On wanting what you don't have

Happiness isn’t having what you want; it’s wanting what you have.


The first time I heard this saying, I agreed. It seems to make sense both practically and empirically. I know from much-popularized media on happiness that, despite what many of us think, happiness doesn’t actually come from achievement, fame, or money in the bank. (That is, above a certain point. I’ve heard that optimal happiness correlates with a salary of about 70k. After that point, more money is not associated with more happiness.)


Lately, I’ve been less receptive to this same phrase. Happiness is wanting what you have.


Wanting what I have? I don’t think I’ve ever remembered to want what I already have. I’ve protected what I have, sure; I’ve feared that what I have will go away. But wanting it? I reserve that feeling for the not-yets and the maybe-nevers. For me (and for most dictionaries), wanting is defined as not having.


And besides that: wanting is fundamental to who I am. When I was about fifteen, my dad wrote to me at summer camp and told me I was a seeker. He wasn't in the habit of telling me things about myself, so I listened. At that time, I rather indulgently thought this meant I was in fierce pursuit of the truth. I've since realized that being a seeker also means I am hounded by the feeling that something is missing. Seekers and wanters alike are propelled by incompleteness.

Wanting is also fundamental to my Enneagram type, type four. Take this excerpt from the Enneagram Institute:


"Fours often report that they feel they are missing something in themselves, although they may have difficulty identifying exactly what that “something” is. Is it will power? Social ease? Self-confidence? Emotional tranquility?—all of which they see in others, seemingly in abundance…"


I wonder if a higher proportion of alcoholics are fours. When I first drank alcohol, it gave me a temporary sense of completeness. The social ease, self-confidence, and emotional tranquility that seemed abundant in others was, for a few hours, mine as well. When I first got drunk, I wondered if this is what it was like to be normal.


(I have since learned that this is not the case. "Normal" people experience discomfort, self-consciousness, and emotional upheaval, too. For them, however, drinking alcohol doesn't fix it.)


"One of the biggest challenges Fours face is learning to let go of feelings from the past; they tend to nurse wounds and hold onto negative feelings about those who have hurt them. Indeed, Fours can become so attached to longing and disappointment that they are unable to recognize the many treasures in their lives."


When I first got sober, the longing for what I had before nearly took me back out. Alcohol seemed to enable a way of being that I could never attain sober. It wasn't just that I could relax when I drank. It was that I could flirt, walk knowingly into mistakes, blame my behavior on booze. I could be a mess. When I got sober, and as I've stayed sober, I've occasionally wished I could catch another case of the "fuck-its." Booze quieted a conscience that was otherwise hyperactive.


Of course, in the last year of my drinking, I wanted the opposite of the "Fuck-it's." All I wanted was for my behavior to better align with my conscience.


When I'm drinking, I want a sober life. And when my life is sober, I occasionally want the chaos and self-erasure that comes with a drink.


It would seem that, sober or not, my life is defined by wanting. Looking longingly at another person or my past self and thinking, What do they have that I don't?


This week, I took my sponsee through the seventh step once again: Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings. I have always struggled with "humbly." I've never found a definition of "humbly" (or "humble" or "humility," for that matter) that I really liked. As I spoke with my sponsee, it struck me that perhaps humility is like that dumb happiness quote: Wanting what you have. Perhaps "humility" is the absence of the feeling that you deserve more, better, or different. Perhaps humility is wanting the gifts you've already been given.


Ew. I sure hope not. If this is what humbly means, we'll be stuck on Step 7 for a long time.


Luckily, before we hung up the phone, I had stumbled into a definition of humility that didn't make me roll my eyes.


Humility, for me, isn't wanting what I have. Humility is accepting that I want. It is acknowledging that wanting, longing - the vague feeling that something is missing, that something else would be better - is simply part of who I am. It isn't an action item, a feeling to be eradicated or fixated upon. Humility is saying "I see you" to the feeling of wanting, without racing (or trudging) down the rabbit hole of want.


At unhealthy levels, Fours "gradually think that they are different from others, and feel that they are exempt from living as everyone else does. They become melancholy dreamers, disdainful, decadent, and sensual, living in a fantasy world. Self-pity and envy of others leads to self-indulgence, and to becoming increasingly impractical, unproductive, effete, and precious."

Step 7 doesn't say that we ask for the removal of any shortcomings. Rather, it suggests that we humbly ask God to remove any shortcomings which stand in the way of our usefulness to God.

Because wanting is still with me, because it is still my faithful friend, I have no choice but to conclude that it doesn't stand in the way of my usefulness to God. Yes, wanting gives me a constant sense of incompleteness. Yes, it has sent me barking up many a wrong tree. But it has also propelled me in the direction of truth. I suspect it makes me useful to God.


Today, with humility, I can accept the part of me that wants.

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