Writing in his classic work Toward a Psychology of Being, the late Abraham Maslow cautioned that the person who ascends to the “self-actualization” rung of the “hierarchy of needs” must be aware of a certain paradox that entails both pleasure and pain, freedom and guilt.
Maslow wrote, “The Buddhists distinguish the Pratyekabuddha, who wins enlightenment only for himself, independently of others, from the Bodhisattva who, having attained enlightenment, yet feels that his own salvation is imperfect so long as others are unenlightened…” Maslow reflects, “Was Buddha’s enlightenment a purely personal, private possession? Or did it also necessarily belong to others, to the world…giving up heaven to help others get there?”
This concept of gain and loss, held in dynamic tension, is “an existential dilemma, eternal, unsolvable,” Maslow asserted. He wrote:
“If I find an oasis which other people could share, shall I enjoy it myself or save their lives by leading them there? If I find a Yosemite which is beautiful partly because it is quiet and non-human and private, shall I keep it or make it into a national park for millions of people who, because they are millions, will make it less than it was or even destroy it? Shall I share my private beach with them and make it thereby unprivate? What degree of enjoyment of food may I allow myself in a poor country where the starving children look on? Ought I starve too?”
And in the end, the late psychologist observed, “there is no nice, clean, theoretical, a priori answer. No matter what answer is given, there must be some regret at least. Self-actualization must be selfish, and it must be unselfish. And so there must be choice, conflict, and the possibility of regret.”
Such regret, in our human condition, is often internalized as guilt and expressed through passive-aggressive behavior. But, as Maslow points out, there is a distinction between “neurotic guilt” (beaten into some of us by nuns with yardsticks or shaped by the well-intended words of guilt-ridden authority figures) and “real guilt.” The latter, Maslow noted, “comes from not being true to yourself, to your own fate in life, to your own intrinsic nature.”
And yet, being “true to yourself,” Maslow added, “may at times intrinsically and necessarily be in conflict with being true to others. A choice is both possible and necessary. And the choice can only rarely be completely satisfactory.”
What does this tell me? It compels me to loosen my grip a little more on the notion that I can “have it all.” Such a utopian state of existence works well on paper but does not align with the human experience. There will always be trade-offs. There will be family members who could have had more of your time, and great works of art you might have created had you labored longer in your studio rather than helping your kids with their homework. To stand on the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy certainly means to see more clearly and be closer to fulfilling your potential, but it does not preclude your travels along the landscape of choices and the collateral benefits and damages that result.
To be authentic, then—which I define as paying attention to what you perceive, believe, feel, etc., and making intentional, often courageous choices that flow from this awareness—is necessarily to surrender to the dynamic that not everyone will “get you.” Not everyone will support you, and some will viciously attack you. You will feel “real guilt” at times because of the choices you must make, and there is no sustainable panacea to eradicate at least a little of this disappointment.
But it sure beats the neurosis that flows with getting stuck at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, never tasting the fruits of self-actualization and mobilized potential—fruits that must be shared with others by taking the risk known as compassion.