Wednesday, Nov 23, 2022

Top Slot

Wanting is part of what it means to be human. We want all kinds of things, some of them absolute necessities and others luxurious extras. But what is it that you want most of all?

If you had to write down a list of the five rock-bottom “must haves” for your physical and emotional well-being, which one would take the top slot?

An interesting question.

I once heard a fascinating shiur by Rabbi Akiva Tatz in which he discussed people’s basic, fundamental desires in life. At bottom, he claimed, when all the extraneous and corollary wants are cleared away, you get down to the basic desire that underlies them all. For many people, he said, that desire is to simply curl up in the sun like a cat.

In other words, one powerful thing that drives people is simple inertia. The desire for a sense of relaxed well-being. Laziness? When I imagine a cat baking on a sun-warmed stone wall, I have to admit that it sounds tempting.

The drive to limit our exertion can begin all the way in childhood, as any parent who’s ever tried to get their kids to take on a household chore can testify. Our bodies’ motto is: “The less I have to sweat, the happier I am.” This runs counter to the mind and the spirit, which urge us toward productive achievement. Because we were fashioned from the earth, there is a natural propensity to choose rest and relaxation over applying oneself to the pursuit of an arduous goal. It takes maturity to understand that doing more, not less, is the recipe for a happy and productive life.

Another basic human drive is to acquire stuff. Rabbi Zev Leff likes to tell the story of the T-shirt he once saw which proclaimed a vital rule for living: “Whoever has the most toys at the end—wins.” The acquisition of more and ever-updated “toys” drives many individuals, sometimes to an unhealthy degree. Their entire sense of self-worth can be tied up to the size of their bank account, the places they frequent on vacations or the kind of car(s) they drive.

It’s as if all of life is a race through a gigantic toy store, and the one whose toybox is fullest by the time he leaves this world is somehow the winner. Sadly, these determined acquirers have forgotten a different crucial motto: “You can’t take it with you…”

Closely linked to the drive for acquisition is the concern for image. Often, the things we acquire are a big part of the image we wish to project. The neighborhood we choose to live in, the kind of house we buy or build, and the stuff we fill it with, are all pieces in the great jigsaw puzzle of Image. We hear stories of wealthy people who lose their fortune but go to desperate measures to pretend otherwise: a charade to convince the world that nothing has changed. That the image remains untarnished.

At its worst, image becomes so important that a person will lie, cheat or steal in order to maintain his place in society. To have his place on society’s totem pole threatened feels tantamount to losing the world’s respect. And there’s a reason for that: the concern for image is a direct outgrowth of the desire for respect… or its less idealistic counterpart, honor.

And then there are those whose primary drive is to seek out pleasurable experiences. When something draws them with the promise of pleasure, they are eager to partake. This is similar to the drive to acquire more stuff, except that here the acquisition is for physical indulgence rather than hard cash or fancy new toys. Then again, if a new toy offers the pleasure they crave, they’ll be all for it.

We all enjoy enjoyment. And we are grateful for the forms of enjoyment that the Torah allows. What I’m talking about are those for whom the craving for pleasure takes the top slot in their ladder of priorities. Individuals who basically allow their bodies to make life decisions for them.

These drives are common to all humanity. To one degree or another, everyone struggles to find the proper balance between our loftiest ideals and our innate cravings for relaxation, for pleasure, for “stuff” and honor. But every person has a different ladder of priorities for these things. Obviously, the more spiritually oriented an individual is, the less he is driven by the desire for the physical and the superficial.

Another kind of person, while not excessively drawn to any of the desires described above, can find herself powered by a different kind of craving. I’m talking about the desire for love. A universal drive, this is surely high on everyone’s list. For some, though, it unequivocally occupies the top slot.

I once knew a woman who had had an insecure childhood followed by a troubled marriage and a painful divorce. When visiting a shadchan sometime later in an effort to rebuild her life, she was asked what she was looking for in a husband. “I just want him to be kind,” the woman said. Having suffered so much from unkindness, her top slot held something that many others take for granted: a simple yearning for affection. She didn’t care about wealth or status. She just wanted to be cherished. Someone who would truly care.

It follows that people whose craving for love occupies a dominant position on their ladder of priorities will often make decisions based on emotional rather than practical considerations. The way they view a situation and assess its possibilities will always involve an underlying search for connection.

So there you have it, folks. These are some, though not all, of the human wants that we have in common. There are so many different takes on life, based on how we choose to prioritize those wants.

For instance, when you walk into a new situation, do you wonder how much it will demand of you in terms of hard work and commitment? Do you try to figure what’s in it for you? Do you hope to have fun? Do you imagine ways in which the situation could burnish your image? Or do you hope to find a friend?

Any or all of these factors may find their place, as you take stock of a situation and relate it back to yourself and what you want. But not all of them will carry the same weight. For example, in seeking a job, one person may be happy about the offered salary while another turns cartwheels over the generous vacation package. In seeking a spouse, one individual may seek out a compatible social image while another wants most of all to connect on a deep and caring level. It’s all tied in to your particular ladder of wants.

If you are already in a situation that does not provide your most urgent desires, you will feel that something is lacking. I’m picturing a woman who is surrounded by gold and silver but who feels unseen. The man who has plenty of money but craves some time to stop and smell the roses. The child who is a top student but lingers at the edges of the school yard, yearning for a playmate.

Our personal ladder of “wants” will influence virtually every decision we make in life. It will color our goals and impact our dreams. It will have something to say about the kind of work we choose and how we raise our kids. The things we yearn for helps to define us, and so does the order in which we yearn for them. Because, when it comes to the strength of our various wants, their magnitude will differ from person to person.

On the list of desires that are part of the human psyche, one will stand out as the most urgent.

What occupies your top slot?

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