Needs and Desires

There a scene in It’s a Wonderful Life that comes to mind when I think of need. In the film there’s a run on the bank and folks are panicking. George Bailey is trying to keep his business from being taken over by Potter, but his customers are clamoring for the money they deposited. He’s got to keep his doors open without losing everything. There’s no actual money in the savings and loan – it’s all been invested in homes – so he’s trying not to join in the panic. Just as he’s losing control of the small crowd and his business, his new wife, Mary, comes forward with their honeymoon money and waving it asks, “How much d’ya need?”


What do you need to get by? What do you need for a wonderful life?

I put a lot of thought into this. I wanted to pare it down to true need, separating out the chaff of desire. And after much ruminating, I made this list:

fresh air to breathe

clean water to drink

quality sleep

shelter from the elements

nutritious food

friendly/kind human contact


artistic inspiration/spiritual experience

health care

One could argue the order of things once we get past the first three. Theoretically I could get by for a long time without shelter depending on the environment. Perhaps I would require food before shelter. Then again, shelter is often required to get good sleep, so perhaps shelter, sleep and food are so closely tied for survival that ranking them has no meaning.

Regarding human contact, what I think I need versus what I really do need for sanity’s sake are different. Even introverts like me require kind and friendly, even loving contact with other humans. Electronic simulacrums can go a long way to fulfill this, perhaps. I don’t know. I’ve never gone that long without contact. I’ve always at least had a class, worked, went to the grocery store or something that put me in contact with others. No matter if that person was paid to say hello and smile and tell me what I owe for the banana and the toilet paper, it was still human contact. Maybe it even included a bit of chatty-chat about the weather.

I’ve also had contact with dogs and cats and perhaps that requirement should be changed to “contact with other beings.” Maybe if I had no contact with other humans, but spent time with a dog or two I would get enough needs met for sanity’s sake. I don’t know. I haven’t tried it. And really, I don’t want to. I want quality human contact. Just in small amounts.

The clothing need is dependent on the environment. Really, it’s a kind of shelter – portable shelter. But if the environment is amenable, or the season is mild, clothing can be less a requirement. There’s certainly a lot of desire when it comes to clothing.

Putting health care at the bottom wasn’t on purpose. It depends on the individual where that one goes. If you need medication to survive it has to be up there between breathing and water. If you’re lucky, it can go further down the list. But for survival? It’s a need.

I think that’s about it. Everything else I think of is an expansion of one of those things. What more do we need? Not want, or think would be nice, but really need. What can we live without and not go mad or plain die?

I think it’s interesting how small that list is. It’s insidious how so many things slip into my mind that I “need” but really, they’re just fancy-fying the initial list: more clothes or specialty food. That’s where desire comes in, right? Then there’s decorating the list: furniture, decor, different clothes, new towels, hairdos…There are things we need and things we desire. And figuring out the difference between need and desire, sometimes the hairsbreadth difference, is the challenge.

“How much d’ya need?” indeed.


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