The science of wanting

(Posted by Mark)

As a child, I remember being told that ‘I want’ never gets. As a lesson in manners, it was extremely effective and is probably the root cause behind my overwhelming compulsion to say thank you far too many times in shops, thereby alerting the sales assistant to the fact that I am a twit. As a lesson in life, however, it is not strictly accurate. ‘I want’ often does get.

We live in a material world, and I am a material girl erm, bloke. Acquisition and immediacy are highly important in our everyday comings and goings as chattels and goods have become status symbols and brands have developed to be instantly recognisable. Truly, we want it all, and we want it now (or next-day delivery at the very least). Previously, conversations might go:

“Nice shoes.”
“Thank you, I’ve only recently bought them.”

Now it is far more likely to be:

“Nice shoes”
“Yes. They’re the new Nike Dunk Low Pro B hoops shoes.”

For some reason that I have never fully understood, trainers are very, very important. It is essential to have the correct trainers and to make sure that you are wearing the latest footwear fashions and brands the moment they are released to the slavering, drooling masses. It is the equivalent of having a large sticker on your feet stating that street credibility may go down as well as up. And I don’t agree with it. I may not know much about co-ordinating my own ragtag clothing ensembles (especially not if I’m only going to work; why dress up for them?), but I have to disagree with ‘the street’ on the issue of trainers. Wanting the latest fashions and trends every fifteen seconds is simply unreasonable, it makes me mad as hell and I won’t take it any more.

Come the catastrophic, nay apocalyptic, day when I become a father to a Master or a Miss Londonmark, I hope to be able to sidestep the whole ‘new trainers every day’ issue by presenting my child and heir with a simple choice: you can have the trainers, Mark II/Marcia, and you can buy new ones as often as you like. However, you will have to work for them. I’ve signed you up with a temp agency and although you’re only seven, they’ve waived the whole underage working restrictions thing. You start 9.00am on Monday as a legal secretary, and don’t forget to put some overtime in if you want to pay for this week’s board and lodging. Harsh, you may cry. Get to work, I say.

Although we always want things, childhood is the time when we are most insistent. “Want, want, want” cries the child as he/she/it points at an ice cream or a balloon and, in order to avert wailing and tears, the child is pretty likely to get the object of his/her/its desire. This does not work when you are a twenty-six year old standing outside Micro Anvika on Tottenham Court Road pointing at the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Apple 23″ cinema display screen, because it is unlikely that anyone will care whether you start screaming and crying, unless they decide to have you sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Otherwise the similarity between childhood wants and adult wants are reasonably similar: food and toys.

When denied the ice cream which they want, want, want, a child may sulk or holler but then, like I did when I was a child, they will make a promise with themselves: “When I grow up, I’m going to eat ice cream every day, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m not going to eat horrid vegetables, I’ll eat tubs and tubs and tubs of ice cream instead”. It’s when we get to adulthood that the thought of an ‘ice cream only’ diet may sound appealing but we know it to be impractical. We bound our wishes with realities, in this case the realities of nutrition, body shape and balanced eating.

Perhaps we also lose the singlemindedness of our childhood: for a brief moment, the ice cream is the most important thing to have in the world and we strain in our efforts to get it. After the denial of gratification, and the tantrum it brings, however, the desire has passed and we focus on something else, this time needing the new item with the same blaze of intensity. Adulthood brings with it an ability to rationalise away snap decisions and impulses, and to moderate our monomania. Which is, I think, a little bit of a shame.

When we say “I want you”, we are neatly combining many differing and possibly self-contradictory things we would like to say, but either lack the words or lack the courage to say them: I want you to be around me, I want to you to agree with me, I want you to support me, I want you to affirm me, I want you to have sex with me, I want you to live with me, I want you to laugh at my jokes, I want you to take care of me, I want you so I’m not alone, I want you to change me, I want you to change for me, I want you so I’m not scared any more, I want you to stay with me, I want you.

The title song of the latest Rufus Wainwright album expresses want wonderfully:

I just want to know
If something’s coming for to get me
Tell me, will you make me sad or happy
And will you settle for love
Will you settle for love?

Of course, the wants we have for others may rarely, if ever, be fulfilled. An entire artistic subject has been based around concepts and examples of unrequited love; I believe some dead bloke called Shakespeare may have written the odd poem about it, even. Our childhood monomania for ice cream/balloons may well have developed during our transition to adulthood into a more narrow focus away from transitory pleasures and towards … well, love.

Of course, in the process of wanting others, we may well be found wanting by them. Our capacities for reciprocation, generosity, care, tactility, expression, thoughtfulness and all the other attributes which light up our eyes may well not be enough for another. You can want someone too much; one person’s detachment is smothering to someone else. Whether wanting is measured in quality or quantity depends entirely on the individuals concerned. Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast guidelines for us to follow – we just have to muddle through, minds fogged by desire.

Is it the pursuit of perfection, a realisation of pragmatism, the search for the divine or perhaps baser instincts which drive us into wanting someone? Or, more likely, is it a combination of these? I’ve always felt ever so slightly envious of couples who have known that they were meant for one another from the first moment they saw each other. I don’t begrudge them their happiness by any means, but the romantic deep within me still gives a nearly imperceptible sigh. It’s probably because we were force-fed all those fairy tales from infancy, where everyone lives happily ever after at the end, but I don’t see why the world can’t work that way simply because it doesn’t at the moment. Starry-eyed nonsense, I know, I know.

But if you’re allowed to want a new car, want peace on earth, want an ice cream, want to be loved, or whatever it is you want, then I’m allowed to want as well. And that’s the beauty of the science of wanting.

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