16
Sep

Must have, must do

I have a beautiful little step-sister, who is almost three years old. She has the face of an angel, and she could charm a slab of granite if she had to; but boy, can she put up a storm when she doesn't get her way. Like all three-year-olds, she is very concerned with having things. There are a great many things that she wants to have. Sweets, videos, clothes, toys, rides on the swing, trips to the supermarket, and plastic dummies are some of the higher-priority of these things.

Lately, her choice of vernacular expression has taken an interesting route. And no, it's not the scenic route, either: it's the I-ain-stuffin-around freeway express route. She no longer wants things; she needs them. Mummy, I neeed some biscuits, and I neeed to go on the swing. I guess it's the logical choice of words to use, from her point of view: she's worked out that a need is stronger and more urgent than a want; so clearly, using the word 'need' is a more effective way of getting what you 'want'. Of course, she doesn't yet understand the concept of reserving the use of strong language for when it really is 'needed' (no pun intended). In fact, even some adults don't understand this concept.

We humans are naturally selfish creatures. This selfishness is most evident in children, who are completely uninhibited in expressing their every desire. But really, most adults retain this selfishness for their entire lives; the difference is only that they learn to conceal it, to mask it, and to express it more subtly. In many cases, the only things that really change are the desires themselves: the colourful, innocent little desires of childhood are replaced by bigger and less virtuous ones, such as ego, money, and sex.

But actually, there's more to it than this. Perhaps it's just me, but I think that the very nature of our desires changes over time. As children, we are obsessed with owning or possessing things: our entire lives revolve around having toys, having food, having entertainment. But as we get older, we seem to become less concerned with having things, and more concerned with doing things. We're still very much acting selfishly, but our goals and aspirations change dramatically. And in a way, that's what makes all the difference.

I've noticed this change in myself, and in many of the close friends that I've grown up with. When I was a wee lad, for example, I was extremely fond of Lego™. Barely a waking moment went by in which I wasn't salivating over the next Lego model on my wish-list, or plotting up cunning ways by which I could obtain more of the stuff. Many other toys and gizmos filled my heart with longing throughout my childhood: TV shows, magic cards, and console / computer games, to name a few. For many years, these were the things that made life worth living for. Without them, the world was an empty void.

But as I've grown older and hoarier (although not that hoary), these possessions have begun to seem much less important. Where has it gone, all that desire to accumulate things? It seems to have been extinguished. In its place is a new desire, far more potent than its predecessor ever was: a desire to do things. To see the world. To share my knowledge. To build useful tools. To help out.

I see the same changes in many of my peers. All of the things that they once considered to be of prime importance - the rock-star posters, the model aeroplane collections, the signed baseball caps - it seems that all of a sudden, nobody has time for them anymore. Everybody is too busy doing things: earning a university degree; gaining work experience; volunteering in their spare time. Even socialising seems to have subtly changed: from having friends, to being friends (a small but fundamental change in perception).

Now, while I am arguing that we humans have a greater desire to do positive acts as we enter adulthood, I am not arguing that this desire stems from any noble or benevolent motive. On the contrary, the motive generally remains the same as ever: self-benefit. There are many personal rewards to be found from doing things that make a difference: ego boost, political power, popularity, and money are some of the more common ones. Nevertheless, motives aside, the fact that we have this desire, and that we act on it, is surely a good thing, in and of itself.

This shift in our underlying desires strikes me as a fascinating change, and also as one of the key transitions between childhood and adulthood. Of course, I could be wrong, it could be just me - perhaps everyone else was born wanting to make a difference by doing, and it's just me that was the spoilt, selfish little kid who always wanted more toys to play with. If that's the case, then I can live with that. But until I'm proven wrong, I think I'll stick with my little theory.

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