In each of us there is a longing to be the hero of a great quest. We long to fight the battles our favourite characters fight. We long to hold their confidence and their cool. We long to leave behind a legacy that others will forever tell through folktales. This is self-actualisation.
Self-actualisation is the thing inside us that tells us we can do better. It’s the inclination we feel to get on with the journey, and the sense of inadequacy we feel when we don’t.
As Henry David Thoreau described, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. Both this ‘feeling of desperation’ and this ‘song’ are self-actualisation at work. In lamens terms, self-actualisation is us telling us what to do, and us judging us for how we do it. Only we rarely recognise this. We claim it is the Man who gives us orders and the Man who pats us on the back when we’re done. Only there is no Man. The quest of life is nothing more than a journey to overcome ourselves.
As Richard Dawkins wrote, “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it”.
Which begs the question: if this quest is given to us by us, whilst also being led by us, and celebrated by us, then what is the point of placing so much importance on what we do and why we do it? In other words, why do we tell ourselves such meaningless stories of who we are and what our purpose in life is when taking life seriously is a joke?
Well, that is the point. There is no point. That’s why we tell stories – because they give our lives a point, a reason. We invent stories about success and struggle because we take issue with not knowing and simply being.
This is why we feel so compelled to turn to activities that allow us to detach – meditation, yoga, marijuana, music, alcohol, dancing, base jumping, surfing, writing, coffee, cigarettes, crying, laughing, leaving the runway on an airplane. We don’t turn to these activities because we are weak and in need of strength (although this does help). We turn to these activities because they are the rare occasions when we can escape the story and all the burdensome expectations the story brings with it. In these moments, we don’t long to be crowned the hero. We are the crown.
I tried explaining this to my dog – why I was so attached to my vices, why I was so hard on myself, why I so badly wanted to be the hero. She couldn’t understand. She could barely understand my words, let alone my sentences. Yet, even if she could, I knew she wouldn’t understand why I thought the way I thought – why I needed to prove my worth by setting off on such a fictitious quest. For her, it made more sense to sleep, eat, wrestle and run.
I would be a fool to say that I know more about the world than her when I’m the one lying to myself – telling myself stories in an attempt to get by. To her, this is textbook self-indulgence. Sure, I know how the sun works… to an extent. And, I excrete in a toilet. But she knows how to get on with it – how to survive. I spend my life searching for my place in the world. She spends hers occupying the space she is in. If she could speak, I’m sure she would offer the same wise words as Marcus Aurelius. She would tell me, “Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one”. She would tell me to love and to eat and not to worry.
They say, wisdom is taking your own advice. And they’re right… sometimes. Other times, I would say it is more prudent to take the advice of a dog, or a frog, or a turtle. Ask them what to do and they act as though we never muttered a word. They simply get on with it. So I got on with it.
Richard Wright, The Outsider
Maybe the whole effort of man on earth to build a civilisation is simply man’s frantic and frightened attempt to hide himself from himself? That there is a part of man that man wants to reject? That man wants to keep from knowing what he is? That he wants to protect himself from seeing that he is something awful? And that this ‘awful’ part of himself might not be as awful as he thinks, but he finds it too strange and he does not know what to do with it? We talk about what to do with the atom bomb…But man’s heart, his spirit is the deadliest thing in creation. Are not all cultures and civilisations just screens which men have used to divide themselves, to put between that part of themselves which they are afraid of and that part of themselves which they wish, in their deep timidity, to try to preserve? Are not all of man’s efforts at order an attempt to still man’s fear of himself?