"Try to want what you have instead of spending your strength trying to get
what you want.” ~Abraham L. Feinberg
Every day we have opportunities to choose to “want what we have” or to “spend [our] strength trying to get what [we] want.” Our entire Western culture, of course, is megaphoning the message to want what we haven’t got. We should push and strive, jockey and self-promote until we get what we want. Others should stand by, watch us drive hard, and we can sleep when we’re dead. It doesn’t matter what it is: material things or people, we’re supposed to want something or someone other than what we have been given. It’s not difficult to see how this mindset has led to staggering rates of depression, anxiety, and dysfunction. If we are always thinking that life would improve with a new partner, or if only we had better children, more interesting or caring friends, someone is going to end up feeling less than. Someone is going to end up feeling rejected and insufficient. It follows that if others are thinking the same things about us: that they could do better, clearly we all are potentially living, breathing, “not enoughness,” on the lookout for who or what will make us “enough.” Unfortunately, what we turn to achieve a state of “enoughness” are hurting people who feel less than enough, or material things or addictions that can never satisfy, and the cycle continues.
At any given moment, we have a choice. We can fault-find about the situation: the environment, the conditions, the people we’re with, our own bodies and level of health. Or, we can choose to find something of value, something to want about our current position in the world. There is always something to give thanks for and someone to feel gratitude towards. This is one way we transcend some of life’s suffering: how we rise above the quicksand of unavoidable complications, frustrations, and disappointments. Maybe we’re sick with a high fever and chills, with nausea and a terrible sense of all the catch-up work we’re going to have to face when we return to the office or all that we’ll have to clean and tidy when we are finally up to dealing with the state of our living space. Even in that moment, we can be thankful for the bed on which we sleep, for the relative quiet of our room, and for water to drink. We might be glad for clean sheets and plenty of blankets. Maybe there is a loving friend or family member who is checking in on us, carefully entering the room so as not to disturb us if we’re sleeping. Maybe a pet rests nearby in their own, silent attempt to cheer and nurse us back to health.
I’m a miserable patient when I have a stomach bug as my family will attest. But even in those stomach-roiling moments, when all I feel is misery, I can find a sliver of gratitude for the recognition that this is not how I normally feel. I realize how good I have it on a normal day to have my health, to not be so wretchedly oppressed by nausea and fever aches. I realize, in fact, how much I have been taking the absence of sickness for granted. And I suddenly want and want badly to have the feel-good norm restored. I’m not thinking about how I wish my house was a bit bigger or that I want more time for exercising and balance in my life. I just want to feel well again. I want what I had only a day or two ago.
Abraham L. Feinberg, rabbi and activist, and the author of today’s quote, grew up in poverty in a coal mining town in Ohio in the early decades of the twentieth century, the son of a homemaker and a Lithuaninan cantor. He knew what it was to want. He knew what going without looked like. He saw it every day of his young life. His childhood experiences, including his witnessing of the abominable treatment of black people he knew, were an impetus for him becoming an activist for the disenfranchised. Although he later improved his financial condition, he remembered the value of wanting whatever it is that we have in the present. I am convinced that today’s sense of sanity and contentment is closely linked to our ability to want what we have this very day.
What can you find to “want” in your own life today? In what ways have you been “spending your strength trying to get what you want?” The next time you are spending your strength in that way, consider how your body feels in that moment. Can you feel the tension, the elevated heart rate or rapid breathing? Is your jaw clenched? Do you feel antsy and on edge? Take some time today to choose something that you want about your own life, and just meditate on it for a little while with gratitude. Notice what it does for your body. Notice how your outlook shifts.