Sunday, November 23, 2008

Food for thought

When I am alone in the house I am usually working in silence; I love music, but rarely listen except in the car or when I am doing some particularly onerous task of housework. But it is the weekend, which means my husband is in the house, which means -- inevitably -- that the radio in the kitchen is on, set to NPR.

Usually I can just tune it out, but yesterday I overheard someone say to Rick Steves (what this has to do with travel, I'm not sure) that Americans seem to be obsessed with personal happiness, but for him (whoever he was) he felt that happiness was 100% relational.

I was intrigued by that, and by the implications of it -- particularly since he was so matter-of-fact about it. "Of COURSE!" he seemed to be saying, "Everyone but you foolish Americans seems to understand that happiness is about connecting with others!" And so, being one of those agreeable sorts, I smiled to myself and said, yes, those foolish Americans, its why we are so greedy, and fight wars, and poison the environment, because we do not understand that we are all connected, that one person cannot be truly happy unless all are happy.

But then I thought -- but wait: everytime I look outside myself for happiness, it fails. For me, happiness wells up from within, when I am feeling centered and whole. Are these irreconcilable differences? It seems to me that whenever we look to relationships to provide happiness we are disappointed.

So then, this morning, still reading Laurence Freeman (this book is really dense, and very slow-going, so I may be reading it for a while!), he talks about what he calls "divine love-longing":

"It is found deep in Jesus, in God, and in the human being, and it unites God and humanity in their common thirst for each other...the consuming longing to transmit the whole of one's self to another...this passion for self-communication is at the very heart of reality."

Which brings me back to what he calls the "Key Question" -- Who do you say that I am? I think we humans do indeed hunger deeply for relationship. We long for that childlike trust and connection that allows us to safely ask that question, hoping the answer will be a gift of love; that the person will "get" us, see who we really are at the deepest level, and respect and honor that.

Which is why Charlie Harper, in the TV show "Two and a Half Men" can always get a woman into bed by saying "I understand." The longing to be known and understood is at heart a longing for intimacy -- emotional and spiritual intimacy, that is -- but all too often we confuse that with sexual intimacy, settling for the second when what we long for is the first.

Hmm. I suppose I got off topic there, distracted by what I see as I watch the young people I know trying to find happiness in relationships...

But Freeman also says that we cannot answer the question for Jesus until we answer it for ourselves; that we cannot fully comprehend the Divine until we are able to give that childlike trust and acceptance to ourselves. But what does it take to get to that point?

And as I was standing there at the kitchen counter, my mind wandering down all these paths, the radio personality -- or perhaps it was Rick Steves -- mentioned Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

So I looked that up before embarking on this post. And apparently Maslow (yes, I knew this long ago as a college student, but had forgotten) objected to the fact that so many psychologists drew their conclusions from studying troubled people. So he elected to study healthy people instead. And his conclusion was that to be a happy and healthy person there are a NUMBER of needs to be satisfied, and that they come in a particular order, a hierarchy, usually displayed as a pyramid. The Wiki kindly offers this image, which I share with you:

And interestingly enough, Maslow calls the lower four tiers on the pyramid "deficiency needs (or D-needs)," saying that if we do not get them we will be anxious and tense. But if those needs are met, then we can begin to tackle what he calls Growth Needs or Being needs (B-needs), those listed in the Self-Actualization category. And then the Wiki goes on to say that "the motivation to realize our maximum potential and possibilities is considered to be the master motive or the only real motive, all other motives being its various forms."

Hmm. Sounds very 70's to me. Apparently Maslow put forth this theory in 1943, around the time all us baby-boomers were beginning to be born; do you suppose this stuff was at the heart of the behaviors attributed to the so-called "Me Generation?" Or did we all just get stuck at the esteem level and never make it to the top tier?

I guess I just don't buy it. Because, yes, I agree that humans have all those needs. But it seems to me that the behaviors at the top of the pyramid operate independently of all the others; that in fact we may be more likely to see those admirable qualities in people who are lacking fulfillment at the basest of levels than in, say, someone like Dick Cheney, who presumably has it all at the D-need level.

So perhaps this is the unique American fallacy, that happiness can ever come from satisfying any or all of those D-needs for one human being. Because all of those things are individual, where as the B-needs seem to me to be more relational -- and, in fact, to flow out of an understanding of our deep connection with the Divine and with all of creation. I'd like to think it is by setting aside our craving for all those D-needs and just focusing on the B-needs (isn't that what Gandhi did?) that we find true fulfillment and joy. But that's easy for me to say, because for the moment my D-needs seem to be mostly met. Would I be as "good" or "happy" a person if they weren't?

Oy. How did I wander down this road, anyway? Perhaps it's because I minored in Psychology in college; the temptation to analyze can still hook me after all these years. But what the heck: it's all food for thought -- and some of it quite tasty!


Anonymous said...

I think there is definitely a lot of overlap in this hierarchy, especially within the top 3 tiers. I do believe that significant problems in the bottom tiers makes it very difficult to focus on anything else. And often the struggles in the Self-Actualization arena may be due to ways in which we're stuck in the other levels.

An interesting post, thanks for sharing the Maslow info with us. Makes for some juicy pondering. I especially liked your characterization of Dick Cheney!

Diane Walker said...

Yum, juicy pondering! And I just noticed that morality appears at both the second level and the top level. I wonder what circumstance he was addressing there; it would be interesting to explore what he meant by "security of morality."

So intriguing, to think that this has been around for 65 YEARS.