Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Your debutante just knows what you need

Shanghai speciality, Four Happiness braised pork, one of those idiotically simple and unbearably delicious Chinese ways of slow-cooking pork, via The Spruce.
David Brooks starts off aspirationally ("When Life Asks for Everything"):

I’d like to offer you two models of human development.
Heh. He'd like to, but unfortunately he didn't bring any with him. He's only got these Great Chain of Being hierarchies of—well, of two different things, one of which is sometimes applied to development:

The first is what you might call The Four Kinds of Happiness. The lowest kind of happiness is material pleasure, having nice food and clothing and a nice house. Then there is achievement, the pleasure we get from earned and recognized success. Third, there is generativity, the pleasure we get from giving back to others. Finally, the highest kind of happiness is moral joy, the glowing satisfaction we get when we have surrendered ourselves to some noble cause or unconditional love.
The second model is Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In this conception, we start out trying to satisfy our physical needs, like hunger or thirst. Once those are satisfied we move up to safety needs, economic and physical security. Once those are satisfied we can move up to belonging and love. Then when those are satisfied we can move up to self-esteem. And when that is satisfied we can move up to the pinnacle of development, self-actualization, which is experiencing autonomy and living in a way that expresses our authentic self.
The first of these is is a philosophical paradigm, fundamentally the four different kinds of satisfaction different humans aim at, as defined by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics—material gratification, money making, political action, and contemplation—with the theotropic interpretation, God-haunting at the fourth level, projected on it by centuries of Roman Catholic doctrinal development, dimmed in the fog of Brooks's suburbanity, which can imagine only kinds of happiness available to guys at a certain income level living in Montgomery or Westchester County. The second is Abraham Maslow's psychological paradigm aiming at characterizing the different kinds of need that are common to all people. It's not about how "we start out" but how the world starts out with us. A primary way in which they are completely unrelated is right there: Aristotle and successors are addressing you on what you can do for yourself ("What kinds of things can I want?") and Maslow, the therapist, is telling people how to help set goals for others ("What kinds of emotions does my child or patient need?").

Brooks thinks both hierarchies are moral scales, arranged from the lowest to the highest good, but this is completely wrong.

The Aristotelian ranking has to do with increasing complexity in the subject's engagement with the wider world, self alone < self in competition with others < self in collaboration with others < self merged with everything. It's clear to all philosophers that the morally worst position to be in is position 2, for those who derive their happiness from being better off than their neighbors, not the simple-minded pleasure seeker of position 1; and it's arguable that position 3, working for the betterment of the community, is morally superior to the Brooksian concept of ecstasy in position 4.

The Maslow hierarchy is about dependency relationships among the different needs: you can't be self-actualized unless you feel esteemed, you can't feel esteemed unless you belong to a community, you can't belong to a community unless you are safe, and you're not safe unless your physical needs are met. The moral imperative in this isn't on the subject, who needs all these things—it's not more virtuous to need self-actualization than to need love, or food and shelter, and it's not less either. The moral imperative is on the community to make sure nobody does without, and the lower, more essential things, are the most important: everybody must have food and shelter, everybody ought to be safe from violence and fear, and self-esteem and self-actualization are things people can assure for themselves, given the rest. Brooks seems to think the psychologists are judging us, like priests, but in a perverse way, giving us higher marks for self-actualization than for being loved, so it's no wonder he doesn't approve of it, but that's not what it is.

I'm really not here to defend Maslow particularly, though he sounds a lot cooler now than he did to me back when he used to be famous and abused, I think, in the pop psychology self-help books of the day, which were different from the kinds of pop psychology self-help books Brooks reads to get his ideas on personality and emotion, and may have even deserved some of the abuse conservatives hurl at the ideas of "self-esteem" and "self-actualization". I just want to emphasize that the two things, the Catholic moral paradigm and the Maslovian psychological one, aren't even in any sense in contradiction with each other.

Indeed, I'd be surprised if there isn't a Catholic version of Maslovian psychology pinning them together, associating a person's choice of one kind of happiness with their experience of a rung on the Maslow ladder. Blaming fixations on material happiness on childhood deprivation in material or security needs (not from poverty, where your parents share what they have but from cruelty, where guardians don't), and fixations on having more stuff than one's neighbor on the deprivation in emotional/community needs, and a failure to seek transcendence on a lack of self-esteem: because Maslow's idea of self-actualization would include among its realizations all the ideas of noble commitment and self-transcendence Brooks wants to rule out of it. In later work, in the early 1970s, Maslow introduced self-transcendence as its own distinct phase, available only to those whose need for self-actualization had been met, making his theory so exactly parallel to the traditional Catholic paradigm that you'd think it had to have been done on purpose.

