Respecting Necessity

There’s an Italian saying I like: Bisogna andare quando il diavole e vella coda. The similar French saying is, Il faut marcher quand le diable est aux trousses; In English, it’s Needs must when the devil drives.

More simply, one might just say, I gotta do what I gotta do. No need to blame the devil.

It got me thinking about the word “need.” Reason not the need, King Lear said, when his daughters told him he no longer needed the number of servants to which he’d become accustomed. Lear tries to explain that people need more than the fundamental necessities of life if they are to be happy: Allow not nature more than nature needs,Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s:

Lear is telling us that there’s a deeper longing that lies below the experience of need. Something to do with humanity, dignity and survival.

I think those are the things that can always be within reach, when we are faced with necessity. Whether it’s about the end of a relationship, a reversal in health or finances, or the loss of a job, we have to acknowledge necessity and come to terms with it.

Years ago, I worked with a psychologist who asked his patients to write sentences beginning with I can’t… I’m afraid to… andI need to… and then crossing them out and replacing them with I won’t…I’d like to…and I want to … It often made sense to me. Beneath “can’t,” there is often stubbornness, a failure to admit that it’s something we don’t want rather than anything we’re unable to do. Beneath fear, there can be an unexpressed wish to be more daring. Beneath “need,” there may lie the possibility of a deeper desire that has not yet have been acknowledged.

The last year has been one in which we were all facing necessity. A global pandemic forced us to accept a new reality. It is what it is, we said about being locked down, shuttered in our own homes. Having only Zoom and Netflix for companionship. Eating take-away meals, within our household, often alone, instead of going out for our usual dinners with friends. We had to learn how to suck it up.

Necessity is the mother of invention, is another old saying. When we’re forced to admit necessity, we’re challenged to dig deeper and to reach higher. And we did. We learned new ways of being and doing. We revised out notion of what we’d previously thought of as our needs, in order to accept a new reality.

I’ve thought a lot about necessity over the past year. It’s been a time of digging into our deepest needs and reaching out to come up with new and creative ways to satisfy them.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, an American poet and journalist of the early 20th century, was a popular writer, best known for what are now trite lines like, Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.” Her work isn’t often quoted these days, but I was struck by her poem about necessity in which she claimed that without necessity, whom she’d “long considered a foe,” she never should have dug deep in my soul and found the mine of treasures hidden there.

Yesterday I heard an epidemiologist describing the new Variants of Concern and referring to viruses as shapeshifters. Humans can also be shapeshifters. Shifting our shape might present a challenge for the viruses that are attacking us!

We all possess potential and resources that are far greater than we realize, until we’re forced to discover them. Positive shifts are possible. In the past year, we’ve learned how to live carefully.

Maybe, years from now, when the pandemic is behind us, we’ll appreciate what it required us to find within ourselves.

We’ll respect necessity.

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