The Want/Need Problem: How to Act Amidst Uncertainty
No one knows when The Bhagavath Gita was written. No one knows who exactly wrote it. It is written as a poem. It is sung by a God.
The Gita begins in the middle of a war, and it begins as a dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior, and Krishna, the God assuming the body of a charioteer. They ride into an open space in the middle two opposing armies, both descendants of the same family, to source the situation at hand. When they get there, however, Arjuna collapses under the pressure and the dread facing him. He wants to know: How can he fight in this war, lead his army against other kinsmen and relatives, cause an avalanche of death and suffering? He wants guidance, and he wants certainty, and he wants hope, but most of all, he wants to do the right thing. And it is then that Krishna goes into an 18-chapter monologue that makes up the book.
The entire text is a tome of wisdom, maybe one of the finest living documents on what it means to live in a world we don’t understand. It is both spiritual and practical, consistent and paradoxical. The big questions of purpose and meaning are woven together with the day to day challenges that make up our responsibilities as human beings, creating — bit by bit — a tapestry of intermingled answers that lead to slightly better questions. Like much of the most profound wisdom, the core message of The Gita is simple: Learn to act without attachment. Or as Krishna tells Arjuna:
“You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the action’s sake. And do not be attached to inaction.”
The human body is primed for movement — to breathe is to move, to eat is to move, to reproduce is to move, to live is to move. By default, it desires action. It needs action to survive. However, this neediness, when pursued beyond the basic primal instincts — as we do when we, say, want nicer toys, more affection, a better this and a better that, this outcome or that outcome — is also what brings on many of the internal trials and tribulations that we struggle with when reality doesn’t align with our expectations.
On the one hand, even beyond the basic primal instincts of survival and reproduction, we have to take action if we are to participate in the goings on around us. On the other hand, it’s incredibly difficult to take action unless you feel like you really need something. The problem, then, is that you have a choice: You can either sit out, choose inaction, but that generally lacks any long-term purpose and meaning and is ultimately self-defeating, or you can go through the world feeling like you need things and people, which does add a layer of purpose and meaning, but it also attaches you to external anchors that dictate how fulfilled you are with your life.
The middle ground between these two poles seems thin. For the majority of people, all of the greatest joys in their lives stem from their needs. They need the emotional investment of a partner, and that’s why they settle into meaningful relationships. They need the challenge of their ambitions, and that’s why they develop mastery over their craft. And these things matter, and despite the slings and arrows of fortune, despite the ups and downs, when it’s all said and done, they find that pursuing these needs has been important and valuable and worthwhile. And yet, many of these same needs are also the cause of much suffering in the world. Is there not any way to reduce the variance of the slings and arrows, to harmonize the ups and downs, without slipping into a state of inaction and decay?
The answer, perhaps, lies in acting out of want instead of need. It means that you don’t need the emotional investment of a partner, but you do want it because of what it could bring to the table. It means that you don’t need your ambitions, but you will pursue them, too, because you want to express your sense of being in the world. Wanting isn’t about attachment or anchoring; it’s about choosing to do something regardless of how it turns out, even if you have preferences about what you would like to see happen. Of course, basic primal instincts still initially manifest as needs, but if you can manage their expression over time rather than impulsively responding to them at each and every moment they arise, you can change that need to a want.
The magic of distinguishing between wanting something and needing something lies in realizing that it’s the process of putting your movements out there that change and harmonize your state of existence more so than the outcomes of the movements. Wanting is a duty. Needing is a fixation. Focusing on duty means even if something doesn’t work out as you intended, what you did was still enough because it changed you. Fixating, however, means you hold onto something that will inevitably be out of reach because needs are never fully satisfied unless replaced with other needs.
In The Bhagavath Gita, Arjuna is eventually convinced by Krishna to fight in the war in spite of the terror it will bring. While this isn’t exactly a pacifist message on the surface, the deeper point that gets etched into Arjuna is that that he has a duty, and if this duty is fueled by a want — a pure, clear-minded want — rather than a clouded need, then the outcome of the war isn’t for him to judge. His job is to do the best he can in the circumstances that he finds himself in. His responsibility is to participate in the world that he has been put in, despite its outward appearance. With or without him, the war will rage on, lives will end, and people will suffer. Inaction accomplishes nothing. Action itself, however, is enough, and that’s where his locus of control lies.
The reality around us is inherently uncertain. It’s probabilistic in nature, forging outcomes at the intersection of innumerable variables. No matter what we do, there will always be factors outside of our control, and that means that many of the outcomes that manifest in the world won’t necessarily align with our imagined and preferred projections of the future. The world will continue to change. People will, too. And chaos will ensue. These things can be managed and accounted for, but they can never be fully controlled. What can be controlled is movement, and action, and the direction in which they point. And what a life fueled by duty and want rather than fixation and need point to is the small gap, between the certainty of what can be predicted and the uncertainty of what can’t be predicted, called acceptance — the acceptance of actions as the fruits themselves.
When I think about this distinction in my own life, there is another thing that becomes clear: Whenever I act out of need and fixation, feeling like I have to have something, that my actions in a particular domain will only be meaningful if they lead directly to my desired outcome, not only am I disappointed more often, but the movement and the actions themselves are less honest. They come from a place of quiet desperation rather than a deeper state of internal resonance. They seek attention or validation. And then, eventually, when I don’t feel like I’ve captured the object of my imagination to the degree I should have, I feel shameful and resentful.
Even if my intention behind such neediness is pure and moral, the fixation on the outcome invalidates the actions themselves, which in turn deters me from capitalizing on future actions and their outcomes. Actions then become conditional, on this thing and on that thing, and that slowly begins to cloud otherwise good intentions, too. What began as a thing of value in itself ends up anchored to factors that I don’t have any control over, and it leads me down the path of complacency and inaction.
Fortunately, as I become older — and perhaps a little more aware — I find that the approach guided by my wants and my duties comes more naturally. I still have what feel like needs and fixations arise, to be sure, but they are a little more latent, and I can generally watch them pass by as they come up. The clearer my mind is, the clearer I see, the clearer I respond. And at the odd times of hesitation and doubt, when I feel burdened or surprised or confused or idle, I remind myself of the simplest thing I know and understand: that my duty is to accept what is as it is. And then I breathe. And I breathe. And I breathe. And with that, I act.