a want represents the “how” and “when” I wish I could get what I want.
A want is not a lesser need that may be ignored. A want is a legitimate, though sometimes flawed, attempt to express and meet a need. Wants can be flawed in two ways. First, they might not actually meet the need they represent. For instance if I need more peace in my life, but I express that as “I want a divorce” the want (divorce) may actually–depending on the circumstances–actually make it harder to meet my need (greater peace in my life).
A second way a want could be flawed is if it prevents the people in my life from getting their needs met. The Church teaches that each person has a God-given right to meet every single one of their needs. We all have a divine right to receive everything we need to sustain and see to the full development of our physical, psychological, spiritual, and relational well-being BUT we also have an obligation to meet those needs in a manner that respects other people’s right to do the same.
If what I say I want could potentially conflict with meeting my needs or cause me to jeopardize someone else’s ability to meet their needs, that doesn’t mean I lose and don’t get to have my need met. It means I have to identify the true need and explore alternative ways to meet it.
Step 1: Identifying the Need Behind the Want
If something you want seems somehow ridiculous, or impossible, don’t dismiss it. Ask yourself instead, “How do I imagine I would benefit if I got that?” The answer to this question is your true need. The thing you are really trying to address by expressing the original want. Here are few, silly, for instances just to illustrate how the process works.
“I want a T.V. in every room of my house!”
“Well, how do I imagine I’d benefit if I had a TV in every house?”
“As silly as it sounds, I’d really like to have the noise to distract myself from all the things I worry about constantly.”
NEED: Inner-peace. Obviously a TV in every room won’t fulfill that need so that want is flawed, but just ignoring the want would not make the need for inner peace go away.
“I want to win the lottery and win 60 million dollars”
“And how do I imagine I’d benefit if I had all that money?”
“I’d finally be able to stop worrying about paying all my bills.”
NEED: A budget and/or a more effective financial plan. Simply dismissing the lottery wish as a pipe dream (which it is) doesn’t identify or address the underlying need which will still demand to be met after we’ve been disabused of the fantasy of limitless wealth.
So, step one, when you have a want that is hard to fulfill, is to not dismiss it take it seriously, and imagine the benefit you would hope to achieve by pursuing that silly, selfish, or conflicted want. If you get stuck, again, don’t dismiss the want. Bring it before God. Tell him that you know that what you want is probably very practical, but ask him to help you identify the need that want is attempting to express and teach you to meet it in godly ways.
Step 2: Brainstorm alternatives
Now that you’ve identified the need, it’s time to brainstorm alternative ways to meet it. To use our examples above, how might you learn new tools to silence the inner-worrier? Prayer? A more effective plan for getting it all under control. Some time to reflect on past times you’ve successfully managed a mountain of responsibilities with God’s grace? Alternatively, maybe it’s time to get some new tools or professional help?
Same with the need for a better budget or financial plan. Can I make a better budget? Do I need to talk with a financial planner? Or at least read some new books on budgeting and money management to get some good ideas? Maybe I don’t feel that I want to, but to address the need for peace expressed by my desire to just ignore it all, maybe it’s just time to bite the bullet.
The point is, it does little good to dismiss a concern on the grounds that it is “just a want.” There really is no such thing. Every want is an attempt–albeit often flawed–to meet a deeper need that will most likely rebel against me or the people who love me if I ignore it or allow it to be ignored for too long.
Embrace both your needs and your wants. Don’t dismiss them, but do reflect on them. Bring them to God. And get whatever help you need to brainstorm a plan for identifying healthy, alternative ways to meet the needs behind even your silly wants. It might turn out that they weren’t so silly after all.
For more information on how to meet your needs, especially when they seem to be in conflict with other people or other needs, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart. or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Tele-Counseling Practice to learn about how a faithful counselor can help you do a better job of getting your needs met in your marriage, family, or personal life.