A Short Piece

Willing and Wanting People

Who doesn’t feel sacrificial?

Photo by Tyler Nix

As Bernard Hankins has pointed out, if I’m willing to clean my room, it doesn’t follow that I want to clean my room. Still, that doesn’t mean I won’t, aware that it needs to be cleaned. “Wanting” and “willing” are not similes, but the terms are so often used interchangeably that we can forget they’re not identical.

Generally, there are people who lean more on the side of “wanting” and others who lean more on the side of “willing” (though of course everyone is a mixture). Perhaps we could say that A-personality types are more “wanting people” while B-personality types are more “willing” (though I generally dislike these categorizations). Please note that neither is necessarily better than the other and that we are all a mixture of both: the point this short work will stress is how both personality types can be misunderstood and hurt as a result.

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A want-person generally makes more decisions than a will-person, and thus may more see themselves as taking on the responsibilities of decisions and facing the consequences. This might make them will feel sacrificial. (Are wants required for decisions? No, but to express their wants and make them realities, want-people are more likely to make decisions and make them regularly.)

A will-person generally goes along with what other people want to make them happy, and thus will see themselves as more often doing things that make other people happy even if they rather be doing other things. This might make them feel sacrificial.

And so the conflicts begin…

When everyone feels like underappreciated martyrs, everyone tends to lose.

(And that is what tends to happen.)

Want-people will feel like they make sacrifices for will-people, while will-people will feel like they make sacrifices for want-people. Who’s right? It depends on the situation: my main point is that everyone feels like a martyr, which can lead to deep wounds.

Some possible situations people may find themselves in, caught between will and want…

1. If I am willing to do what you tell me to do, when I do it, it will look like I wanted to do it. Because I did it, you can then think that you helped me to do something I wanted to do.

2. If I am willing to do x and also want to do x, I can still claim afterwards that I was only willing to do x, because no one could know for sure if I wanted or didn’t want to do x.

3. If I am willing to do things that make other people happy, others can accuse me of being unwilling to make decisions, when in my mind I am willing to make decisions but believe it’s more moral, loving, etc. to put the wants of others first.

4. If a decision must be made and I make it, I can be accused of forcing everyone to do what I wanted to do, when really it was just that no one else was willing to make a decision.

5. Anything I do will be something I must be willing to do at least, and thus will be something other people can say I also wanted to do. I will then feel especially sacrificial, because not even my sacrificial act is acknowledged as sacrificial.

6. If someone didn’t go to bed until late, (especially if we’re mad at them) we can assume the person “wanted” to stay up; that way, we don’t feel bad for them if they are tired the next day. However, it could have easily been the case that they were “willing” to stay up to get work done to help the family.

And so on — countless examples could be laid out. Generally, we interpret the wills of people we are worried about, angry at, etc. as “wants” and thus expressions of their true selves (which we are hence justified to judge). Likewise, we interpret the wants of people we are worried about, angry at, etc. as selfish, inconsiderate, and controlling, when it is very possible they want something because it is good and good for everyone as opposed to only good for them.

We need both wants and wills, and assumptions about their meanings — especially when we are upset — will not likely help us strike the right balance. (And there might be no quicker way to create personal drama than to assume that everything a person does expresses what a person “wants” to do, which can seem true but is too simplistic.)

If everyone was willing but nobody wanted, nothing would ever happen.

If everyone was wanting but nobody willing, life would be an endless fight.

We need both wants and wills and to find a balance between them, but the likelihood of us finding this balance is very low if we moralize wills while demonizing wants or vice-versa. Additionally, we are unlikely to find the balance if we view ourselves as constant victims.

(And do note it is in our nature to view ourselves martyrs versus dictators when we “want,” as it is natural to view ourselves as sacrificial versus indecisive when we “will.” We naturally see our wills and wants in the best light, while interpreting the wills and wants of others as “controlling,” selfish, passive, etc.)

Probably just about everyone feels misunderstood and like a victim, but even when we know this, we often forget to remember this reality to help us understand the actions of people around us (especially when we’re mad). Partially at least, this can happen because we forget the distinction between “will” and “want.” Most wisdom seems instantly forsaken with anger.

We should not assume will-people are indecisive and wishy-washy: in their minds, there is probably a rational and consistent system for their behavior. Likewise, we should not assume want-people are controlling and overbearing: in their minds, there is probably a rational and consistent system for their behavior. After all, isn’t there a reason why we act the way we do?

According to our own systems of thought, there are internally consistent reasons for our actions. The problem is that we often forget that other people have good reasons for doing what they do too.

All well and good, but to focus on wants for a moment, is this piece arguing that we shouldn’t have wants? No, for wants aren’t inherently bad, and it’s frankly impossible to live without wants anyway. The main idea of this work is that we need more sophisticated lenses by which to understand the actions of the people around us, versus think everything they do is an expression of “wants” and “desires.” This is too simplistic — we are a mixture of wills, wants, needs, hopes, etc. — and causes unnecessary hurt.

In my mind, in line with “Assuming the Best” by O.G. Rose, what we need to do is interpret the actions of the people around us in whatever terms puts them in the noblest light while being self-skeptical of ourselves (unfortunately, we tend to do the opposite). We need to stop interpreting the actions of others as expressions of “wants” in a judgmental way that makes others out to be selfish, while at the same time not assuming that everything we do is an expression of “willingness” versus “wanting” (that might put ourselves in a more noble light than actually applies). We should be self-skeptical before we are other-skeptical; we should increase the nobility of others before we increase our own.

Also, if we think of all actions as expressions of “wants,” and if we over-moralize “doing what we want to do,” we can paralyze ourselves like the centipede who is asked about how he uses all his legs. If we think of everything we’re doing as an expression of our wants, we can drive ourselves crazy wondering “Is this really what I want to do?” “Do I want to do this versus something else?” “What does it say about me for wanting to do this?” And then we can start wondering what other people think about us because they might assume that what we’re doing is an expression of what we “want” to do — a recipe for paranoia and unhappiness.

Generally, I personally think what’s best is to live in a state of “want-forgetfulness.” What I mean by this is similar to what Timothy Keller argues for with “self-forgetfulness,” which is a balance between “selfishness” and “self-humiliation.” We don’t want to be focused on our “self” all the time, but we also don’t want to be debasing our “self”; similarly, we don’t want to be constantly asking “What do I want?” as we also shouldn’t be upset at ourselves for having wants. I think it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out that we use our thumbs without focusing on them all the time (but now I can’t find where), that such constant focus would make us unable to use our hands. So, I think it goes with wants: we have them, and we’ll use them, but we generally shouldn’t focus on them, not in others or ourselves.

That said, though our general default should be “want-forgetfulness,” there are times when we must ask “Who am I?” and “What do I/others want?” When these times come, if we don’t make meaningful distinctions between “wills” and “wants,” and if we don’t make a point to see others in the best possible light, we’re likely to suffer unnecessary hardship. Changing perspective can change everything.

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