I am a docent at the California Academy of Sciences. A few weeks ago I was visiting with a lovely Indian family about the Academy’s Swamp exhibit. Their young son was fascinated by the albino alligator and asked many questions about him. As the family was leaving, I asked the boy if he would like a sticker to put on his shirt. He quickly chose an alligator sticker. The boy’s younger brother spent time going through all the sticker choices before choosing a butterfly. The boy who had chosen first then said softly to his father, “I didn’t see the frog sticker. I would have chosen the frog.” His father immediately urged the boy to ask me for a second sticker. The boy said, “No, I’m happy with what I have.”
I was stunned. Such wisdom, grace, and gratitude, all from an eight-year-old boy. Too often, we forget to be happy with what we have and in our forgetfulness we spread the infection of discontent. It’s a mistake easily made in a world where everyone is expected to pursue every want—the newest gadget, the latest update.
I recently purchased my first laptop computer. In discussions with the salesperson, he casually said, “Well, within two years, you’ll probably want a new one anyway.” Why would I want a new one if my old one was working? Why wouldn’t I be “happy with what I have”? Perhaps, “want” is the key word. I won’t necessarily need a new laptop in two years but I “will probably want one.”
All consumerism, all advertising is based on the assumption that we are not happy with what we have. Or, if we are happy, that we can be made unhappy by dangling something shiny or edible in front of us.
A poet friend of mine says, “In days past, the word ‘consumption’ was used to describe tuberculosis, a wasting away of the body; today, consumption is a wasting away of the spirit.” I need to protect myself against this spirit sickness, this constant lack of thankfulness. I may want shiny things, but I don’t need them. What I do desperately need is the peace of mind found in moments of contentment and gratitude. I need to identify each of my wildcat urges to purchase or possess as either “want” or “need.” My needs are basic, predictable, manageable. My wants are chaotic changelings, disturbers of the peace that can never be satisfied.
I will tend my needs, I will whittle my wants, and I will say often, “I’m happy with what I have.”