Needs vs. Wants: Living Simply & Responsibly


Live simply so others may simply live. – Mahatma Gandhi

In recent conversations, I hear the phrase “I need” more often. It makes me wonder if we often confuse needs with wants, and how that line ever got blurred. Words such as “I need a new phone,” “I need another car,” or “I need a new pair of shoes” have become common place. Sure, most aren’t literal phrases, but it does reflect a bit of a deeper belief we have.

When I was in college, I lived on a typical poor college student’s budget. I had the feeling of just barely having enough, and knew that if I just had a little more, I would be satisfied. Today, I make significantly more than I did during those college days. But I still have the same feeling. Several years from now, I will most likely be making more money. Will I still have barely enough?

As we grow older and advance in our careers, most people make more money and their quality of life improves. Food gets better, you own nicer things, there is more entertainment – and they become the new norm. In college, just having a laptop was a blessing. Now, my 4-year old Macbook Pro feels sluggish and I “need” a new one.

We Deserve Nothing

That may sound harsh, but it’s true. Think about your life. What things do you have that you can honestly say you earned or deserved? Maybe you worked really hard for career. Perhaps you’re really talented. Maybe you came from a poor family and have a rags to riches story built on your perseverance. That’s great, but what did you do to give you that head start in life?

When you were born, you were given incredible opportunity. As you read this post, you’re already more well-off than 2/3 of the world who don’t have internet access. Having parents the provided for you, receiving an education, growing up in a country with security and freedom – which I imagine the majority of you have – you did nothing to earn  any of those things.

Even if the small percentage of people reading this grew up with a rough childhood and “made it on your own,” who gave you your health? Your body? Your mind? Why didn’t you die at as a baby due to poor sanitation? Why didn’t you have a deformity that would hinder you in life? Why were you killed as a child due to violence or war in your society?

Because for some reason, you were granted the gift to be born and grow up with a number of resources and opportunities that billions of other people didn’t. You didn’t earn it. You were just… lucky?

So the next time you feel like you “need” the phone that everyone else has and you don’t, remember this: you deserve nothing.

Be Grateful for Everything

Initially, the concept the we deserve nothing seems demoralizing. But once we get past our own arrogant sense of entitlement, it’s extremely liberating. If you deserve nothing, everything is a gift.

Life becomes so much more enjoyable. Every good thing we have is icing on the cake. We’re not controlled by longings for certain things, relationships, or circumstances. There’s freedom in not being dependent on things to make you happy. Gratitude creates a joy that’s independent of external circumstances.

Living with Content & Living Responsibly

I’m not advocating for a monastic lifestyle in which you give everything away and become poor, despising all wealth. That would be an extreme. When given the opportunity, some of the finer things in life should be enjoyed. A really good, expensive wine. A nice, fitting suit or dress. The technology and design in the latest iPhone. Yet those are pleasures gratefully received, not objects of absolute necessity.

In the Scriptures, Paul puts it beautifully:

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

So back to Gandhi’s quote. It’s not about making yourself poor. It’s about awareness and responsibility.

An awareness that we don’t deserve what we have because so many others have so much less. An awareness that our excess could easily meet the basic necessities of the rest of the world. An awareness that our wants and desires for things not only take from others, they many times have a devastating effect on others.

An awareness of the connection between how we live and how others live should lead us to live responsibly. It’s giving generously of our resources, because we know we never deserved them in the first place, and therefore don’t have a need to hold onto them in fear. Living responsibly is to do what we can to ensure out lifestyle doesn’t diminish the life of others, such as buying fair trade and ensuring our products are conflict free. Lastly, and probably most importantly, it means that we have a responsibility to use the abundance of resources, opportunities, and networks given to us to improve the lives of others.

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