In the 34th Museling, I talk about wants and needs.
Marked as explicit on Apple Podcasts because of mild swearing.
You can find an excellent account by Johann Hari of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in the Independent here.
A transcript of this episode is below.
You can find the podcast and subscribe on Apple Podcasts here.
On the whole, I think I like myself best when I feel as though I do not need anything from anybody. Whenever I conjure up an image of a loveable version of myself – and do not we all, from time to time, make an attempt, at least, at conjuring up an image of a loveable version of ourselves, if only to persuade ourselves that we might be worth saving come the revolution…? Whenever, as I say, I conjure up an image of a loveable version of myself, it is as someone who does not need anything from anybody. So, if somebody were to say: “Do you need anything?” I would say: “No.” And that feels really good. Just saying it out loud right now, I’m getting a little burst of whatever hormone it is that reminds me that: “Yeah! You’re doing really well! Keep on like that.” It’s like a small, gentle explosion of calm, white light at my centre that radiates outwards through my torso and up into my head, down into my feet, out towards my hands. A little, cleansing, soothing light of pleasure and goodness. An almost imperceptible congratulation for imagining that I am managing, once again, not to be a burden to anybody. It’s the kind of feeling that Gwyneth Paltrow might sell on her website.
Now, let’s be real, as fictional characters say in American films: I don’t want you running away with the idea that I do not, in fact, need anything from anybody, or that, if something that I might happen to need were pressed upon me, I would not accept it. I’m no ascetic. It might, I am prepared to admit it, make me feel good to be mistaken for an ascetic from time to time, but only, and let me be clear on this point, so that I can protest. Because the point about asceticism, whenever it’s followed through to its logical conclusion, is that it can tend to make other people feel uncomfortable. It can look like one-upmanship, in the wrong hands. And that is not a loveable thing. The goal, after all, is to be easy-going. The goal is not to be without needs altogether but to be someone whose needs are so easily met that there is no need to ask for anything. All is already provided and so nothing is needed. That is the illusion that I have always striven for.
I wonder if any of you were taught that it is impolite to… ask for the butter, for example, at a dinner party, or to point out that one’s glass needs refilling, or that one’s plate is empty. It is for the host to notice these things and to offer… “Can I pass you the butter?” “Would you like a top-up?” “Can I persuade you to some more fish?” and so on. And then, whatever need it is that is being met… luxury, thirst, hunger… can be cast as a gift, an act of generosity, and one’s calm acceptance of that gift becomes part of the ritual. Nothing so gauche as to need something and to have to ask for it!
And, generally speaking, just to bring it back to me for a moment, it should be said that my glass has been filled, the butter has been passed, I have been persuaded to more fish and, in many ways, if not always the most important – although that is, of course, itself, a matter of opinion, I suppose, and should perhaps be glossed over here – I have been the kind of person for whom things drop from the sky into my lap without me having to ask. And so… well, as I see it, at least, although I’m willing to concede that other people might draw different conclusions from the same data, an interesting consequence of this – in other words, what I would consider to be a direct result of what we might call the training that I have received – has been that, to ask for more, or to ask for a different thing, to ask for a thing that has not been offered… that is a strangely tricky thing to do. That is a thing that would make me feel gauche. Difficult. Unlikeable. Unloveable.
And that is partly because… if you’ll allow me to extrapolate a little further, I think that some of the reason why it can be difficult for me to ask for a thing is that… and bear with me because you may not find this immediately persuasive… but it seems to me, at least, that, because I have generally proceeded more by accepting of the things that have been on offer – which, as I say, have been plentiful, I don’t want to give you the impression that they have not, but… because I have generally proceeded more by accepting of the things that have been on offer than by seeking out the things that I would have, I do not have all that much experience of refusal. And I don’t mean by that that I have no experience of not getting things. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean, as I say, if I’m to compare myself with the vast majority of people, I do not have all that much experience of not getting things, I suppose. But what I’m trying to say is that there is, nevertheless, a difference between not getting something that I might have wanted but did not go so far as to ask for and being refused something that I might have said, however shyly and quietly, that I needed. Not to get something might hurt in a private sort of a way, assuming that it isn’t something existential, but to be refused comes with a slap of shame. And a little reminder, from some of my more cherished inner voices, that neediness is gauche and unpleasant and unattractive and selfish and wrong.
And so, to get to something like the point, in defiance of this, and because I think I would otherwise calcify into the kind of person that I do not care to be, I have been practising, in small ways, asking for what I need. And there have been some surprises. The first surprise has been to realise that it is not always easy to identify and to articulate what it is that I need. That, in itself, takes practice. And then, it has also been a surprise to discover that it is, in fact, possible, to separate needing from wanting. I want some more fish, perhaps, but what I need might be… nutrients to allow the cells within my body to continue to… divide or whatever. It might not have to be fish. And the same is true, it turns out, for more emotional needs. Who knew, even, that I had emotional needs?
