One of the most defining moments in many of our childhoods is when a grownup asks us what we want to be when we grow up, but no one ever asks us what we need to be when we grow up.
When I was studying English at New Jersey City University, I took an eye-opening elective called Comparative Religions, which examined the fundamentals of various world religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The professor also touched nicely on the Eastern philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
In Buddhism, there are four Noble Truths:
- There is suffering in the world.
- Suffering is caused by desire.
- To cease suffering, we must cease desire.
- This can be achieved by following the Eightfold Noble Path.
It’s this second Noble Truth that always struck me as a contradiction to what it means to be human, even though it made the most sense. Desire, or want, is the root of all suffering, even at the most basic biological level. When we’re hungry, our stomachs ache ever so slightly, growing into a gnarl for nourishment until we satiate that desire. And like the story of how the Buddha discovered the Middle Path, when we over eat, we find ourselves in just as much pain as if we’d not eaten at all, slouching in our seats with our top button undone. Even the word itself is a contradiction. On the one side, it is a desire we have for something, but the opposite side of this linguistic coin reveals another definition: a “lack of something desirable.” Interesting.
It wasn’t until long after I took that Comparative Religions course that I realized I’ve wanted things my whole life, and those things were always trite and unimportant. I remember going to A&S Comics and seeing all four issues of Batman‘s “A Death in the Family” story arc on the wall above the cashier with price tags of $10 and up per comic book. I even saw a copy of X-Men #266, which houses the first appearance of Gambit, my favorite hero at the time, awkwardly hung on the wall of a run down sports card shop in Union City with a $26 price tag on it. And I had always wanted a trade paperback of The Amazing Spider-Man: The Saga of the Alien Costume, which had the coolest (and creepiest) cover my preteen eyes had ever seen.
To be honest, as a child, I was never at a want for what I wanted. My family was the best. I still smile when I think about the day my sister surprised me with a first generation Optimus Prime back in the early eighties. I even had great friends, too. In grammar school, if I saw something that a friend was playing with and I wanted it, I happily traded a Skeletor with my initials etched at the bottom of his foot for a Rambo action figure (anyone remember those?). My friends and I did that with everything. Well, except one friend and his Grimlock. No number of my coolest Transformers could compare to the original Dinobot.
When my Dad died, my attitude about desire changed. All the things that I’d always wanted and owned quickly became unimportant, since I now had to find a way to pay my own rent. I was left with no choice but to sell all those things that at one time had meant something to me. I had quite a colossal collection of 1990s Star Wars action figures, unboxed and set up on a four-tier shelf organized by episode (yes, even the prequels). I had tons of VHS cassettes and DVDs since I loved movies and my Dad got them cheap at Path Mark. And because I was an aspiring musician at the time, recording tracks with my basement band Vexxxed, I had a surplus of guitars, including a gorgeous American-made Jackson Flying V I used for one gig and which ran me up $1,000, a B.C. Rich Warlock and over ten effects pedals, amps, and even a Cry Baby, which I’d never gotten the hang of.
I sold it all on Craigslist, and in doing so, I realized that there’s a great difference between desire and necessity, and the only things that really matter are the things you need in life. In short, I grew up, but I didn’t feel bitter about it in any way; I felt liberated. I’d lived a good life for the 28 years I spent living with my Dad and using my money for wants and wants alone. Now, being on my own for the past five years in a modest apartment with only a small shelf full of books, a chest packed with comics, my laptop, a DVD collection that’s simple in size but complex in content, a little food in the fridge, and a pillow for my head, I finally understand how the second Noble Truth can cloud our minds to what’s real. Wants are luxuries, and we don’t need luxury.
But I do want some things, of course: to see Death of a Salesman on Broadway, for instance. And like just everyone else, I have a wish list on Amazon filled with things like a paperback copy of William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley and the Billy Wilder DVD Collection. I keep these desires in check now, especially since I resolved to own a few of the things I couldn’t have afforded as a kid; so yes, I still hold onto my “Death in the Family” collection and that $26 first appearance of the X-Men’s Cajun cardslinger. Spidey’s alien costume saga sits proudly in my bookshelf amidst the works of Douglas Adams and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
So what, if anything, does a person like me want in this life? To be a writer? A filmmaker? Zen Master? Or perhaps it’s something more intangible: A dream, perhaps? Immortality (I am Greek, after all)? Or maybe something more. Something not only unseen, but unforeseeable, and I guess unattainable, too?
The fact is that at 34 years old, I am what and where I want to be while wandering the Path to becoming something else I’ll want to be. For that, all I want is time. Perhaps I need time –– The kind of time it takes to write a book or perfect this post. The time it takes to make a real difference in this life, so that when this world sells us off for shiny new models within the womb of ages, there’ll be something left on this small blue speck of eternity that said not merely that we were here, but that we made even the smallest difference, because inside we all feel the need to make a difference. That necessity is what makes us more than human. It makes us people worthy of the short time we have to make it.
The question we’re asked as kids shouldn’t be about what we want to be when we grow up, since it insinuates that we may fall short of that desire and lead to unhappiness. Rather, let’s focus on what we need to do to keep the Grimlocks of unhappiness at bay and keep a smile on your face every step of your Way.
Thoughts? Reactions? Any personal Wisdom YOU might like to share? Give us something to meditate on in the Comments section!