Brown column for April 11

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Occasionally I find myself considering the gap between what I want and what I truly need. Perhaps it is a sign of maturing to find that the gap is narrowing.

When I do think of such things, I realize that there aren’t really that many things that are essential and that many of the things that are essential have nothing to do with possessions.

Those thoughts about wants and needs come at odd moments. Often they stir memories of my grandparents and the realization of how dramatically our society changed from their generation to mine. It has changed even more for the generations younger than mine.

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When I am in the gym working up a sweat, I sometimes picture the incredulity that my farmer grandfather would express at someone paying good money to use their muscles. My grandmother would find it just as odd that a person would buy a small bottle of water that did not taste any better than that from the well at the end of the porch.

We seem to think that we need many things that my grandparents never thought about.

I don’t know that my grandfather ever went to a movie theater, though he did watch some television programs after broadcasts finally reached our small town in the mid 1950s. My grandmother went to only one movie that I know of; she took a bunch of us grandkids to the matinee to see Walt Disney’s “Song of the South.”

If my grandparents ever went out to eat, I don’t know about it, unless you count dinner on the ground at cemetery working at our small church or the occasional fish fries under the trees down by the pond.

My grandfather used to take loads of water melons to South Louisiana to sell in the summer time. Once he drove out to Texas to help move us back to Louisiana. But he and my grandmother never took a vacation trip.

In my earliest memory of my grandparents’ home, there was an old crank telephone hanging in the hall that ran down the middle of the house. Three other families shared the same telephone line. We have at least seven phones in our house. They didn’t have a typewriter; we have three computers (not counting some that are so outdated they have no real use).

The sum total of their clothing could fit in the small closets – they were added as an afterthought – and the chest of drawers.

They were what some would term simple people. My grandfather finished grade school; my grandmother went through junior high school.

My grandfather could raise crops and cattle, build a barn and grind cane. My grandmother could raise chickens, kill, clean and cook one. She canned vegetables, smoked meat and sewed quilts.

Simple? Only in their wants.

I never heard either of them talk about anything they wanted that they didn’t have, never got a hint that they’d been deprived.

When I am musing, I wonder whether their wants would be greater if they were around today. Our whole economy seems to be built on increasing our wants. I’ve read that consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of our national economy.

The triumph of wants over needs was summed up in a bumper sticker that had some popularity a few years ago: He who dies with the most toys wins.

Perhaps, but as I sort through things, it strikes me that very often the excess of our wants over our needs is a pretty accurate indicator of unhappiness.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at