An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
There’s a lot of stuff out there in popular culture today about how to be our best selves, but what does that really mean?
Ideally, the “best self” should hit at all four levels — spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental/intellectual. But also, what are the actions that must be taken to be that best self? I’m not just talking about getting there. I’m talking about being there and sustaining that Best Self over time.
This is a universal question; the answer will be different for each individual. And yet it takes on new meaning when thinking about systemic racism and civil unrest in the US today.
We are all becoming more aware that white supremacy runs deep in us as a nation, and specifically in white people, like some sort of invasive, parasitic disease. What is a white American’s best self actualized? How does a white American actualize their best self in an environment of exclusion and race privilege? How does a group of individuals, conditioned throughout that group’s history, to see themselves, without question, as “simply deserving” or “rightly entitled” go about not only the study of, but the actions necessary to achieve their best selves? How would that work?
I think in order to answer your question, we need to back up and look at the whole notion of “self-actualization”, because it is one of those terms that has been so often bandied about in popular culture that it has lost any connection, for most people, to its origins. I think those origins provide the foundation for a proper answer to your question.
Also, I’m just a big psychology nerd, but stick with me. I promise I’ll tie it all together by the end.
The concept of “self-actualization” was introduced by a German psychiatrist, Kurt Goldstein, and then was more widely developed and popularized by American humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow conceived of self-actualization as the pinnacle of individual psychological development. What he called the “hierarchy of needs”, comprising the mountain of the individual, started with physiological (food, shelter, etc.) needs at the base, then safety needs, then need for belonging, need for esteem or accomplishment, and finally, the need to fulfill one’s full potential, or self-actualization.
What’s interesting to me about Maslow’s theory is actually what I think gets lost as the notion moves further and further away from his original conception. Maslow saw the fully actualized individual as being both autonomous and interdependent. That person is both invested with self-authority based in their own honest, self-reflective experience of the world, rather than the opinions of others or society, and deeply connected to other people.
Beyond just possessing the capacity for emotional intimacy with a select number of other individuals (which is hard enough all by itself), Maslow theorized that individuals that are self-actualized possess Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Try saying that five times fast! Gemeinschaftsgefühl refers to a sense of interest in, and connection to, community, and by extension, all of humanity.
I spent seven years of my early adulthood living in Seattle, Washington. From all over the city on a clear day you can see Mount Rainier rising up, seemingly out of nowhere, to dominate the landscape to the southeast. It was not until I had been living in Seattle for years that I happened to fly out of the city during the daytime. Gaining altitude, Mount Rainier got bigger and bigger. Then we emerged up through the clouds, and all of a sudden, for the first time, I could see that as huge and glorious as Rainier was, it was just one in a long chain of snow-capped wonders. Strung out before me, like so many pearls, stretched mountains all the way into Oregon. It took my breath away.
Seriously. I was like one of those Garfield suction-cup thingies that people used to affix to their car windows.
I think we miss the truth of self-actualization when we don’t view ourselves expansively enough to see that we are connected to other people, all people, in fact. Our lives are wrapped up with their lives. We are part of a chain, a human mountain range, if you will. The view that we are just an isolated mountain rising up out of nowhere is an illusion created by not thinking from a high enough vantage point.
I think we also get into trouble when we frame aspects of ourselves as “best”, and by extension, “worst”, which tempts moral judgments about ourselves and others that are dangerous. Instead, I believe (and I think what Maslow was conceiving is) that we are striving for wholeness. When we are whole we know that we have parts of ourselves, as everyone does, that are destructive, angry, violent, jealous, and cruel. We own those parts of ourselves and work to understand them, rather than projecting them onto other people. Understanding them allows us to mitigate their impacts on other people, at minimum. Hopefully it also transforms the pain that underlies them into a connection point with other humans. Compassion is born out of a deep understanding of the shared pain of being human.
The point is to be whole, not to be “good”.
To be self-actualized is also to see ourselves as connected to other people in a process of trying to become individually whole, and to see our striving together towards wholeness as servicing the greater wholeness of which we are all a part.
When it comes down to it, I guess I disagree with your central premise, which seems to be that it is even possible to attain and then sustain a “best self”, or even that such a thing is the goal. In fact, I think the moral judgments at the heart of that premise are what trip white people up in confronting white supremacy.
I agree with you, that white supremacy is deeply embedded in our society, and particularly in white people, like an “invasive, parasitic disease”. And we could certainly, in hindsight, talk about the morality of the choices that individual white people made in setting up the systemic racism that infects everything. But at this point the disease has advanced to a stage where talking about morality misses the point of the system, and feeds into white people’s tendency to protect themselves from responsibility by believing only “bad people” are racist.
Contracting the disease of white supremacy isn’t a moral failing, it’s an inevitability. There is no “best self” where you have actualized yourself into being cured. There is only acknowledging that you’ve been inevitably infected, and doing your best to manage your self to reduce flare-ups of racism that spread the infection.
White supremacy is inherently separative, rather than connective. It is the antithesis of wholeness. For white people under white supremacy to work towards self-actualization is to acknowledge that racism is a part of us now. Maybe in some alternate reality where it was still a choice we wouldn’t have chosen it to be part of us, but in this reality we don’t get a choice.
White people need to stop taking it all so damn personally.
We also need to understand that we’re part of an interdependent human ecosystem. Our potential to self-actualize is tied up with everyone’s potential to self-actualize, and no one can self-actualize if their basic physical and psychological needs aren’t met. White supremacy is set up to privilege the basic needs of white people to the exclusion of the basic needs of other people. Even if white people are poor, they still get the belonging of being white. But it will cost them their full humanity, make no mistake.
No one can fully self-actualize under white supremacy, not even white people. The hierarchy is set up to keep us all below the cloud line, thinking our view from the bottom is all we are.
So, you asked about actions. Here’s my short, but not so easy, list, within the context of white supremacy, of actions that white people can take to be fully self-actualized:
- Do your work to be present and whole. Go to therapy if you can. Read self-help books. Get sober if you have to. Regularly move your body.
- If you don’t have a lot of knowledge of world history and racism outside of the mainstream narrative, get some books from the library. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn is a great place to start for history. So, You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo will get you some good basics about racism. There are many, many more. Always Google before you ask any Black, Indigenous or other Person of Color (BIPOC) anything about racism. Follow BIPOC on social media, but don’t chime in. Just listen. Accept that your understanding and experience of the world is only partial, and work to make it fuller, more complicated, more whole. Get comfortable with discomfort.
- Find a way to be of service in your community to help everyone get their basic needs met, but consider not telling anybody about it for a good, long while. Resist the tendency to want to position yourself as a “good” person. Show up with humility and vulnerability, seeking only to learn, help, and connect. Share whatever you have, even if it is only your time and the strength of your hands.
- Always enter every moment with love to the best of your ability. But remember that love is sometimes fierce. Love doesn’t let anyone get away with bullshit, especially you. Love knows that we’ve all got stuff we’re working on, but Love expects us to do that work. Be that fierce, unwavering Love in the world.
I don’t think we ever get to the top of the mountain of ourselves. I don’t think we’re ever done learning and growing and expanding in our knowledge of ourselves and other people. I don’t think we’re ever done making sure everybody’s got what they need to stay on the path to living their full potential. We just keep going. There is no other way.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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