Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs outlines the journey from 'survival' to 'self-actualization'. It's based in the premise that before you can deal with emotional needs, introspection, or personal growth, you have to begin by ensuring the simpler needs, and that once the simpler needs are addressed, you are able to turn your focus to meeting other, more social and philosophical needs.
Mostly, I think that Maslow's hierarchy appeals to me because it's in direct opposition to the idea that there's this inherent nobility in being poor, an idea I think people embrace rather than address the systemic inequality and injustice that cause poverty, but that's not what I'm really thinking on today.
What I am thinking about is how Maslow's idea seems to be based in the idea of evolving hungers. When my body is fed, and rested, and my pure physical needs are met, then I can start thinking about safety. Once I am in a secure place, then I can begin building relationships and community. It continues on, with each need met introducing another need to meet. We are, perhaps, destined to be perpetually unfulfilled, and in seeking fulfillment we do our most amazing work.
When I look at that pyramid of needs, at every level I see the same thing: find what feeds you. On a deeper level, it makes me fully aware that a life well-lived isn't measured by how much you earned, or owned. It's not determined by either the quality or the number of your relationships. I don't even call how you changed the world an effective measure of a well-lived life. For me, it's all in the answer to this question:
How much of what you do feeds you?
How much of your life fuels you? When you consume, do you consume selectively, choosing things and ideas you can use as beneficial resources and building blocks, or do you consume emptily, just to fill a space? When you create, do you light up your work with the active fire of a joyful spirit? Are your relationships productive, nurturing, supportive and fun, or do you fill your time with people you don't hate, because it's better than being alone? When you give your energy, your name, your focus, your love to a thing, does the end result nourish you in some way?
Last week I asked the question, "If there are things in your life that don't bring you joy, why do you do them? Do you have a plan for replacing them with things that do?" So many people cited "I have to pay the bills" and "I am obligated to do them," but they missed the larger question, one I've been asking myself a lot lately. If there are large chunks of your life (for a lot of folks, they seem to occupy, oh, about eight hours a day...) that are just place holders, marking time until retirement, or death, or even just the weekend, then that's a third of your life you're giving up each workday without even fighting for it. If there are relationships you maintain because you're afraid ending them will mean you failed or because you just can't bring yourself to walk away, then you're giving love to people who don't value it, or you, as they should.
So I find myself asking, what am I going to do to replace the parts of my life that don't feed me with things that do? I certainly can't quit my job tomorrow and run away to...
Well, now, that's the problem, isn't it? What is it, exactly, that feeds me, that would fill my life with purpose, excitement, and joy? I have no idea. When I was younger, I agonized over potential career paths, because I was certain that somewhere, on one of them, was the key to that soul-deep sense of a fulfilling life of purpose. I never found it, or even got any indication where I should look. I know on the small scale, the things that bring me joy. Good friends. Good food. Reading until the wee hours of the morning. A great glass of wine. Writing, hiking, taking pictures. Serving my community. Helping my loved ones in ways that make them stronger and happier in the long run.
On the larger scale, what I really don't have is an idea of how to bend the larger arc of my life. I can't think of a vocation or a career change that would fulfill me, I don't see a path I should be walking. I have fed all the obvious hungers, with food or sex or sleep or creature comforts or friendships, and now I am faced with the hunger for a joyful life, and I find it significantly more complicated to meet that appetite.
I can't make a whiplash life shift, and I don't believe that's the answer in any case. What I can do is stop feeding what doesn't feed me, and look for ways to replace the things in my life that don't contribute to my overall happiness and greater joy with things that do. I just have to give up on the idea that I'm going to suddenly discover some grand and magnificent purpose that will click into place and turn my ambling, meandering life path into a clear trajectory towards a coherent and defined goal.