Part of what we're looking at here looks like everyday hippie punching, no doubt: like so many of the brethren, Brooks really hates the project of encouraging people to feel self-esteem ("Everybody gets a trophy!"), and I expect he has some awful idea of what self-actualization means. But I'm also thinking this is one of those looks at his spiritual autobiography. And the question of why, in the first place, his own self-esteem is so low, and why, in the second place, when he's crying out for self-transcendence, nothing happens.

And maybe the new marriage isn't developing as expected either, because a lot of today's column reads like nostalgia for the old one:

If you go into marriage seeking self-actualization, you will always feel frustrated because marriage, and especially parenting, will constantly be dragging you away from the goals of self.
In the Four Happiness frame, by contrast, marriage can be a school in joy. You might go into marriage in a fit of passion, but, if all works out, pretty soon you’re chopping vegetables side by side in the kitchen, chasing a naked toddler as he careens giddily down the hall after bath -time, staying up nights anxiously waiting for your absent teenager, and every once in a while looking out over a picnic table at the whole crew on some summer evening, feeling a wave of gratitude sweep over you, and experiencing a joy that is greater than anything you could feel as a “self.”
That summer evening gratitude is an indirect reference to a story he tells fairly frequently, of perhaps the only time he's ever felt any kind of self-transcendence, 20 or so years ago, on the inside of the marriage he's thrown away.

I'm wondering if Brooks's parents were exceptionally nice to him, never giving him a minute to feel sad or fearful, in some kind of pop psychology parody of the way Abraham Maslow thought children should be reared.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has always pointed toward a chilly, unsatisfying version of self-fulfillment. Most people experience their deepest sense of meaning not when they have placidly met their other needs, but when they come together in crisis.
Rabbi Wolfe Kelman’s life was fraught with every insecurity when he marched with Dr. King in Selma, but, he reported: “We felt connected, in song, to the transcendental, the ineffable. We felt triumph and celebration. We felt that things change for the good and nothing is congealed forever. That was a warming, transcendental spiritual experience. Meaning and purpose and mission were beyond exact words.”
Actually—all honor to Rabbi Kelman, and Rabbi Heschel as well, who was in the front row with King, Bunche, Ralph Shuttlesworth, and John Lewis while Kelman marched in the second row next to Andrew Young—his life wasn't fraught with every insecurity, and certainly less insecurity than that faced by the black marchers. It was only the first Sunday afternoon of the two-week march to Montgomery, and Kelman and Heschel had their air tickets, and the National Guard was there to protect them, and though the anti-Semitism was strong in the airport Heschel gently dealt with it:

Great story.

The wider point is that Maslow's theory does not claim that people need to go through the whole cycle every day, achieving self-actualization only at cocktail time after a day of getting plenty to eat, being safe, and feeling adequately esteemed. They develop the resilience for phase n + 1 during a period in phase n when it's working, and hold on to it when it's not. Nor has it ever sounded chilly or placid to me. My understanding of a Maslovian upbringing is that it would instill you, if anything, with courage to be a little or more than a little crazy—Rabbi Kelman, born into a Hasidic rabbi's family in Vienna, became the leader of the movement to ordain women as Conservative rabbis, inspired by the figure of his mother, who took over the family in Toronto when he was 13 after his father's death, which suggests to me a wonderful example of how a child can endure privation but have his Maslovian needs met and end up venturing into that beyond. As well as showing up in Selma for the march.

And look at that! Brooks has no clue what day it is in the Jewish calendar—Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow at sunset—and I've written my Jewish New Year piece in spite of him, Shanghai pork dishes and all. Shanah tovah, beloved readers!
Sixiwa (四喜娃), "Four Happiness Boys" traditional representation of the Four Happinesses Joined Together—a wedding night, success in the imperial examinations, encountering a friend far from home, and rain after a long drought—via Primal Trek, where you can read the story. I love that list—its loopy non-hierarchical character—so much.

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