David Bouchier: What Does Any Of Us Want?

Dec 14, 2020

There is a piece of modern music by Charles Ives called “The Unanswered Question.” That’s an intriguing title because we all have a whole lot of unanswered questions. Unfortunately the music only asks the question, with its strange dissonances and unsteady rhythms, without offering even the hint of an answer.

So we are left with all our unanswered questions unanswered, including the biggest one of all at this time of year: what do you want for Christmas? What do they want? What does anybody want?

Children have no problem with this question. They have lists of wants, readymade by the advertising industry. These days the lists are probably downloaded straight from the web and delivered to Santa Claus on the internet. But the older we get the harder it is to know what we want — that’s my experience. It’s easy enough to look through the closet and decide that you could use some socks, or to choose a book or a CD. But what we really want — that’s a huge, terrifying, existential question, and most of us don’t like to think about it.

E.B.White, a fine writer, has a short story called “The Second Tree from the Corner,” in which he seems to answer the question like this: we do know what we want and it is so inexpressible, so unfathomable, that we can never quite see it clearly, let alone say it in words or get it gift-wrapped from Amazon. This seems to me very perceptive, and explains why we have to invent things to want that turn out to be unsatisfying because we don’t really want them at all.

There are certain universal wants, I suppose, like the proverbial health, wealth and happiness. Many men, including me, would like to be taller, braver and stronger. Many women would like to be shorter, thinner and blonder. We would all like to be smarter. None of these things can be ordered from Amazon. They would be great gifts, if we could get them, but still they are only shadows of something else that we don’t have a name for.

If we don’t know what we want ourselves, how can we possibly guess what other people want, even those nearest and dearest to us? Gift cards are a kind of solution, but they simply toss the smoking bomb into the hands of the recipient, who then has to worry about what they want. Some people ignore the whole impossible question of who wants what and just pass unwanted gifts along more or less at random from one year to the next. It’s efficient and practical, but scarcely generous.

Most of us don’t want or need any more stuff, and one way to avoid wasting money on unwanted gifts is to give something invisible, intangible, but that just about everybody does want, which is in some small way to do some good in the world. One year my wife gave me a fine flock of ducklings destined for a village in Africa. I never met these ducklings personally, but I often think about them, and hope they made somebody happy. Charitable gifts like this have several advantages: they don’t need to be wrapped, they never have to be returned to the store, they are always exactly the right thing, and they help somebody, somewhere. After all, in the true spirit of the season (if we remind ourselves what that is) it’s not what you get, it’s what you give that counts.

Copyright: David Bouchier