To be/ To have

To everything there is a season. A time to use être and a time to use avoir. A time to say I’m thirsty and a time to say I have thirst. Two of the phrases I found most confusing as a beginning French student were “I am hungry” and “I am thirsty.” Instead of using the “to be” verb, être, as I had expected, you’re actually supposed to use the “to have” verb, avoir. 

We can chalk that up to a linguistic quirk, but as I was bringing two hungry and thirsty kids home from the park yesterday, I realized that I much preferred referring to hunger and thirst in the French manner. The children are British, native English speakers, so I could easily ask them if they are hungry/thirsty. Instead, I switch to French (which they also understand due to being in French schools).

While I don’t think this hugely impacts the kids, I was struck by the way thinking of hunger and thirst as things we have (versus are) was so reassuring to me. I have thirst. But I also have water. Everything will be okay. Rather than internalizing these physical states, “I” remain separate from the wanting, from the lack of something.

On the other hand, I like thinking of myself as thirsty in a more metaphorical sense. While I may have a thirst for knowledge, I want to be thirsty. The Whole Earth Catalog printed two sentences on the back of its final catalog: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” (Steve Jobs has said this in at least one speech, so the quote is often attributed to him, but he saw it there first!)

Obviously there is a big difference between chronic hunger and the hunger pains a well-fed person feels right before dinner or right after a long walk or something, and I’m not talking about chronic hunger here. But when it comes to the normal hunger and thirst one feels in an active day, I think it’s a good practice to develop this sense of slight distance between yourself and your biological need–but to embrace the sense that you are your thirst, when the thirst is for something higher, like passion or knowledge.


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