I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
Sinead O’Connor famously warbled, “I do not want what I haven’t got.” Before we write that off as 90’s angst, let’s remember that the second basic tenet of Buddhism is “To want is to suffer.” (The first is “Life is suffering” but anyone who has had to sit through a distant relative’s dance recital or watch “The Bachelorette” already knows that.) It’s a painful Mobius strip to actualize – if you want, you will hurt, and unfortunately for the living, life is about wanting. These desires may not be material goods, so those of you patting yourselves on your backs smugly for avoiding buying an iPhone can stop contorting now. What good ole Siddhartha was trying to tell us is that wanting anything will bring us pain. The object of desire isn’t necessarily something we pine over at the mall – it can be an outcome, a feeling, an experience. What we unenlightened humans are doing to ourselves is causing ourselves pain by expecting and wanting. Inside every single one of us is a Veruca Salt whinging, “But Daddy, I want an Oompa Loompa now,” only substitute the little orange man for early acceptance into Harvard, a marriage proposal complete with sparkly stones or a Lamborghini.
In college, I signed up for an Eastern Religions class with a disciple of Robert “Uma’s dad” Thurman and felt innately comforted by the coursework. It certainly was more cheerful than the concurrent Intro to Abnormal Psychology class I was taking where I self-diagnosed myself as having an “overdeveloped death drive.” Sigmund Freud postulated that the psyche despises stimulation, and desires to return to an inactive state which can only be achieved by death. Suddenly, it made sense – all those nights of unprotected sex with strangers, swallowing unmarked pills from a plastic baggie found on the street to chase a mystery high and riding in cars without wearing a seatbelt as we roared down highways doing over 80 miles per hour in the rain – I wanted to die.
But the teachings of Buddhism quelled my riotous spirit for a few years. I meditated. I went to the gym five times a week. I read books on “calming the mind.” When my then-boyfriend said, “I love you, I need you,” I blithely replied, “You may love me, but you don’t need me. You didn’t need me before you met me, and should we part ways, you will continue to exist without me.” This is probably not how you should respond to a romantic declaration, as he burst into tears and called me callous. I preferred pragmatic.
There I was, at twenty-three, convinced I had transcended the endless cycle of suffering. Samsara was a thing of the past. Heck, maybe I was even a bodhisattva since I was so wise and understanding. Never mind that I worked during my college years at Barneys, the upscale retailer best known for supplying thousand dollar heels to the affluent and well-shod. It was just a job, and though I didn’t need the architecture-inspired Costume National stilettos or the stark Ann Demeulemeester trousers, I bought them anyway. What I did need was to not look like a Buddhist monk wearing an orange bedsheet as I persuaded wealthy women to buy yet another Italian cashmere sweater. Sometimes, I hoarded those sweaters for myself, hiding the new inventory in a stockroom until payday so that I could have them. Desire – what desire?
After graduation, I moved myself and all of my fabulous designer frocks into a loft apartment that I shared with two other women in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was the summer of 2001 and I was in my twenties, convinced that life still burgeoned with promise and achievement. Hired by a prominent downtown independent designer as a publicist, I left uptown Barneys (and that covetable employee discount) in favor of Nolita hip.
I broke up with my romantically-inclined boyfriend and proceeded headlong and liver first into a series of brief, poorly conceived relationships with men who played street hockey and drank Bud Light without any sense of irony.
Then two planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the acrid smell of burning cement and rubber wafting across the East River. To this day, that stench sets off the inverse reaction of the Proustian madeleine. Instead of being transported to a kitchen in Combray, I am whisked to my rooftop, helpless and insignificant, watching the buildings crumble. Daily panic attacks doubled, then tripled, rendering me unable to function. To my boss, I confessed, “I am depressed” and her reaction was to fire me a week later, though to be entirely honest, my work productivity did drop significantly as a result of my anxiety. I spent the next few years foundering through jobs, and my next serious long-term relationship dissolved when my depression and anxiety became too much for him to handle and I was left to shoulder the rent on a huge apartment and caring for two cats on my own.
