The Hierarchy of Want

Advent always gets me thinking about longing, including the many layers of desire inside me. I want a lot of stuff—some material and some immaterial:

  • a new jacket
  • a new computer
  • tickets to Disneyland
  • a graduate degree
  • getting out of credit card debt*
  • uncluttered counters
  • my neighbors to be more considerate in the laundry room
  • my fellow humans to be treated with dignity
  • introvert time
  • to feel loved
  • to actually be loved
  • for my loved ones to feel and be loved

There are so many layers to desire.

I spent most of my life suppressing desire because I had inadvertently learned that it was selfish and ungrateful to want. But over the past 5-6 years, with the help of many therapists (mostly friends, but also one I’ve seen professionally), I’ve been on a mission to discover who I really am, including all the layers of unspoken desire locked inside.

I’m learning that while most of us want good things, we sometimes mix up which of those good things are the best things, the “higher” desires in a hierarchy of want.

One of the things that I’ve found to be frustrating in unlocking all of this desire, is that some are incompatible. I want to go to Disneyland, but I also want to get out of credit card debt. I want to give my husband every hour of my free time that he wants, but I also want a few hours to be alone so I feel refreshed and relaxed instead of tired and anxious.

I often have to make a choice between several competing desires, and that choice is partially dependent on where it falls in the hierarchy of my desires.

How do I discover what’s a “higher” desire? Not necessarily by whatever comes to mind first, or most-frequently, or even the desires that are the easiest to accommodate. I think the higher level desires (the ones that often get lost in the shuffle of all that is quick or frequent or easy) are the ones that involve our deeper values, connections with other people, and the restoration of dignity for our fellow humans.

It’s important to go after your desires—just remember that your higher level desires (the ones that often whisper to you) need just as much, if not more, fulfillment as the more conspicuous ones. If you’re really honest with yourself, you want family, friendship, a sense of belonging. You want to make a difference beyond the people you love and protect daily. You want the world to be a better place.

I want to go after the desires that actually make a difference in those areas. The new laptop can wait.


*I might add that, for me, having significant credit card debt limits the fulfillment of many of the desires on my list. I try to balance reducing the debt as quickly as possible (by not spending much beyond the basic necessities) which will make other desires more obtainable in the future, balanced with occasional special purchases today which allow me to pursue wholeness where it is lacking in certain areas of my life. Use caution and discernment when confronted with these kinds of financial realities.