By Maven Cade Leary
art by Dan Reece
Life’s funny sometimes.
It’s just something we say.
But it’s true! And not in a haha kind of way, either.
When you’re a kid, you just can’t wait to be an adult, free to do all the great and wonderful things that all still seem possible at that age.
Then, when you realize you’ve finally become an adult, stuck under a mountain of responsibilities, social obligations, and automatic thought patterns, you long for the days when you were free to dream, when you imagined you could become anybody, and when you had the time and frame of mind to fully immerse yourself into a hobby.
What follows is something I have previously written about, in one of my books, which I have self-published and tentatively distributed, but have so far neglected to truly push. I repeat it here, starting from scratch, because I believe it has something to offer to the Gonzo at heart, and just might be something that will resonate with the Gonzo Today readers.
Maslow’s pyramid, that old, well kicked dog of the economic academia, is one of those things that seems simple on the surface, but has a weird message buried within.
For the most part, we are only exposed to the traditional revised and oft repeated version of it, the one that basically says humans are primarily concerned with the needs of the level they find themselves at, and must fulfil the needs of all the levels underneath before being in a position to move up the ladder. This is I guess a way to target audiences for advertising based on which rung of the ladder they currently find themselves… Or some weird and boring thing like that. Look it up if you’re interested.
During my studies in psychology, I had the opportunity to look over his full works, and soon came to realize that here was a shrink I could finally understand. You see, Maslow was a humanistic psychologist, which basically means that he was interested in how to use psychology as a means to increase the well being of all individuals, not just cure sick puppies. His idea was that by studying humans, he might come to identify traits that led to fulfilment and success, and offer those as a map to the ways in which all might benefit from the findings.
Seems like a great starting point, am I right? So what Abraham Maslow latched onto was the concept of self-actualization. For the purpose of thoroughness, Let’s go over the rungs in this ladder. The base is physiological, so food, sex, water, air, all that stuff. Ya need at least that to really be concerned with safety, so a stable home, a job, relative certainty you won’t get killed walking around, and so forth. Then, number three, you become concerned with love and belonging, so friendships, work relationships, family, that cute girl at the coffee shop… Then, you get to the fourth level, you develop esteem, of self, and others. You come to value your achievements, you find that people who do what you think of as good are good, and you look down on those unwilling to do the effort required.
And only then, once you have all that mastered, can you really start to think about self-actualization. This final rung on Maslow’s pyramid is where everything was going for him. This is when people could afford to be totally random, to seek beauty over function, to discard rationality and go with the heart.
Basically, what Maslow discovered, what his pyramid was attempting to explain, was that he had found a set of outliers, a rare percentage of individuals who seemed to be hard-coded to be self-actualizers. These people where the greats and the insane of history. These were the ones who were truly free.
He tried to regroup the traits of this minority, to understand why they were the way they were. But he found that the traits were random and often different and contradictory. Basically, some could be hyper rational, others concerned with beauty and appearances without a care in the world for good sense. One of the basic traits he found that many of these individuals had were peak experiences, an almost maniac-depressive tendency to soar to great heights to accomplish things normally impossible to a human, and then crash to a nearly non-functional state for varied periods of lengths. The degree of the highs and lows varied greatly, but they seemed to keep turning up.
Near the end of his life, even Maslow had some doubts as to the validity of his pyramid. The self-actualization of certain individuals despite their lack of some of the basic needs seemed inconsistent with his prior premise.
When I was exposed to all this, I understood something vital, something that is simple truth to me, because I have carried it with me since as far back as I can remember, but that might seem counter-intuitive to most.
If you flip that pyramid upside down, it all makes perfect sense!
You see, what I described above, the accepted way of climbing the ladder, locks you into a path you cannot break free from. You get basic needs met, well, that’s likely because you have secured the one above, that is to say, a job and a home… And if you got a job and a home, you have a circle of people to interact with, to form this third level, the whole socializing thing. Then, at this point, you have a stable environment you can judge yourself and others on…
But wait, you are telling me that at this point you can self-actualize? Recreate yourself anew? Become whoever you chose to become? No, no, no, it doesn’t work that way. You esteem people because they fit or don’t fit into your system. The people that are your friends and family, they are locked in. You can’t just change all that without changing your home and job and everything, and “hurting a lot of feelings” along the way. So basically, if you esteem people based on what has allowed you to climb this ladder, you cannot just arbitrarily change all that for fun. This would put everything at risk. Thus, you cannot embark on true self-actualization.
