Where do people learn to say “Neener neener neener”? Who was the first person to actually say that to someone? It could so easily have gone the other way - someone looks at someone and says “neener neener neener” and the other person just looks back and says, “Huh? I don’t understand what you said.” Or, “Stop trying to make ‘neener neener neener’ a thing.” It spread so quickly because it’s just the most effective way to taunt people. There will probably be drone toys at some point that will play robot keep-away with us, while going ‘neener neener’ in a digital monotone. Anyway. There are a lot of flippant formulaic responses of this nature, phrases that are used to dismiss or refute what someone is saying. One of these phrases from my childhood was “How does it feel to want?”
Ice cream truck drives up the street
Child: Uh! I want ice cream!
Adult: How does it feel to want?
Child: I want ice cream!
Adult: Yeah, well, I want a million dollars.
Child: I wish I had some ice cream.
Adult: Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
This is the demographic reality. For anyone below the economic median, one of the most vital lessons an adult can teach a child is how to deal with frustrated desires. Stoicism 101. You just have to learn to deal. Disappointment is your lot in life. Once you can learn that ice cream is for everyone but you, you can start to find inner strength and grit and the pride of being above that sort of thing. Right? This is why kids in my milieu got the “how does it feel to want?” message from random adults, not just parents or relatives.
While it’s true that chasing after every ice cream truck would be really distracting, and that deferred gratification is one of the fundamentals of adulting, let’s go into this a bit more.
How does it feel to want?
Usually when I think I want ice cream, what I really want is something else. Joy. Rewards. Validation. A shared social experience. Distraction. Escape. It’s not usually just that I want to stimulate my tongue. Surely I’ve realized by now that only the first three bites really taste like anything.
The other thing about ice cream as an example is that it’s something I can get 24 hours a day for about a dollar. I can keep ice cream in my freezer - I can fill my entire freezer with ice cream if I like - and I can get up and eat a bite of it every 20 minutes if I so please. So what?
What could possibly, possibly be more boring than a life of total hedonism?
We ought to be wanting more. Something bigger. Something that a six-year-old probably wouldn’t think of. Such as: I want to build my own sailboat, take sailing lessons, and sail around the world.
Actually, wait. That kind of does sound like something a six-year-old might want.
Kids are better at big dreams than we are. Another way to put that is that we start out with vast amazing dreams, and they’re trained out of us. We’re carefully taught to quit thinking that we could actually have that, live that, be that. It’s selfish and delusional! Give up already! Who do you think you are??
Aw, don’t cry. Have an ice cream.
The truth is that people’s dreams tend to be tragically under-wrought. We get stuck on “lose weight” and “get organized” and “pay off debt.” Yeah, and then what? You could do all three of those things in one calendar year if you wanted. You could completely empty a hoarded three-story house, lose a hundred pounds, and pay off $50,000 in debt if you decided to do it. What are you going to do the year after that?
What would you ask for if the fairies came and told you your wishes would all be granted?
So you want to lose weight. If you woke up tomorrow with the body of an Olympic gold medalist, what would you do?
So you want to get organized. If you woke up tomorrow and learned you had won an executive assistant, professional organizer, interior designer, chef, maid, and chauffeur for life, what would you do?
So you want to pay off your debts. If you woke up tomorrow and, instead of debt, that number was your cash balance, what would you do?
What would you do with unlimited strength, vitality, mental clarity, and financial wealth?
What a bummer it would be! Because what I really, really want most of all is for someone to listen raptly while I share the minute details of why I Am Annoyed or That Person Hurt My Feelings.
It’s even harder to image the possibilities there. What if I woke up tomorrow and people didn’t annoy me anymore? Not that they learned to behave themselves, because come on, that’s never going to happen. Just that when people got up to shenanigans, it didn’t bother me anymore. What if people kept saying rude things the way they do, refusing to keep their commitments the way they do, and it just rolled off my back? What if I found that I no longer reacted to emotional bombardment?
I’ve been practicing wanting more, and it’s really hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. Basically right now I’m stuck on “buy new socks when I wear holes in the toes of my old socks without feeling guilty about it.” When I turn on the fantasy faucet and try out different images, I keep getting stuck on stuff that involves someone waiting on me, which I reject. Other people adore being waited on: getting manicures or spa treatments, breakfast in bed, having drinks brought to them. I have to train myself not to let my resistance to this feeling block my imagination from thinking of desirable things that don’t involve over-the-top service.
What would be some things I could want?
To be better at wildlife photography, which probably means buying a better camera and spending more time in nature
To be fluent in a foreign language, which means restructuring my schedule and giving myself half an hour a day. And then finding someone who doesn’t speak English and talking to them.
To spend time just staring at the ceiling and listening to music, the way I did quite naturally as a teenager
Yep. Those are things I can allow myself to want, things that are in my reach right now. To look at that list reminds me that I don’t direct my time toward my dreams. I spend so much of it in passive entertainment or rehashing the events of the day or grumbling about what is in my life that I don’t want. I can’t push myself to want things that I can’t imagine, things that would be so awesome that they would upend my entire sense of who I am.
What else could I want? To fit in and feel comfortable in a higher stratum than I ever had before? To feel more like myself in a stronger, more active body than I’ve ever experienced? To feel confident and powerful whenever I think about my finances? To feel the drive to move toward my goals and steamroll right over my anxiety and lack of assurance? To feel compassion or amusement instead of frustration with other people? Could I actually want to feel like I really have free will? The hardest thing to want is to want total accountability, the responsibility to create our own conditions. It’s hard to want the choice.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.