But one result of all of this has been to set me thinking about some of the times in my life when I have demanded from other people… let’s say, some kind of proof of my own attractiveness when, now that I think about it, it seems to me that what I might have needed was… perhaps… something more like… reassurance that I’m doing OK, that I’m a likeable, loveable human being; when what I might have needed was… perhaps… trust, intimacy, a feeling that I am not entirely failing. And those would also have been big things to ask for, obviously, but, I suppose, as I learn to articulate some of those needs, even to myself, I’m starting to see that, even if some of the people that I might have tried to get them from could never have given them to me, or not in the quantities in which I needed them, there might, nevertheless, have been other things that they could have offered instead that would not have been without value. They might have been able to give me a hug, for example. For someone whose primary love language is touch, as I discovered quite recently mine is, there is a lot of value in a hug given and received at the right moment. As I am learning.
There is also value, I think – and this is really why I’ve been spending some time on this – in learning to live with refusal. Learning to see, let’s say, an individual refusal as a piece of information rather than as a punishment for having asked. And so, putting some of this together, I would say that I have already succeeded, I think, in learning that a clear refusal to a clear request is easier to deal with than… well, let’s say, than silence, first of all. Silence is always hard to process, however used to it one might be. But, to take it a step further, what I have also started to feel the truth of, even if I still have trouble incorporating it into any kind of daily practice, is that a clear refusal to a clear request is also easier to deal with, in the long run, than really any response to something that just isn’t the question that I needed to be asking.
It’s possible that some of this isn’t 100% clear so let me put it in a sentence for you. So, for example, if I say “I need some fish” and the other person says “I don’t have any fish”, that’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? That’s just information. It’s sad, perhaps, but it isn’t anything to get angry about. Even if they say “I have some fish but I don’t want to give you any”… that’s difficult to hear, perhaps, but it’s clear, at least, and it gives me something to work with. There’s something respectful about that kind of an answer. And what you have to understand if any of this is to make sense to you is that, throughout most of my life, perhaps as a result of my earlier training, my modus operandi in times of need has been just to mooch about looking hungry, saying nothing – or next to nothing – but perhaps going so far as to raise my eyebrows at somebody and, you know, think of fish, hoping, somehow, that they will think to… persuade me to some. And not only does that tactic work in almost zero per cent of applicable cases, it also unleashes all kinds of unhelpful emotions. I end up feeling ignored and abandoned and rejected and misunderstood, and then I feel anger and shame and self-reproach and the whole thing is a lot more tiring and time-consuming than it needs to be, not to mention confusing and potentially hurtful for people around me who can’t possibly know why it is that I’m being such a dick.
And then, the real point is… if I keep asking for fish when what I really need is… love… well, then I end up starving to death anyway without ever understanding how that could be happening.
I share all of this, in part, because I think it might be instructive. Many of us to whom much has been given respond badly to rejection, or perceived rejection. You only have to read the news to know that. But I share this also as a kind of note-to-self. A record of some learning that I’m still in the process of doing. Or re-doing, actually. And you’d think it would be done by now, wouldn’t you – I’ve just turned 40, after all – but… it’s in process, at least, and that’s the main thing, I suppose. And it’s a very helpful piece of learning. Well worth doing more than once. There were various things that I wanted recently that I thought I was being persuaded to and that I did not, in the end, receive. And let’s not get caught up just now in exactly what those things might have been… suffice it to say that it has been incredibly helpful to be able to start sifting out what, of all of it, I might actually need. And then to start thinking about where I might be able to look for some of that and perhaps even how to ask for it.
And, obviously, this is a little frustrating and embarrassing because, as I say, I’m pretty sure I’ve had cause to learn a fair amount of this before now, and I’m pretty sure I’ll have to start learning it all over again at some point in the future, but… that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms” as Tom Stoppard puts it in his play Arcadia. And it’s funny. I’ve always liked to think of myself as someone who is wise and getting wiser and I’m pretty sure that I already had that image of myself when I was, let’s say, 19, and performing as Mr Noakes, the landscape architect, in a university production of Arcadia, listening from backstage as somebody or other said that line night after night and not really giving it the attention it deserved. I don’t need any advice from you, Mr Stoppard! I am a person who does not need anything from anybody. Ah! Cleansing, gentle, soft, white, congratulatory light spreading through my system… Mission accomplished.
This has been the 34th Museling. My name is Charles Adrian and I’m on twitter, for all the good it’ll do you to look for me there, as @charldrian. More information about this podcast, as well as transcripts of all the episodes, is at muselings.uk. Thank you. Thank you for listening.
 You can find an excellent account by Johann Hari of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in the Independent here: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/is-tom-stoppards-arcadia-the-greatest-play-of-our-age-1688852.html
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020