But if you ARE a self-actualizer, and to you, Life, the joy and wonder of experience over security, is THE priority, then you instinctively progress in reverse order through the rungs.
Now, to be clear, this is not an essay of the thoughts of a self-actualizer. Rather, I am attempting to bring to the reader’s awareness what I believe is the solution to the questions Maslow was posing himself. In other words, I am presenting a way any individual, self-actualizer by instinct or not, can apply a methodology to become “self-actualizers”, which is itself a vague concept, not due to any weakness on its part, but rather due to the diversity of human interests and tastes.
So, first thing is first, the individual has to be willing to risk their security for their quality of life. This is the foundation, and without it, you will be better off sticking to the traditional path. But if you are willing to take that step, well, you’ve just acquired the top rung, oneshot. You’ve decided to be guided by your morality and by your preferences, not your needs.
Now, looking down, you have to take a lot of time to gain a healthy esteem of self and other. This means you have to be free of requiring people to be one way or another, so you can truly judge them based on your morality, on how you feel, not how they serve you, and thus get a healthy esteem of yourself, and of others. This is essentially where you analyse the fuck out of the inner workings of your mind, and you make a rational analysis of what you can expect of people.
Mother Theresa describes the three stages of mysticism. One, you go within and find yourself. Two, you look at the world and determine who you are with regards to what you perceive. Three, you go out into the world and make it happen.
And so it is, once you have a good esteem of self and others, you can pick work you are good at, and that you enjoy doing. You can choose your friends and partners based on a healthy perception of who they actually are, and perhaps more importantly, who YOU truly are, and you can choose to live in a community that reflects your own mindset.
So there you have it, a simple process to meet all your needs. The bottom row of the traditional pyramid is met as a by-product of the other rungs.
As adults, this is weird information to digest. It’s one of those things that you either ignore because you are too far down the path, something you already recognize in yourself, or something that you might try some time, a nice little mid-life crisis to put things into perspective.
But as kids, and as teens, into our early twenties, this is essentially when such a path could naturally be undertaken. And to some degree, we do, in rebellion to the established infrastructure which fills our kids’ minds with shoulds and shouldn’ts, brainwashes them with countless mediatic assaults (Noam Chomsky was dead on when he said that the media are the propaganda of a democracy), and we leave them in a weird kind of lord of the flies isolation, to deal with themselves, to do their debauchery in the shadows, as if such things were not acceptable, when in reality, we all do it, or have at least tried it.
Our educational system and our slave-like 40-50+ hour work weeks plus commuting just don’t allow us to really be there with our kids, to hang out with them, to give them the confidence and space to be themselves.
Maybe anyone can undertake the path proposed above, at any point, but it seems to me that those with so much to lose would simply not be willing to be taken out of their comfort zones enough to make it happen. Maslow seemed to think that self-actualizers were the way to go, that they had the best time being alive, and that they accomplished the most advanced work in almost all fields of science, art, and politics.
But perhaps what he failed to take into account are all those who gambled and lost their chips, who never made it, and who paid the price with their quality of life if not their life itself. If you really want to play at the table of Life, you gotta be willing to go all in. And I don’t know if the odds were ever better than they are today, but it sure does seem like a long shot.
I wouldn’t recommend anyone take this path later in their lives. It’s a good way to grow up, but it’s a hell of a risk to suddenly undertake. It’s one of those things that either you have to do, or that if you can, you should probably avoid. Myself, I took off down this path a long time ago, and it’s much too late to turn back now. Besides, I don’t really feel I have anything to loose. By luck, or perhaps, lack of, Omnia mecum porto mea.
But I will say this much, despite my warning above, you’ve never lived until you’ve given up the past and the future. I know this from experience.