Question: What makes you happy, what makes you tick?
Two posts back I encouraged comments giving me topic ideas, because I may stop writing essays after an August convention. One of the suggestions was the one above.
Of Human Needs
In ancient Greece there was an important inscription in stone at the temple of the oracle of Delphi: Know Thyself was all it said. Such knowing is a lifetime project for everyone, especially for folks like me.
I confess I have needed to learn a great deal about myself, and everyone else’s human needs, as I started so far behind. I grew up on an emotional iceberg, grim and grey. Later, out in the big world, I used to half-joke to myself, “I am suppressed, repressed and depressed…” I say “half-joke” because my sense of humor was less than half developed. Luckily I germinated a little humor as I matured. I’m still chuckling warmly at the young confident man in the elite American Airborne Rangers. I heard him reply to a Canadian major, when asked what he was doing in the rangers, “Growing up, sir.” I too grew in the forces. One day I was released from the service, walked past the chain link fence out the gate, across the airstrip, and over to a futuristic community college, a college that earned North American design awards the year it was built. Now it’s Mount Royal University.
During my first month there I had one of those typical student-growth experiences: I had to consult a nursing student textbook as part of my coursework. In chapter one was a list of human needs. Talk about know thyself—I suddenly realized that I had been oblivious all my life, and too hard on myself in denying my needs. I had never seen such a list; I had no idea such needs existed; and I thought I had better take responsibility to check myself against that list.
Consider the need for human relations. Popping into the civilian world meant I had (almost) no local friends, but that didn’t mean I should be oblivious to my social needs.
Earlier this month, in my essay Speaking Up in Classrooms and Business Meetings I noted that a coffee buddy handed me the best selling book about introverts, Quiet by Susan Cain. A friend of Cain, who said he talks to her, even though she’s “one of my best friends,” only when she initiates it, said (p. 211) “I could go for literally years without any friends except for my wife and kids.” He said he would love to live with just his family on a thousand acres. In this he sounds merely like a common computer nerd—or a little like me. So far, so good. But what if, unmarried, he tried to be a “real” hermit? It wouldn’t work. According to my college social work teacher, hermits find themselves, when they come into town for supplies, spending more and more time hanging around the trading post.
Human relations, even for self-avowed hermits, are a need. In other words, in order to keep my engine ticking over happily, I would need to join a computer club, a bowling league, a square dance association— whatever. Just as residents in hospitals and senior citizen homes need to congregate to sing or exercise or appreciate music together—something, anything—it doesn’t matter what.
You’ve heard of early retirement? I have a relative, a delivery driver, taking a late retirement: Work is the only way he gets out of the house and sees people… I guess if only he could get a hobby, he could retire!
I don’t suppose I could ever find that list again: As I recall, that set of tattered orange nursing textbooks were old even then, and have surely been replaced. I suppose such lists (link) would be harder to read, today, in this age of “skim the Internet” to find things written in sound-bite and (power) point form. Easier to gape at web pictures of fluffy cats. Well. I will leave finding and studying such “lists of needs” as an exercise for my keenest readers.
Anyone who reads, I believe, should have in his vocabulary the concept of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “list,” known as “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” usually depicted as a step ladder or pyramid. If you aren’t familiar with it then I suggest you try out this link to Maslow … Welcome back.
I’m sure most college students who come across Maslow first start to hope, then dare to believe, they will some day be at the top step of Maslow’s ladder. As my days tick by I would be happy to think I’m nearly there myself. I found a reference to Maslow in a list from a Brazil nursing website where there are five paragraphs covering five needs. The last paragraph, for “self-accomplishment needs,” ends with this:
“Besides the above five needs, Maslow found cognitive needs, such as desire to know, understand, systemize, analyze and seek relations and meaning… Furthermore, the need is highlighted to help other people to self-develop and accomplish their potential, transcendent needs, which follow self accomplishment.” (Boldface in the original)
As an essayist and a citizen, I’m happy to think that I am true to my cognitive needs, happy that I transcend by helping others.
Of course, “being true to my needs” is never easy or automatic. In my own case, I’ve felt haunted down the years… ever since childhood when I held a tinker toy in one hand, pretending it held a secret radio hidden from the Japanese, and a book in my other hand. The book was King Rat, by James Clavel, about a P.O. W. camp run by the Japanese. Clavel describes ordinary people, from a cross section of society, being prisoners. To counter the feeling of wasting time, wasting their lives, the men could consider “getting some education” by taking in lectures given by fellow servicemen with degrees and Ph.D’s. Imagine a young man from the slums of London coming out of the war smarter than he went in! But no. Clavel vividly describes an all too human “one day at a time” procrastination—just like me, dammit! The lectures are very sparsely attended. Nobody looks ahead to think: One day the prisoners will be released, and then they will face forward into their new exciting lives, rather than looking backwards and admitting they did not step up to the challenge of self-accomplishment, that they wasted years… As I suppose we all do, with all our years, to a greater or lesser extent.
I was in college when I saw an art film version of the Russian novel about Oblomov. The poor fellow stays at home in a disordered brown room with no stamp collection, no writing desk, no musical instruments, no textbooks, no supplies for making arts, crafts or models—nothing requiring any effort. In a time before computers or television, Oblomov was the original couch potato. (At least he stood up to make tea in his samovar) I wondered: What if I graduated, became unemployed, and then turned into Oblomov? My outdoor pursuits teacher confessed he gets a little “Oblomovish” when he goes off to attend a long conference. I was relieved to hear him say so. I resolved to try to have goals that impelled action, and to try to stay on top of my procrastination. I remembered the ancient Greek saying, “Not life, but a good life, is expected of every citizen.”
I’m sure the Greeks had the same human struggles as we do, I’m sure they struggled with “procrastination” too—the very word is from classical times. The difference between them and us is the Greeks were far less Oblomovish in their citizenship than we are today. At least we moderns, even if our slogan is not in the context of a healthy citizenry, know to “get a life.”
The story of my life, down the years, is seeing patterns: learning more and more about my needs, and more and more about how I escape meeting my needs. For example, I am becoming ever more aware of how my procrastination is always sneaking up on me: Just last week I suddenly discovered myself sneaking more time on the Internet, never even turning my head five degrees to see the clock. “Sigh!”—At least I do less sneaking the more I know myself.
The folks at Delphi would understand what I mean.
Not spending enough time at the forum
~My favorite line from King Rat is near the end when a hero, Keating, is painfully baffled, trying to make sense of the horrible “real” morality of British society he uncovered in the camp. He learns his father has died in a convoy in the Atlantic: (from memory) “And Keating knew, tormented, that the only man who could, perhaps, have told him, had died beneath the freezing Murmansk run.”
~I cribbed the Delphic “know thyself was all it said” from Calgary-raised, Toronto-based singer-songwriter Peggy Ward from her song, “Canticle for Kindred Spirits,” which starts: “Angels and companions, sacred hearts and kindred spirits, I am calling out to you…” It’s on her album Songs to Clean Your House By. And it really is for cleaning house; Peggy told me some of the songs are intended for rest periods.
~If you combine this essay with last week’s piece, then you might assume I believe everyone “should” keep active by having a work ethic. No. “There are many roads to Rome,” many ways to fill your needs. From the best selling series by John D. McDonald I respect the private investigator Travis McGee: He spends most of his life lounging on his boat at slip F-14 in Fort Lauderdale. I’m still chuckling at how my professor for my class on “health and aging” replied in formal tones, “Travis McGee is a god.” This was right after I said, regarding mental health, McGee advised against moving to a Florida retirement community: It’s hard to feel a sense of friendly community as neighbors keep dying and homes keep having “for sale” signs.