Many psychologists have argued that the purpose of life is self-actualisation. In simple words, self-actualisation means becoming a more fully developed, a more complete individual. It’s an increasing unfolding of one’s potentialities. It’s personal growth by fulfilling one’s needs.
Kurt Goldstein, professor of neurology and psychiatry, defines need as a deficit state that motivates a person to replenish the deficit. Need is like a hole to be filled in, a hole in the psyche.
Psychologists like Abraham Maslow made a hierarchy of human needs. At the basic level are the physiological needs. Food, sex, and other needs of the body are very fundamental needs. The need for security, stability, freedom from fear, need for structure, etc comes at the next level. Maslow placed “affectionate relations with people in general” in addition to those with family and friends at the third level. Esteem needs come next; self-esteem as well as esteem from others. At this level come the needs for fame, status, dominance, attention, and dignity.
Maslow posited self-actualisation as the highest level need. He stated that when all four of the basic, deficiency needs have been satisfied, “ a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he, individually, is fitted for.... What a man can be, he must be.”
Goldstein demonstrated the importance of environment in the process of achieving self-actualisation. The environment provides the necessary supplies for an individual’s psychological growth.
There is a constant interaction between the individual and her environment. Paradoxically, the environment plays both positive and negative roles. The environment provides the means by which self-actualisation can be achieved; it also throws up threats and pressures that hinder self-actualisation.
For example, when Salman Rushdie wrote his novel, Satanic Verses, he was trying to rise one rung higher on the ladder of his self-actualisation by exploring his religion deeply and in a personal manner. That exploration was also, at the same time, an attempt to modify the religion, which implied a certain degree of acceptance of the author’s views by other people. However, what Rushdie received were threats rather than recognition.
The environment can sometimes be so threatening that the individual can feel frozen, unable to make any progress towards self-actualisation. Sometimes the environment may not be able to provide the objects and conditions required by the individual. As poet Thomas Gray said, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
A normal, healthy individual, says Goldstein, is one in whom “the tendency towards self-actualisation is acting from within, and overcomes the disturbance arising from the clash with the world, not out of anxiety but out of the joy of conquest” (emphasis added). Self-actualisation, in other words, implies mastering the environment. It’s not aggressive, however. Both aggression and submission are reactions, and reactions are not in harmony with the self-actualising tendency. They are merely defence mechanisms, temporary solutions to problems.
What we usually see in our world today (and, perhaps, at any time) are a widespread prevalence of aggression and submission. We see people fighting for rights, for wealth, for positions, and even for a corruption-free state. We also see people submitting themselves before gods, to new and newer cults, to god-men and god-women, terrorists and other new-age messiahs, and especially to gadgets and gizmos.
As long as we are stuck at this reactionary level, we won’t go any step higher in the process of self-actualisation. Discontent and restlessness will be our lot. Isn’t that what we are witnessing today in our world?
In the Preface to his play, Heartbreak House, Bernard Shaw blames the European “middle and professional class” for living shallow lives, materialising “their favourite fictions and poems in their own lives” and living “without scruple on incomes which they did nothing to earn.” They failed to see the vacuum in their lives. And Nature, continues Shaw, “abhorring the vacuum, immediately filled it up with sex and with all sorts of refined pleasures...” Aren’t Shaw’s words more relevant today than the pre-War period that he spoke of?
Our shallowness is reflected not only in sex and all sorts of refined pleasures, but also in our eagerness to wage wars of all sorts at the drop of an SMS. We are left agape watching the exodus of a whole race of people from all over India back to their homeland. When will we become human?
Has shallowness become a pathological condition with us? Have we lost touch with our roots, the depths in our hearts that long for the soothing music of love and compassion? When will we get back on the road to self-actualisation?