12.27.2012

2012 and Summiting Maslow's Hierarchy

Because saying "2012: The Year I Finally Grew Up" just doesn't sound very self-actualized. But I'll get to that in a moment.

Another new year is approaching, and it's time to sit and take stock of the previous twelve months of my life to see if anything happened worth noting. Most of the previous years have been marked with one difficulty or another, and I won't say that 2012 was completely free of them. Life isn't life without hardships. It's like any good story: it has to have conflict in order to be worth a damn. But something happened along the way that was profound enough to eclipse all of that.

I engaged in a cease-fire in the war against myself, and I think it worked.

No, I'm not saying I no longer have worries or moments of uncertainty. That would make me more a robot than a human being. But when I do worry, it's more of an acute thing.

"Is there enough money in the bank account?"

"Did I over-salt the bread I just made?"

"Oh shit, I forgot to pay the water bill AGAIN."

Normal stuff. Situational stuff. No more is it:

"I'm a horrible person because I'm fat."

"What can I do to make myself more desirable to others?"

"I need something more than what I have."

I haven't had these thoughts in a long time, and for awhile I thought it was because something was wrong with me, like maybe I was suffering from a bout of depression (which is funny when you think about it... I'm not hating myself enough, so I must be depressed). I thought everybody had those thoughts. I thought shame spirals were a regular part of the human experience. But then I realized that they aren't. Or rather, they shouldn't be. Maybe I wasn't having those thoughts anymore because I've reached some strange new plane of being that I didn't think was actually possible.

You know that whole Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs thing from Psych 101 that lists all of our essential needs in the form of a triangle, the top of which is the ultimate goal of self-actualization? See below:


It starts with the basics. Physiological needs. Check. Safety. Check. Love/Belonging. Check. Esteem -- that one's a biggie, and the one I've battled most through my adult life, but yes, check. Maybe it's because I've finally realized that my self-esteem has nothing to do with how I look. Once I made that realization, it all became a hell of a lot easier. Vanity fucking sucks.

All of which leads to the top level: self-actualization. Did I achieve it? Yeah, I think so. Or at least I'm damn close. It's a work in progress, but I think I'm about 90% of the way there, and that's good enough for me right now. Wikipedia breaks the whole self-actualization thing into more detail:

  • Efficient perceptions of reality. Self-actualizers are able to judge situations correctly and honestly. They are very sensitive to the fake and dishonest. 
I would say I can do this relatively well.

  • Comfortable acceptance of self, others, nature. Self-actualizers accept their own human nature with all its flaws. The shortcomings of others and the contradictions of the human condition are accepted with humor and tolerance. 
Yeah, I think that's key. Not taking yourself too seriously. Realizing that we are all walking contradictions and that none of is perfect is the cornerstone of self-actualization, in my opinion.
  • Spontaneity. Maslow's subjects extended their creativity into everyday activities. Actualizers tend to be unusually alive, engaged, and spontaneous. 
I'd say if I had more money, I'd be a lot more spontaneous, but the desire is there perhaps more than it ever has been to see and do different things. To take in life and savor it. But I stress that this recent realization will never (and I repeat NEVER) include use of the horrible new "word" YOLO.

  • Task centering. Most of Maslow's subjects had a mission to fulfill in life or some task or problem outside of themselves to pursue. Humanitarians such as Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa are considered to have possessed this quality. 
This one I need to work on more. In fact, I was recently discussing the desire to adopt a family for Christmas next year, as well as put in some volunteer a local community restaurant. So again, the desire is there. Implementation is on the horizon.

  • Autonomy. Self-actualizers are free from reliance on external authorities or other people. They tend to be resourceful and independent. 
If I wasn't at least somewhat autonomous, I couldn't be a writer.

  • Continued freshness of appreciation. The self-actualizer seems to constantly renew appreciation of life's basic goods. A sunset or a flower will be experienced as intensely time after time as it was at first. There is an "innocence of vision", like that of an artist or child. 
Some people call me easily amused for a reason. My sense of wonder has rarely, if ever, been dulled. I feel like that is one quality about myself that I value the most.

  • Fellowship with humanity. Maslow's subjects felt a deep identification with others and the human situation in general. 
More so than ever, perhaps because it's more necessary than ever.

  • Profound interpersonal relationships. The interpersonal relationships of self-actualizers are marked by deep loving bonds. 
Most definitely, and probably the biggest one aside from self-esteem. I don't think I have ever loved being a parent and a wife more than I do now. For years I did everything I could to run from it, thinking all my answers to happiness lay at the bottoms of hundreds of glasses of booze and the company of strangers. I didn't realize then that I was searching for something I already had. Nowadays, I cherish these times with them, as my kids approach the launchpad to their adult lives. Now is the time when the life lessons I've been teaching them are coming to fruition. I also relish the wonderful discussions and companionship of my husband. I find it difficult to be away from my people for long. I'm content where I am, and I'm acutely aware that my duties to them outweigh any other selfish desire I might have.

But it's more than just parenthood and marriage. It is also my parents, friends, and colleagues. I've felt like an extremely lucky person this year, touched profoundly in so many ways by the love, care, and generosity of the people in my life.

  • Comfort with solitude. Despite their satisfying relationships with others, self-actualizing persons value solitude and are comfortable being alone. 
This has always been the case for me, so thankfully I already had that one in the bag.

  • Peak experiences. All of Maslow's subjects reported the frequent occurrence of peak experiences (temporary moments of self-actualization). These occasions were marked by feelings of ecstasy, harmony, and deep meaning. Self-actualizers reported feeling at one with the universe, stronger and calmer than ever before, filled with light, beautiful and good, and so forth. 

This. Definitely this. It has its ups and downs, of course. When you feel closer to humanity, you tend to internalize a lot more of its pain and suffering. After the Newtown shooting, I randomly burst into tears at any given moment for over a week. But despite this, there is a new core of strength and calm inside me that hasn't been there before. There is a certainty, a "oneness" with my life and everything in it that has come to the fore.

I'm not saying I'm perfect or better than anybody who is still struggling their way through life. I have a long way to go, and life is never going to just stop throwing me curve balls. What the Maslow diagram doesn't demonstrate is how very shaky it is once you reach the top. The ground is crumbly, the slopes slippery. No one can stand perfectly at the tip of a triangle for very long, if they can at all.

Those missteps and stumbles and backslides that happen as we struggle to maintain a healthy grip on life are all just part of the journey, and in retrospect, they're probably the most valuable. And beautiful.