Requirements to sustain life: not much, really.
Water. That’s important.
Food. Also important. But we don’t need a special kind of food. Any kind of food will do. Any kind of food will keep us alive. Yes, there are a few exceptions. You can’t live on peanuts if you have a deathly peanut allergy, obvs. But those are—what?—the exceptions. Exceptions don’t invalidate a principle; they just show its limits.
What else? What else do we need to live?
We need protection from the elements: shelter of some kind. Warmth when it’s cold. A cool place when it’s too hot. Some protection from the extremes of nature. But it doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t even have to be ours. Shared, basic, dirty, clean, small, large, it doesn’t matter. And we need the kind of shelter that we wear: clothes, shoes. Again, any kind will do. It just needs to be functional to, well, function.
That’s it. Those are the basic requirements of life.
There are other things we need sometimes: care and medicine if we’re sick, assistance and aid if we’re injured or incapacitated. Those are situational needs for most of us. They come, they go.
Sustaining life requires very little.
So what’s all the fuss? All the work? All the effort for more, more, more? Is it about need?
Sometimes, sure! Sometimes we’re in a situation that requires more than usual.
But most of the time? No. It’s not about need. It’s about the illusion of need.
I live, currently, in a three-bedroom, one-bath apartment with my husband and our four kids. We’re looking for a bigger place, because one bathroom and six people is kind of awful.
But do we need it? No. We do not need a bigger home. We can believe in the illusion of need. We can come up with all sorts of reasons, and validate them by comparison and logic. Logic! Logic is such a great tool, so handy for justifying all the extra work we have to do to get all the things we think we need.
We don’t need that much.
We want more, don’t we? Yes! We want so much more.
Water and cold water and sparkling water and frozen water to put inside my non-frozen water! Also, I’d like things to add to my water so it doesn’t taste like water. And I’ll also have some hot water and things to put in my hot water so it becomes more than water (magical life-giving elixir) and then maybe some other things to add to the hot-magic-bean water and that should just about do it.
Food, but not just any food! Good food, fresh food, organic food, various combinations of food, snacks, fruits, no not that kind of fruit the other kind of fruit, vegetables yes, but please only vegetables that taste a certain way. And I’d like some special types of food that I use to enhance or disguise other types of food. Also, there’s some food I want that has no value for helping me survive (and may even make it more difficult to survive). Oh, let’s not forget the food that I won’t ever eat, those jars and cans and boxes that get shuffled around for months and thrown out when I move from this perfectly sufficient shelter to the other one that I like better.
Shelter! A perfectly sufficient shelter has walls, a roof, a floor, electricity, running water. Really, that’s a luxury shelter. The floor is optional. The electricity is optional. The running water is optional, too. You can get water elsewhere and bring it back to your shelter. But this is about what I want, and I want a good shelter. I want a luxury shelter. I want a better shelter than the one I have. Why? It won’t help me survive. It adds no necessary functionality. A house doesn’t improve your survival rate because it’s got fancier floors, more walls, a higher roof, and more taps from which to access that running water.
And clothes, the temporary, wearable, transportable shelter we take with us. We are weird about clothes. Not only are we insanely picky about them, we often pick the ones that hinder rather than aid our survival. High heels? Are you kidding me? Have you seen these things called Spanx that they sell for women? Necessary? No. Suffocating? Yes. Men: what is the function of the necktie? How does it help you survive?
Ah, you say. It’s because we are animals. Intelligent animals, yes, but animals nonetheless. We use our better food, better shelter, better clothes to attract a mate. To procreate.
Hm, okay. But you can live a long life without mating. Sex is necessary for procreation, yes, but it’s not necessary for life once you’re already here.
Ah, you say. It’s because we are social animals. We have an advanced civilization with many complex social rules. We use these things—food, shelter, clothes—to indicate our status in our society, to advance, to succeed.
Hm, yes. We do. We wear certain types of clothes to indicate what kind of group we belong to in this complex and advanced civilization. But group-belonging is not necessary for survival. It used to be, back when ostracization from the tribe literally meant death.
Did you realize you can live a long, healthy, happy life without belonging to any sort of group, these days? Fascinating.
All of these things—the better food, the fancier water, the bigger shelter—are to fulfill wants, not needs. We do not need more than necessary for survival. We want it. We want more than survival. We want comfort. We want connection. We want belonging. We want meaning. We want adventure. We want fun.
But what are all those things? Comfort, connection, belonging, meaning, adventure, fun, etc.? Where do you find them? How do you know when you have achieved them? How much more/better is needed to achieve those wants? They’re intangible. There’s no measure. There’s no standard.
You know because you feel it, right?
You know you have comfort when you feel comfortable. You know you have connection when you feel connected. You know you’re having fun when you feel like you’re having fun.
So, what do we want?
We want the good feelings. We want the feeling of comfort, joy, love, connection, fun. And we work hard to get ourselves the things we need in order to have those feelings. Sometimes we have to endure a lot of pain to get the bigger/better things we need so we can have the good feelings we want.
What if—just an idea, a crazy one, but hear me out—what if we paused our frantic rush for bigger/better/more? What if, instead, we spent some time thinking about the feelings we want to have? What if we figured out exactly what’s required to experience those feelings? More of them, lots of them, maybe even all the time.
We might not need to work so hard. We might not need bigger/better/more. We might find out that those experiences—those good feelings—are available right now, as we are, with what we have.
It’s certainly an idea worth exploring.
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of Sebastian Staines.