The Self, Nature, and the Dance of I and Thou
I have been thinking quite a lot lately about Abraham Maslow. I love to discuss with my students his theory of self-actualization and his hierarchy of needs. I often emphasize in class that like many stage or hierarchy models, the pyramid graphic may lend a false impression of uniform progression through—and prioritization of—each level of needs. I love the lively discussions, debates, and critiques that typically follow. These center around themes of wholeness, liberation, and meaningful living inherent in Maslow’s ideas, as well as the possibility of gender bias in his patriarchal emphasis on hierarchy. Why, they ask, are some levels of needs “higher” than others, as if the bottom tier needs that involve basic confrontation with death and survival are somehow less worthy or respectable than the upper tiers? Invariably, some students attempt to propose an arguably feminine notion of re-visioning the hierarchy as some sort of circle.
I love that!
Some students challenge self-actualization as “selfish,” or perhaps more sophisticatedly, as embodying an ethic characteristic of individualism and less sensitive to different cultural notions of collectivism. In the past, I once responded to this critique with the speculation that true self-actualization embodies generosity. In seeking wholeness we are capable of coming together in relationships and in service of social interest, not out of mutual neediness and excessive dependency, but as intact people with true gifts to share with each other. I saw the potential here for a balance between individualism and collectivism. This notion retains for me the lingering, diminishing sense of beauty of an ideal that is slowly giving way to a richer understanding—like a flower that withers and drops its seed to make way for bigger, later season blooms.
Over the years, I have become increasingly more aware—through teaching at a school that deeply values diversity, but mostly through painful and sublime personal experience—that Maslow’s revered model might indeed have true limitations. I believe that Maslow himself glimpsed these as he approached his death. I have never been completely satisfied with the idea that at our healthiest, we are increasingly independent from others even as we voluntarily form connections with them in a generous sharing of ourselves—deriving from them great satisfaction and fulfillment. Although consistent with the existential concept that we are all fundamentally alone, this separateness calls to mind for me an image of each us standing on separate islands, building bridges to each other and visiting for a time. Something just seems missing from such a picture.
I reflect now on the elusive and dialectical nature of the Self as intrapersonal vs. the Self as interpersonal. The latter concept, embodied in the collectivist idea of “I am because we are,” moves me to my core. I experience the truth of it in suffering and loss in my relationships, as well as joys and the self-discoveries also inherent in them.
As I struggle with self-actualization in my life, I no longer value wholeness sufficient unto myself. I feel no shame in saying that I need others—and I need them desperately.
Don’t get me wrong. I have my introvert moments when I feel “peopled out” and deeply cherish my solitude. However, to put it quite simply, the very best of who I am only ever emerges in and through connection with Other. In I-Thou moments with my clients, my students, my friends, and my family, I occasionally experience hearing myself saying something that could only have come through the deep and sacred connection we are sharing. I feel like I am moving with abandon and passion in a dance with all of them. I could never experience that wonder, that sense of bliss and intoxicating beauty—those KIND of peak experiences—without them. I need them all.
I especially need those in my life—like my wife, Angie—who inspire in me a desire to become a far better man than I am.
I need Other in a broader sense as well. I need Nature, who presents Herself to me in the most surprising of ways, reflecting Me to me. I need that most unlikely little green spider that lowered herself on a glistening strand in front of me on the Metra train, conversing with me about the importance of honoring the web of connections in my life, communicating freely through them and savoring the gifts of serendipity caught in those beautiful webs. Reassuring me that just as she is protected and living quite well even indoors on the train, I may also thrive and connect with nature wherever I find myself.
I also need the weeping willow and the river I canoed down last summer, who together asserted to me that their relationship was mutually beneficial. Her roots anchor the banks through which he flows, and his water brings nutrients and moisture to her. They challenge me in turn to identify what I am doing to nurture the roots of relationships that give me strength and vitality—and they reveal natural ways to love more effectively. Flowing swiftly or slowly, a river touches and loves all with whom he connects along his path. Too little water and the plants, animals, and people languish in arid soil. Too much and he sweeps away and drowns everything in his path.
These sacred connections ARE the fullest embodiment of me. I, in turn, am part of the embodiment of Other. Apart from it, I feel small and unknown to myself. Therefore, I give myself fully to the Dance now, and one day with my last breath, I will give my Memory to it.
I love that.
Maslow, A. (2013). A theory of human motivation. Start Publishing LLC., Amazon Digital Services
Maslow, A. (2013). Towards a psychology of being. Start Publishing LLC., Amazon Digital Services
Maslow, A., Maslow, B., & Geiger H. (1993). The farther reaches of human nature. Penguin.
-- Drake Spaeth