Who doesn’t like Abraham Maslow? I know this is taking most of you back to a 101 class of some sort – one of those soft sciences most likely: Criminal Law, Psychology, Sociology, etc. But seriously – who wouldn’t love this face?
Something you all probably know about him is that he’s most famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs”. Boy, I love this gem of psycho-social theory. I don’t know if Maslow understood how much potential that little pyramid had for healing. When I worked with young people, it featured prominently in my one-to-one work with them; when I managed, it was always on the wall in the office.
Three things about it that rock: it’s colorful, so it catches eyes; it’s simple, so even non-academics can make some bloody sense out of the theory; and it’s true. To see the eureka moment on a 17-year old’s face as (s)he (but more often he, because more often the boys were willing to listen to my balderdash) made sense of this masterpiece…it was magical.
No, you are not going to be all sorts of amazing just yet. First you’ve got to figure out a few basics. Like how to make sure the socks on your feet are (almost) always clean and the roof over your head isn’t threatening to melt with the rain at any minute. Metaphorically or otherwise. People can help, but you’re going to have a hard time recognizing the good ones until you can get a handle on where your next meal is coming from. Which creates a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario that can be daunting. Still, it’s a lot less scary when it’s broken down into a colorful, logical pyramid like this. Magical.
Some things you might not have known about the good professor: he was a bit of a wimp, but wanted to be buff. It never really happened, but he tried. Also, they thought he was mentally unstable when he was a kid. Maybe he was.
Anyway, I bring up Mr. Maslow because of something he said that is really important to me:
If you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you will be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life.
Phew! No pressure there, then, eh?
That statement is so chock-full of personal responsibility, it’s enough to make the U.S. American Right turn Socialist. (Or not. It’s a nice thought, though.)
It’s not just that he’s telling us that if we’re not the best we can be we’re doomed – he’s also making us responsible for gauging what the best looks like for us: “…than you are capable of being…” Who on earth knows what we’re capable of being besides – deep down – each one of us? Remember Brando’s mournful, “I coulda been a contender!” from On the Waterfront? Ostensibly he’s blaming his brother, but we can’t help but hear the personal regret…sure, he coulda been somebody – but who was in the ring at the end of the day?
Or how about the old spiritual “Nobody’s Fault but Mine“? Nobody sang it like Nina. At any rate, it’s the same message, I guess, but with so much more sadness, so much less hope than Maslow’s. It’s not to say Maslow went easy on us, but the unspoken alternative rings as loudly or moreso than the threat: if we deliberately plan to live to the highest reaches of our potential, we will be deeply satisfied.
If we’re listening closely to Maslow, there’s a healthy dose of realism. If we aren’t physiologically safe, our potential is necessarily lower than if we are. If we haven’t developed loving relationships in our lives, our potential is lower than if we have. Ergo, being all you can be means having a little bit of luck in this life. Isn’t that true?
In my search for balance between aspiration and acceptance, Maslow is a bastion of sense. Modern psychology might consider him old hat, but he still cuts the edge for me.