Needs, Non-Distraction and Non-Conformity: Making Counter-Habits

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As I embark on a more simple and less technological way of life, I have been thinking about a tangle of concepts: ‘distraction’, ‘habit’, ‘nonconformity’ and — of all things! — Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. While I am not able to tie them all together here and now, I hope to thread some ideas together. After all, I am after better patterns.

Contrary to what I have written, I do find some psychology interesting. If we leave the rungs of Maslow’s pyramid vague (so as to account for situational and cultural differences), it is hard to disagree. Maslow’s basic idea is this: once we achieve shelter, clothing, sleep and nutrients; safety (including financial security, a measure of health and freedom from harm); social belonging and, finally, esteem or respect, then and only then can we finally achieve “self-actualization” and “self-transcendence” – the very marrow of life at the peak of the pyramid. By incorporating ‘self-transcendence’ into ‘self-actualization’, Maslow addressed some fair criticisms of his philosophy; in particular, that his story about human development is too narrowly focused on the evolution of the individual self, cutoff from her communities.

There are counterexamples to Maslow’s theory; for example, the self-transcendence Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl experienced in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps both basic fulfillment and extreme deprivation prompt self-transcendence. Or, better yet, perhaps extreme deprivation gifts us new values, while basic fulfillment affords us the opportunity to practice those values.

What is so interesting about this pyramid of needs (ordered from more fundamental to more refined) is how few people ever achieve the more foundational needs in their lifetime. Even in “developed” countries like the US, we bounce around the bottom levels, surviving instead of living.

I wonder why more of us are not focused on meeting our basic needs — those fundamental needs that are so essential to our well-being, both individually and as a society. Are we afraid of our own company, so much so that we pursue endless distraction? As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées:

When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town (139).

Pascal overlooks another key force that works against self-actualization and self-transcendence; namely, conformity. Even though we Americans are more likely to encounter floundering consumers rather than flourishing citizens, we nevertheless conform. We want to belong, and distractions steal away the energy we require to counter our culture in meaningful ways.

But should “belonging” and “exciting distraction” be bought for the price of self-actualization and self-transcendence? Is it worth it? Or, in a society so obviously unhappy, is it better to seek non-conformity and to practice counter-habits? For it is habit — and only habit — that empowers us to live better, more meaningful lives.

Happy habit making!



Philosophy, Higher Education, Psychology and the Desert: Mental Illness and Society

This week I started teaching philosophy at Northern Arizona University, one of Arizona’s three public universities.

I am Arizonan. Although I went to UCLA for undergraduate and graduate school, I always felt guilty about that. My parents both went to the University of Arizona (in Tucson). Only my father graduated, with degrees in education and business. My mother, a psychology major, questioned the behaviorism that dominated psychology at the time. Frustrated, she dropped out and pursued a career in business.

Over time, philosophers helped move the field of psychology forward. They formulated alternative models to behaviorism, drawing on ancient Greek traditions, especially Aristotle’s “functionalism”, which represents the soul or psyche as a set of non-material life capacities or functions.

I have never been terribly fond of psychology. It always seemed to me that ancient philosophers have said the same things psychologists have said and said them better. There is a real wisdom in ancient traditions. The ancients were not constrained by modern science and its supposed moral neutrality.

How can we understand humans and human problems without considering the moral hue of things?

It is only my opinion, but our current mental health crisis should lead anybody to question the ability of psychological science to solve what are fundamentally social and societal problems — perhaps even spiritual problems. We are facing social, political and familial injustice on a massive scale, not individual psychological neuroses. We are sad and sick because societies and families are sad and sick, not because there is is anything fundamentally wrong with our individual cognitive architecture.

So many “mental illnesses” are now characterized in terms of trauma. People are traumatized because modern society is, in many ways, traumatic. Any real solution is a social solution, not an individual, psychological or biochemical solution. How do we create healthier communities? You cannot fix yourself, if you do not fix your community. This is the problem with treating individuals in isolation rather than treating communities.

The irony of my own trajectory is that I took my first philosophy class in Arizona, the very state I avoided going to college in. It was a community college video course, back before online courses. Each week I eagerly awaited a VHS tape in the mail. Each week I would receive a new lesson about philosophy. At the time, the sparse, Sonoran desert seemed to be asking me all kinds of questions. Perhaps the desert is a natural place to ponder timeless questions. It is a place of relative emptiness, and so there is room for a person (and her mind) to wonder and wander. There is space. There is time. There is the searing heat, too. It makes things shimmer.

I am always terrified when I start teaching. I remember my own college experience. I know what an impressionable time college is. I know what one professor can do for a student’s life. It is a scary thing. I always wonder whether I am rising to the task. I am always wondering, how do I reach them? I resist standardizing anything, because every class is different. Every student is different. We are fortunate as professors to be able to construct our own curricula, to react to the times and to our students.

Teaching in higher education is hard for so many reasons. One reason it is hard is because we professors so often internalize our disciplines. I have been doing philosophy for nearly half of my life. Sometimes it is hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about philosophy. I rely on my students to tell me when they do not understand. I worry that I am out of touch with them. But perhaps this is the perfect challenge for them and for me, when we try to reach each other across a divide.