Saturday I found myself at one of the happiest places on earth: the outdoor beer garden at a music festival in Seattle. As the music wrapped I said my happy goodbyes. On the way out a young woman I’d been speaking with gave me a crushing look, a concerned and terrible look that reduced me to tears a few hours after I got home.
“Why?” I asked. “Why is it so hard?”
They were a trio of college students at Seattle University and we were talking majors and life decisions. I guess that my inquiries sounded more like a cross-examination. One of the students said, I feel like you’re questioning all my life choices right now. After I apologized to him I explained myself, the ways issues like chronic depression had exempted me from their freedom of self-determination. I earned an education but never gained a profession. I’d found information but not understanding. And so I mentioned the outcome; my poverty and homelessness and difficulty with social situations are the result of the mental health struggles I've had for life.
Decades of isolation make me salty and strong like a cured meat. We have words, clinical phrases like chronic depression, suicide ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder. I just say I’m flat crazy as a shorthand for all of that. I'll say I’m crazy. People nod without surprise. Then I say why I’m crazy and faces change.
“I was kidnapped, sexually assaulted when I was seven” I told the college students in the beer garden. They shook their heads. “Then my parents blamed me,” I added. I heard their collective gasp.
I didn’t wish to shock and awe with personal disclosures but simply to model truth telling and emotional honesty, two underrated forces in today’s world. As I’ve said before, self-delusion will make people do powerful stupid shit. I use my life as a cautionary tale: thirty-plus years of denial and false beliefs, but I’ve survived. I've set myself on the road to reaching my full potential. Self-actualization, here I come!
On paper I have it all. I've climbed out of the gutter. I have a nice home and I eat good food. I have security and health and family and intimacy and friends and self-esteem and confidence and respect and creativity and morality and I am like Abraham Maslow’s wet dream. Except, one look from a twenty-something college student sends me crashing down into a heap that sits crying alone in the woods.
THE HIERARCHY OF NEEDS ISN’T MEETING MY NEEDS
When Maslow first published in the early 1940s he initiated a true paradigm shift in psychology. The young psychologist shifted the focus from the Freudian fixation on pathology and all of the ways that people are broken, traumatized, and neurotic, to exploring the components of individuals at their best. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs gave us a pathway to our brightest potential rather than the compendium of illnesses previous psychologists were cataloging into the DSM. In the 60s and 70s the Human Potential Movement went ape-shit for Maslow and superimposed his model onto every subject from motivation to personal relationships to finance. I’ve even seen it translated into a social media marketing template where search engine optimization and monetization are the equivalent of the liberated self at the top. Maslow’s pyramid has jumped the shark.
What most of these folks fail to acknowledge is that Maslow lived for another thirty years and in that time he realized the first hierarchy was fatally incomplete. Maslow revised the hierarchy of needs with a new apex, the transcendent self. Few people in the self-help and motivation industry took note.
We know that in the first hierarchy the individual works to better herself or himself by building on the foundations beneath. Food and shelter breeds safety and stability for oneself. With these basic needs met an individual grows into and flourishes with psychological needs such as affection, confidence and respect. This foundation allows for a true, liberated self to emerge. Usually, at the top of each pyramid sits the big goal, called self-actualization. This highest self is creative and spontaneous and purposeful and in this paradigm, entirely motivated by self-interest. Granted, my interest is to be the best, brightest, shiniest person I can be. None-the-less, this goal about the self is still all about me.
What happens when I am entirely motivated by self interest? I look for relationships where I can get as much out of the deal as I can and don’t have to compromise much. I look at a friendship or a love relationship like any other transaction and ask what am I getting out of this? When I look at relationships through the hierarchy of needs lens I don’t ask what we are making together, only whether or not you are meeting all my personal fulfillment needs. And you’re not. So we break up and I complain there’s no one decent out there to date and bemoan how much friends suck.
When I am motivated entirely by self interest I want to save as much money as possible so I shop for everything at Walmart or Costco. The shops in the little town where I live get less traffic because everyone can get most everything they need elsewhere down the road. The little corner market goes and then the hardware store goes and then the gas station and pretty soon the only business open downtown is a dive bar. My self interest saved me money but at the cost of a town drying up. If I’m lucky some nice franchises will move in and I get a strip mall out of the deal.
Maslow’s all but forgotten transcendent self looks beyond self interest to community and connectedness
What I do is not just for me but for the benefit of a community. This adds a component of integration that surpasses respect or admiration. My feeling of belonging to and working for a common group enhances all of the other needs. I have experienced this in my work with homeless youths in Seattle. Helping others to eat and rest and feel safe for the night helps me. Unfortunately, there is a staggeringly low amount of volunteerism in America today. 62 million Americans volunteer through an organization at least once per year. That’s a lowly 25 percent. Over 82 million Americans participate in recreational boating.
Connectedness is a healing sensation
When I truly engage in something larger than myself, I am working to become a whole person not simply a better "self". At the music festival I opened up about myself for the greater good of our mental health community, to engage in the wider discussion about coping with mental illness and living as a survivor. We cannot fix what we refuse to talk about as a society. What I got back were looks of pity of a group of others that see me as a victim. That pain I felt Saturday can only mean one thing: keep talking mental illness, build community and recruit allies until fearful expressions become hugs of compassion.