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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Want: The Four-Letter Word That Really Hurts

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Want: To have or feel need; to have strong desire for - Webster's Dictionary

Want doesn't seem like a 4-letter word that can cause much harm - remember "I want my MTV", four words that changed a music culture? We all WANT, day in and day out, from minor wants, "I want some coffee" to major wants, "I want that job, I want more money, more fame, success, health", etc. It is quite amazing to see the range of intensities associated with your daily 'wants' or to examine those you have experienced over a lifetime.

Over the last week, the intensity of 'wanting' has really come to the fore for me through other people's personal situations. A good friend of mine's son has Duchene's Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), a progressive neuromuscular disorder (i.e. recipient of the Jerry Lewis annual telethon) that leads to complete muscle failure and death often before a child reaches adulthood. Although scientists know the 'cause' of DMD (an error in the gene that makes dystrophin, a molecule important for muscle integrity), there is as yet no cure (1/3 of children die from DMD as all childhood cancers combined). Clinical trials are in the early stages, and although dystrophin replacement looks feasible (mouse studies show we can put it back into tissue systemically), money for research is the determining factor on the time it will take to get a cure. My friend, a scientist, knows the cure is imminent but likely too slow to benefit his child in time. The 'wanting' my friend feels is profound as it would be for any of us with a child suffering from a terminal illness.

Another person I thought about this week is a woman I know who experienced a life-changing spinal cord injury from a pool dive 3 years ago. One day she was physically active, a vibrant athlete, and the next day a paraplegic. I perceive her wanting to reverse that fateful dive and change her current life situation as palpable. These extreme sorts of wanting led me to look more at the wants in my own life - big or small - and how wanting itself influences our emotional health and well-being. When we can turn a 'wanting' into 'acceptance' and then to be fully present with our experiences (however traumatic they may be), we can find happiness and joy rather than pain and suffering. But doing that - as we all know - can be extremely hard.

Just notice how often you 'want' something throughout the day, and notice how much pain arises with the wanting itself. You might see that with wanting come emotions of greed and envy - you notice when other people have what you want. Learning to see all your 'wants', to accept rather than wish for change, is likely a key to releasing greed and envy.

Acceptance means to 'receive willingly'. That is an interesting concept - receive willingly. Acceptance is under your control, it is your choice to receive or not receive. At a personal level, notice the times you may refuse to 'accept' or 'receive'; how often are you given a complement that you reject it as 'ill-placed' or that you might divert attention away from it? Acceptance may be challenging for even the smallest of 'gifts' - such as a complement. Imagine why it is hard to accept something 'bigger'?

While repeated investigation and patience, acceptance is something we can do learn to do. Small 'wants' are perfect places for practice so that when the big 'wants' arise (I want 'not to die') we are more accustomed to observing them and letting go of 'wanting' them to change.

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