Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wasting and Wanting

Recently, my darling dear had occasion to comment on my habit of reheating day-old coffee in the microwave while brewing a fresh pot. She asked if it's because I like the stuff. No, not really. She asked whether I do it to save money. Well no, I responded, I'm making a fresh pot after all. Ahhh, she said. So it's because you don't want to waste anything, waste not want not, hey?

Yes. She got me dead to rights. I can't bear to throw out anything that might still be used or consumed. I suppose I live up to the frugal Mennonite stereotype, even though I'm long past identifying as a Mennonite. But the term 'waste not, want not' got me thinking. I'm willing to bet that many people don't actually know what that phrase means. I've no doubt my darling, an expert grammarian and adroit user of the English language, has a clear understanding of the verb 'to want' and its etymology, but I clearly remember a time when I did not - and it wasn't so long ago.

I imagine when Poor Richard spit the little aphorism out, folks who read it - and enshrined it in our vernacular - understood it clearly. If you don't waste, you won't want. That is, you won't lack, or go without. A good Puritan sentiment, that. Be frugal, save and recycle and reuse and you'll never starve or suffer wanting of life's needs. Somewhere along the line, though, those needs became desires. I imagine that happened when North Americans conceptually lost the definition of the word 'need' and it's closely related pal, 'lack'.

Let's face it (another fun term, perhaps for another time). Those of us reading and writing these blogs don't know a thing about need. We didn't settle the savage land and we're not the people displaced by those setters. We didn't make it through world wars and great depressions - though some of us may have seen our nest egg get devalued during the last recession and have decided to work a few more years to ensure we get to keep that cozy retirement villa in Arizona or Nelson or wherever. We truthfully want nothing to ensure our continued survival.

Yet we keep using that term - waste not, want not - as though it still has relevance. Ask people what their wants are and you'll doubtless get an exhaustive litany of items and ideas, because we want lots of stuff. The word no longer means lack, though that's rather invisibly implied, but rather it means desire. I may not need that bag of chips or that deep tissue massage or that 1982 Porsche 911 (Targa, of course, with the off-white paint) but I sure want them.

So what do we mean when we use the phrase? I can't reasonably say that since I failed to waste a Porsche, I must not want one. That makes no sense whatsoever. Or, if we play with the negative form of the phrase, my wasting of food means I actually want that kind of food. While there may be some truth to that, that I fail to use what I desire implies that I'm wasteful and can afford to be, because I want not - I'll drink a cup of the fresh coffee too. Truthfully, I really have no needs that can't be easily met and I'm happy as long as I continue to consume, whether I need to or not. There's a lot of slippage in a term like this, a phrase we've used so long that even when its key words change meaning and its context becomes irrelevant, we continue using it.

My previous understanding of the phrase - one that a cursory search of its use online confirms as fairly prevalent, at least among the internet blogging and tweeting crowd - was simply, that if I waste it, I don't want it. Usually, the term comes flying out when the 'it', whatever it is, should, in fact, be wanted or desired. The term has evolved from its original context as an aphoristic truism, a cause and effect bit of wisdom that we can adopt to better manage our lives, to a sardonic prediction of future dissatisfaction; a snide statement that someday the waster will desire the wasted stuff and there won't be any left around.

I suppose that's ironic. Once more our language proves we've devolved into facile whiners regulated by our desires rather than any legitimate needs. We envy each other and curse people for throwing away that which we didn't actually want, ourselves, anyway - blighting those wasters with a future of unsatisfied cravings that we hope they yearn for so greatly that they read those aches as needs. This, of course, is how we form fetishes and let's face it: fetishes fuel North America in ways we can no longer wean ourselves from.

This saddens me, while at the same time, leaving me with a sense of personal gratitude. I'm saddened because I'm clearly entrenched in a society that suffers a significant psychological illness - one that no longer even understands the words it utters and uses that misunderstanding to lash out at its own members while it consumes at a rate it understands to be unsustainable. I'm grateful because, when I drink that bitter cup of day-old coffee while the fresh pot brews, I do so knowing that my darling understands that my frugal soul just wants to ensure I get an extra cup of coffee in the morning.