What I wanted was to stop feeling. The best – albeit least healthy – manner in which to achieve this cessation of sensation without actually dying is to get rip roaring drunk. We aren’t talking a two glass of Merlot a day habit in which you may let slip a blue streak drunk; what I mean is guzzling two bottles of five dollar wine foraged out of a dusty bin from a dubious liquor store, hobbling out in your underpants when you run out drunk. Even better is if you manage to convince your doctor that you will start smoking pot if your anxiety doesn’t dissipate so that he will prescribe you antidepressants and Xanax. If you’ve ever wanted to lose four years of your life to a hazy abyss of hangovers and regretful text messages the next day asking your friends “What happened last night” then this is the solution. (Legal disclaimer: it’s not the solution.)
I spent the better part of my late twenties and early thirties slumped on a couch, a bottle of wine in one hand, a bottle of pills in the other, trying to find that perfect plane of non-sensation. If you’re staring bleary-eyed at a televised infomercial at 8pm on a Thursday evening, struggling to stay conscious, this is a good start. It’s even better if you’ve managed to coax some unfortunate soul into coming over and supplying you with some sort of sexual pleasure, though you won’t remember it the next day, especially if you throw him or her out in the midst of your blackout so that you can sit around wearing only a tee shirt like Porky Pig and watching an edited for television version of “Titanic” as you bawl your eyes out during Leonardo’s great death scene because you can relate.
When you live life like it’s a toilet, prepare to get flushed. Long-suffering friends who tolerated my foolish antics for years voiced their concern, but I waved a fluttery hand and scoffed before chasing another pill with another swallow of wine. Never considered tidy, I descended further into slovenly ways, neglecting to clean the litter box for lengthy stretches of time. My cats protested by peeing on my clothes. Instead of doing laundry like a sane, functional human being, I bought new clothes or brought home samples from work. I actually bragged to someone, “I haven’t done laundry in over a year” to which she responded with a horrified gasp. I left shopping bags and shipping boxes to fester on every surface of my apartment. New items mingled with old on both couches in my living room, buried under piles of cat hair and despair. I rarely mustered the energy to take anything out to the curb and it accumulated, slipshod and defeated. But I managed to avoid actually seeing this somehow, maybe because my apartment was huge, or because I was so medicated that I convinced myself that everything was fine.
One summer afternoon, the landlord banged on my apartment door, convinced that there was a leak originating from my apartment roof deck, the water wrecking the walls of the bar below. I let him and his handyman acquaintance in, and they observed the wreck that was my life with a low whistle and disgust. “You can’t live like this,” my landlord intoned. “It’s a fire hazard!” He threatened to evict me if I didn’t do something about the mess. At least I wasn’t late with the rent (that month).
“Are you a hoarder?” the handyman asked. “Have you been depressed?” It took a total stranger wearing a toolbelt and overalls to diagnose what my friends and I avoided. Embarrassed, staring at the floor and clutching a squirming cat against me, I nodded yes. He went on, telling me that he was a social worker and that he would return later that weekend to help me clean. I accepted his help, grateful.
Of course he didn’t show up, but two wonderful friends of mine, armed with protective air filter masks and rubber gloves, did. Over the course of three hours, they helped me bag and trash nearly one hundred pounds of clutter that had been living with me. In retrospect, and with the psychological insight gleaned from watching one episode of “Hoarders,” I realized that I was trying to fill the emptiness inside of me with stuff. I was clearly not picky because I was fine with that stuff being garbage. All of the questionable dating choices I’d made since the breakup, the one night stands, the drunken encounters and the dangerous internet liaisons? The human version of stuff. All of it, all of them, padding the walls of my apartment, my psyche and my vagina, to make me feel fulfilled or complete. This shedding was necessary, and a second slough came about two years later when I finally was evicted from that apartment, this time for failure to pay rent.
