Sometimes my husband will say to me, “Do we need [some household or personal item]?” I almost always cringe at the “do we need” question, because the question never really concerns anything that could remotely be described as something we actually need. It may or may not be something one or the other of us wants, but there is certainly no need.
The distinction between need and want is an important one to be sensitive to, because we tend to elide them quite easily, moving very quickly, sometimes without realizing it, from thinking we want something to thinking we need it. Richard Rohr observes that “[w]hat we now call needs were formerly wants, and these needs have moved to such a level of sophistication that now luxuries are “necessities” for many of us. This keeps us quite trapped and un-free, and inherently unsatisfied.”
I’m not advocating emptying all of our possessions out into the street (although there are people who have taken the challenge of reducing their belongings to 100 items). But, we would do well to rememember, in Rohr’s words, that “most of God’s people have to learn to find happiness and freedom at a much simpler level” than we do. If our happiness depends on what we have rather than what we are, we are doomed to feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled.
Try this for a practice: resolve to be attentive to every time you or someone in your family says you “need” something (other than things like a quart of milk). Then look at what it is and ask yourself, is this really something we need? If the answer is no, ask yourself why you framed it in terms of a need. See where your reflection takes you.