Sunday, October 3, 2010

Actualize This

Following my path from this point and going forward requires first that I trust, and then that I accept. I always thought that trust meant believing that my needs would be met. This is true to a certain degree, but the idea existed with a set of underlying assumptions about what “needs” means. In point of fact, I don’t really know what I need, not in the fullest sense of the word. Maslow’s hierarchy might serve as some kind of paradigm for establishing needs in a broad sense. The trick comes in assessing just exactly what “food,” “shelter,” and “safety” mean. If the greatest aspiration of man is self-actualization, it seems, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, that this state won’t exist unless I first have these things. The problem comes in recognizing that not having food, not having shelter, not feeling safe might be part of a process that leads to self-actualization.

If you look at the greatest stories, there always seems to be a point where the hero is deprived of the lower “needs” on Maslow’s pyramid. He comes to the lowest point, rock bottom, and realizes that it isn’t in fact the lower part of the pyramid that he needs, but to reach deep down within himself and access, actualize something that has lain there dormant, unused, locked up, suppressed, or hidden. The need for safety, the need for shelter, the need for food, these all pale in comparison to the need to know oneself and bring out something that completes the hero, gives him a new horizon from which to gauge his bearings.

If we view “needs” in this way, the very definition of trust is transformed. No longer am I standing in a field, homeless, while jackals wait in the shadows, ready to tear me limbless and eat my entrails wondering why God has forsaken me, why she has disregarded my pleas to give me what I need. Trust looks at each situation, knowing that whatever happens is best in terms of the highest aspirations of humans, whether you want to call it “self-actualization” or merely “following my path.” If I stand in a field, homeless, ready to be killed, trust requires that I accept this situation as the very best place for me to be in.

Sure, we might talk about preferences, about conveniences, about “druthers,” as my Uncle Merle would say. So many times I’ve been in places and felt abandoned and forsaken. When my income waned and waned and eventually stopped coming, when my girlfriend left and married another man, when day after day I woke up and went to bed in a lonely apartment with few friends and no family living nearby, I would rather have had the things I felt deprived of. The perspective of trust and acceptance, however, requires me to reframe my entire existence to understand, know, and believe that whatever befalls me is ultimately a part of the larger and more encompassing process of getting me to that place of self-actualization. This always has the potential of including experiences wherein I don’t have access to those items on the lower part of Maslow’s hierarchy.

I recently made yet another revision of Wayward Son, my memoir about the significant turning point that came in my life as a direct result of having gone to Ethiopia to be a Bible translator. That was one of the darkest and most difficult times in my life. When I initially wrote the rough draft, I was angry:  angry with the mission, angry with my colleagues, angry with Evangelicalism, angry with my ex-wife. My focus was on the pain I felt. Every word, sentence, and paragraph I composed intended in some way to convey the struggles I went through and how difficult that time had been for me. As I worked through subsequent revisions, I was also working through the second most difficult time in my life, the period of two and a half years that it took me to trust that the Universe had done the right thing in taking my ex-girlfriend away and accepting that I could live a meaningful life without her. During this phase, Wayward Son began to shape up as a process of becoming. While in Ethiopia, I went from trying to find meaning and purpose within Evangelicalism to taking the first very feeble steps toward self-actualization. The process of getting over the breakup helped me understand better the process of transformation that unfolded in Ethiopia and after.

But it isn’t the process that informs us most nobly of the mysterious forces that direct our fate and destiny. This was a difficult lesson to learn because the process is so important. You can’t arrive at the destination point without the process. It’s necessary, and some part of it must be told in the story, but only the most important and transformative events that lead up to the place where the hero experiences at least some aspect of self-actualization. The goal of the story, it’s teleology, is the hero’s appropriation of some aspect of his truest self, not only his recognition for the need of it (as most British films seem sufficiently happy to tell), or even taking steps toward that change—the ensuing struggle—but getting through that struggle and existing in the new state.

Wayward Son never told that final stopping point, where I came to exist as a transformed man. That transformation was tied directly to my experiences as a missionary in Ethiopia, but those experiences weren’t the story. In those experiences, I felt abandoned, alone, forsaken, and forlorn. In the end, I had to come to see that it was those very experiences that opened the way for me to be a different kind of person than the henpecked, emasculated, cowardly boy who got on a plane and landed in Ethiopia. I’d always known that, but I’d failed to show the final stages of the process, when I made decisions to follow the threads of self-actualization rather than constantly seeking to have the “needs” on the lower part of the pyramid met.
I think Maslow was onto something. I’ve never read his works to know how he develops his ideas, only the rarified versions you find in college textbooks—not the kind of place to look for inspiration for staring in your own hero’s tale. As I understand it, Maslow was himself an actualized person. He didn’t come to that without passing through a process like that which I’ve been describing. I’m suspicious that the hierarchy is presentes as the Hierarchy (with a capital H) and how it really rather supports the very bourgeois approach to life that demands comfort and stability, “and then, I’ll worry about self-actualization.” It’s the very kind of mindset that enslaves, that helps build the walls of fear that so efficiently keep us from following the deepest strains in our hearts. It’s a mindset that has allowed me to conveniently circumvent self-actualization all these years in favor of “keeping it Baptist,” as I like to say, which means nominal, non-threatening, neat, pink, and clean.
Joseph Campbell says we enter our story by going to the darkest part of the woods, not knowing exactly what we will meet, but knowing that whoever we are coming out on the other side of the woods, the process that unfolded inside the woods was worth it. I can look back on my experiences in Ethiopia now and can say honestly, “It was perhaps the most difficult two and a half years of my life, but I had to go there, and I’m glad I did.”