Sunday, July 12, 2009

Want, want, mine

[image: a coal mine in Wyoming, from Wikipedia commons]
I have always been pretty uninterested in history, except to respond to the reports of great harm. The history presented to me as a girl was clearly about men wanting power and territory for reasons that seemed abstract. It was like a sort of outdoor stage play, a world a poet said, "where ignorant armies clash by night."

But recently a friend mentioned to me the idea put forth by an economist that all history is about scarcity. The scarcity of resources. Ah. I like great unifying theories. "Oil," I said, thinking of the wars in my lifetime.

So I have been thinking more about this, and I want to take it a little further, to look behind the word "scarcity." I think it means -
there is not enough of this for all of us, and I want it, and I think I need it to survive, or to live the way I want to live, therefore I want to own it. To keep it as mine.
But how much is the battle ever really about necessities, about having a drink of clean water? About a place to put up a little shelter? (In fact, battles often creates hordes of refugees gathered in places where it is almost impossible to provide clean water and simple sanitation, let alone livelihood and food.) I put the quote above in red, the color of desire and of blood.

It fascinated me to watch my grandson learn to talk. Pre-verbal, he learned to shake his head No vigorously, so right away he wanted to say "No" and say it often. Self-definition. Soon after came the shrieked "Want!" Boy, could that kid attach to a want. And then, as every preschool teacher knows, comes "Mine!" So the teachers concentrate on teaching kids how to share, a good idea, but one that doesn't usually apply to adult life or video games. Imagine a game where you win by giving away the most? Hmmm. You'd still have to get it. Hard to imagine a game, since games tend to be about competition and winning. Winning points. Useless.

So take oil. Oil is scarce. By that I mean, we don't have enough here in America to do what we want to do. Right? For decades, liberal thinkers have suggested we learn to do with less oil, to destroy less of the world's finite resources and cultivate the endless bounty of the sun - endless until we build a cloud around this earth making even that impossible. But there is something attractive about violence, about destroyers and aircraft carriers and jets flying in formation. Dropping bombs and shooting guns is fun, I hear. Is that a different story, or is it more of the desire for excitement and personal power? Desire.

So it seems to me the Buddha was right, suffering is caused by desire. It is definitely not just personal, not just about how we make ourselves crazy longing for a certain person's love or trying to get ourselves a different-looking body or buying things we can't afford. We are part of the world. Want, want, mine, our behavior to get what we want, in fact every step we take, every breath we take extends us into the world.

Knowing this leads to some uncomfortable personal questions. What does it mean to the world that I want to be cool in summer, hate to sweat, actually, and turn on the air conditioner? Ah, the power plant runs on coal strip-mined in Appalachia and brought here on trains . . . .

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