Strewn curbside in black garbage bags were much of the belongings I’d amassed over the years – designer clothes, expensive stilettos, Italian wool coats, now relegated to the trash. I posted a Craigslist ad and watched strangers pick through my once beloved sweaters and handbags as I waited for the movers to arrive. Was that my legacy being dumpster dived by a woman in thrift shop corduroy slacks? We weren’t even the same size!
All those things I’d pined for, longed after, lusted for, were gone. All the people I’d loved, adored, fucked, were gone. All that was left was me, desperately clutching gluttony and lust like jewels, wearing sloth and pride as if they were beaded Balenciaga trousers. I looked terrible. WWBS: What would Buddha say? He would have probably told me to get the hell over it and move on, that there was no point dwelling on the loss of material items because they don’t bring happiness and my desperate yearning to own, to possess – clothes, shoes, love – would only serve to bring despair. Hey, remind me not to invite Buddha to brunch next time because he can be a real buzzkill, and he always orders the kale salad. Who eats kale at brunch?
When you have nothing, you have everything. While this may sound like some sort of claptrap you find on a slip of paper nestled in a stale fortune cookie after a mediocre Chinese takeout dinner, it is also, as I have found out, true. No longer are you bound by fear of losing what you have because you have already lost it all. The only sensical recourse is to embrace the freedom and to continue charging forward and upward. Sure, it would be great to stagnate in a large Italian villa, surrounded by Baroque and Rococo paintings and a staff of ten to drop frozen grapes into your mouth but really – what growth are you actually achieving languishing on a plush velvet divan while wrapped in a toga?
Over the next two years, in my cozy one bedroom apartment on the ground floor of an ancient building plagued by floods and fires, I sought enlightenment as well as comprehensive renter’s insurance. In retrospect, this is hilarious because what was I trying to protect? The seven year old cathode ray television left behind by my ex? A pile of dirty denim wadded beneath my bed? Not the remnants of my once impressive shoe collection, now whittled down to a pair of smelly Chuck Taylors. Stuff – I was still clinging to material goods.
I thought I was fixed: hoarding problem taken care of, working steadily and no longer abusing prescription medications. Heck, I had even put all of my bills on auto-pay so that the funds were directly taken out of my checking account, meaning that I would never have my cable shut off ever again. Wasn’t this adulthood? Wasn’t this the existence for which I strived? Wasn’t this everything I wanted to be?
When I was laid off a year ago, I realized that I was merely fooling myself. What I really wanted was not to exist in a world of “this will do because it’s not what it once was” though it was admittedly scads better than what it used to be. I had convinced myself to settle for something that would never yield true accomplishment. I had sequestered myself emotionally, professionally and intellectually, believing that if I didn’t strive, then I would never fail. That is not how to live, my friends.
Here I am now, a year later, living on the opposite side of the country, three thousand miles away from my family, the majority of my friends, and good pizza. By giving up everything I knew and all that I deemed safe, I finished my final semester of grad school with a 4.0, completed my Masters degree after a five year hiatus and wrote a screenplay that’s been read by some major studios. Somehow, during all of that, I also found love – not just with my partner, but with myself. I am in the process of learning how to treat myself with respect, and to not poison myself every night because I am afraid to feel. There was once a time when I, spotting five beers in my refrigerator, would run out to buy another six pack because I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough to numb myself. Now, I keep no alcohol in the home, and there’s no panic. I have to feel, and though it’s difficult, that’s the nature of living. To live is to suffer, but just knowing that, and accepting it, is a salve. It’s a daily struggle to not insulate myself from the emptiness inside by buying things, but I’m in therapy, and constantly giving away the items I once purchased that I believed would define me. I know now that they don’t. I’m not a pair of jeans, a toaster or a handbag. I am someone capable and strong, worthy of love, and able to give it as well.
When you have nothing, you have everything.
Selena Leong is a Los Angeles based writer who – when not working on several writing projects including the obligatory screenplay – rues the fact that she never learned how to drive. She may often be found wandering the aisles of her local supermarket, sniffing tomatoes on the vine, squeezing avocados and inspecting various cheeses.
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