The other day a friend and I were talking about why so many people lead unfulfilling lives. As is my habit, I immediately went for the psychological explanation and pursued it with my usual fervor. I said it’s because of a lack of consciousness: we don’t consider or pursue all our options because we’re locked into our culturally-conditioned assumptions about how we’re supposed to live our lives.
He thought economic injustice was a more decisive factor. Then he told me about someone he knows who has pursued his passion for art for twenty years without success. He doesn’t have enough time or money to devote to it because he works exhausting hours at a low-paying job he hates just to stay afloat.
This, of course, is an excellent point! My argument was far too simplistic. I’m reminded of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory about the hierarchy of needs. Only when the basic needs at the two lowest levels — the needs for physical survival, personal and financial security, health, and safety — are met can a person be motivated to seek and value love and belonging at the third level. And only when enough of these needs are met does s/he acquire enough fourth-level self-esteem and self-respect to pursue the fifth-level needs for meaning, self-actualization, self-realization, and self-transcendence.
There are critics of this theory, but I hear the ring of truth in it. I’ve been taking for granted the fact that despite my humble beginnings, enough of my basic needs have been met to give me the luxury of pursuing the “higher” needs which have brought so much meaning and joy to my life. My argument must be painful and offensive to those who don’t have that luxury, and I’m deeply ashamed for not being more sensitive to this reality. My friend is way ahead of me in that regard.
As we batted our thoughts back and forth like a tennis ball, we found ourselves at a dividing line in the fourth “court” of self-esteem and self-respect. According to Wikipedia, “Maslow noted two versions of esteem needs, a lower one and a higher one. The lower one is the need for the respect of others, the need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. The higher one is the need for self-respect, the need for strength, competence, mastery, self-confidence, independence and freedom. The latter one ranks higher because it rests more on inner competence won through experience. Deprivation of these needs can lead to an inferiority complex, weakness and helplessness.”
Yes, there are deeply troubling educational, governmental and economic inequities, and correcting them must be our first priority. Moreover, as my friend rightly pointed out, some people who achieve status and prestige — often along with a lot of money — only got them through dumb luck while the majority of virtuous, hard-working, well-meaning, law-abiding people never gets them no matter how hard they try. What I was trying to express is equally true: exploiting the common assumption that gaining the high opinion of others is more important than working to develop self-esteem and inner competence is also misguided and unjust.
Alone, fame and glory rarely lead to fulfillment. True and lasting success is acquiring self-knowledge, self-respect and self-acceptance, and until we start spreading and acting on this “higher” message, we will continue to seek the wrong things and feel like failures when we don’t get them.