Needs and Desires – and a Bit of Gandhi

While reading through some quotes about the environment recently (I like just reading through quotes sometimes), I came across this one by Gandhi:
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

And it led me to wonder: How do we tell the difference between what is a need and what is greedy, selfish behaviour…? Does living with only what we need mean that we can’t have any luxuries, that we should sleep on the floor and never treat ourselves?
Well, in my opinion – and I will readily admit that I am biased by all sorts of cultural expectations and assumptions – I don’t think living without greed would mean living ascetically. I think that we should generally ask ourselves if we truly need something, i.e. whether it is necessary, will be used, brings value, and/or cannot be found in some other way. But I also do believe that we need “luxuries” and “treats” in order to not feel deprived (a feeling which actually might in turn lead to feelings of greed or jealousy)… Just that maybe those luxuries might be a long phone conversation with a distant friend, and the treat might be a walk through a beautiful forest with rivers and lakes.

...or walks along the canal, or flying a kite, or  reading a good book, or baking a cake, or writing an old-fashioned hand-written letter...
…or walks along the canal, or flying a kite, or reading a good book, or baking a cake, or writing an old-fashioned hand-written letter, or having a massage, or sitting in a cafe doing some people-watching…

I think it’s important to realise that, really, we have enough (and by “we” I mean most people in the “western world”; I know there are some people who really struggle, and whom I think deserve our support, but I think the majority of people in the parts of the world I’m familiar with have “enough”). And realising that we actually have enough might have another benefit: it might make us content with what we have, and so we don’t need to greedily ask for more…
Maybe by seeing that we have a roof over our head, friends to engage with, food to eat, clean water to drink, clothes to keep us warm, and interests to keep us stimulated – maybe with all these “things” we can see that, really, we have enough.

So for myself I’ve decided to not ask for material presents for my birthday this year. I have more than enough stuff; actually, I have so much stuff that I’ve been starting to clear it out and give it away wherever I can (mainly clothes and some books so far).

Am I saying we should all eschew getting new phones, or new clothes, or things like that?
No, not at all! I just think it might help – both ourselves because it makes us question our purchases, and the environment because it prevents us from throwing away unwanted or unused things – to pause for a bit before buying new things and ask ourselves if this is a need, a want, or out of greediness… (and personally, I think that sometimes it is ok to simply want something “out of greed”; it’s finding the balance and considering the impact on oneself, others and the planet that is important).

Ultimately, what I think it comes down to is realising that we (as individuals) are intricately connected to the rest of the world, that our choices and actions have an effect and impact on the rest of the system, and that as adults we have to take responsibility for our choices:
We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.” (Shoghi Effendi)


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