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Monday, November 21, 2011

Of All The Most Important Things in Life, The Most Important Is Commitment To Others

Ask ten people what they consider to be the most important thing in life, and you may well generate ten different concepts of essentials.  However, explore those ten answers in more depth, revise the scenario to include the possibility of being isolated from human contact, and the critical concern that those respondents will come up with is that a specific person would be the most essential element to be included in that existence. 

Human beings are, like many beasts of the wild, wired to need social contact.  For some, that contact may be minimal, but all of us need interaction.  Does that mean that we view others as vital, or are we so completely narcissistic that we view fellow man as nothing more than a need to make our life complete? 

Regardless of why we need people with whom to interact, the stimulation that man provides for man completes a significant component of how we view ourselves. As far back as 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated that the need for belonging, love, friendship and human interaction neared the base of his hierarchy of needs, just above the need for safety.

The male of the species has been bound, it seems, to man’s best friend – the dog.  While our connection to this four-legged friend undoubtedly offers something psychologically satisfying to humans, it lacks the completeness of human to human involvement.  The connection fulfills, on the surface, the need to have someone, or something else, understand us.

Gang membership, and, in turn, gang initiation, draws on the desire to belong, and to be involved in something that sees us, individually, as something special. While, superficially, gang members appear to lose that individuality, they do view themselves, in fact, as disparate and unique from the rest of the world, or the rest of the neighbourhood.

There may be precious little difference between the desire to be a gang member and the desire to belong to an elite club, or a segment of society that has riches to flaunt.  Both say to the initiate, pledge or member, “You are part of something special and unique, and therefore, you, too, are unique.”

The idea of looking to be a part of something that someone else cannot be a part of is coloured with liberal dollops of narcissistic personality.  Yet, is it wrong?  And how is it different, for example, from seeking to find that special aspect or part of our lives that fulfills us? 

I have chosen a minimalistic way of life.  Does eschewing material acquisition make be the antithesis of narcissistic?  Hardly.  I choose this lifestyle specifically because I feel that I want to focus, not on frills, but on fewer, but more significant benefits and luxuries in my life.  To simply forfeit things for the sake of forfeit gains neither the minimalist or society at large anything.  It is akin to being a lowly carrion-eater, and choosing to ignore the carrion that it finds, in case someone else might come upon it and want it.

When I began my journey toward voluntary simplicity, and opted to focus on fewer, but more significant things in my life, I had not contemplated the philosophical dilemma of choosing specifically what the most important thing in my life would be.  I had a concept of things and experiences that would be more significant to me than others, but had not established an absolute priority.  That changed, dramatically, this week.

On Tuesday, my wife awoke, drenched in sweat, breathing shallowly, experiencing numbness on her right side, and thoroughly nauseated.  Within seconds, I had her in the car, heading toward the hospital.  Driving as quickly as I could from our isolated home toward the local hospital, I called 911, and was escorted through  the protocols as I rushed to intercept the dispatched ambulance.  When I determined that I could make it closer to the hospital, rather than park on the highway and await the emergency vehicle, I became quite belligerent with the dispatcher who wanted me to be in an identifiable location for the EMS drivers.  My anger increased as the seconds passed, and my wife’s symptoms worsened.

Ultimately, the ambulance arrived, my wife was rushed to another hospital thirty miles distant (where better diagnostics could be conducted), and her impending critical incident was averted.  I am very pleased to say that, while she was close to a severe crisis, she has recovered fully, thanks to the speedy response of the EMS team and the skills and dedication of the hospital staff.

However, what I learned was that all of the important things that I had casually itemized in recent years truly were minimal in relation to the one important thing in my life: the valued relationship and love affair that I have with Janice.  I learned many valuable lessons, but the most vital lesson learned is that the most important thing in everyone’s life should not be a thing at all, but a feeling:  the feeling that you have for someone important in your life.  For many of us, that someone may not even be human, but a pet or animal pal.  The most important “non-thing,” even for us minimalists, should be a feeling that has its basis in narcissism, but ultimately ends in completely submerging our own wants and desires in favour of the needs of another.  Call it love, or call it selflessness.  Call it what you want.  The most important thing in life is to place all things behind the commitment to another living being.

Give Life A Hug. It's Free and Fulfilling!

Minimalism: emptiness, austerity, meaninglessness, plainness.  Minimizing is the act of reducing or eliminating.  So, it is reasonable to interpret that minimalism is the equivalent of bland.  Wrong!  A life of voluntary simplicity can offer much more than nothing!  Indeed, by eliminating the emotional, physical and psychological clutter in our lives, we free up space for more of life itself.

It is the route of someone who has given up on life that is the path of emptiness and meaninglessness.  A true minimalist does not give up on life: he embraces it.

I currently work on a project that helps those who otherwise could not afford it to buy their own homes, and to live with a measure of dignity even while living in poverty.  Ironically, living in poverty and austerity seems to be how many people view minimalism.  My project does not require me to own, but it does require me to give.  I give of my energy and knowledge, yet it does not deplete me in any way.  That is the essence of the cliché about “giving a smile.”  The more you give, the more you have.

In prior articles, I described how minimalism is like being an art gallery director.  By clearing away the junk and debris, and featuring a sculpture or painting, isolated on a pedestal or wall, you actually draw attention to and enhance the pleasure of that work of creativity.  Similarly, when one gives up the junk in his or her life, more room is created for more valuable pursuits.

I have found that, when I cleanse my body through short-term dieting, I find sources of energy inside of which I doubted the existence.  In the same manner, when I began the process of cleansing my accumulation of worthless stuff, my involvement with this frivolous fluff decreased concurrently.  That meant more free time to enjoy the activities that I liked.  But dieters who deprive themselves of eating, or who gorge on exercise, have replaced one weakness with another, and neither offers the intrinsic pleasure that a life of casual, regular and responsible living and eating provides.

The great benefit, for me, of a life of voluntary simplicity is that I have become more enthused about other pursuits. Those pursuits, such as charitable ventures, are the ones that drive me. However, you may find more time for family, or participating in events, in learning, and so on.  By owning less, you receive more.

But, with less baggage, you also are free to enthusiastically embrace life, and become enthusiastic about the world around you.  Do not sit back, and waste the freedom you receive by carrying less material, less responsibility and more stress.  Grab the world, and give it a figurative hug!  Enthusiasm and excitement are not “things.”  While they are simple, both are free, take up no space and yet will fill the newly discovered free spaces in your life.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Newton Was Wrong: (Human) Bodies Do Not Tend To Stay At Rest!

Newton postulated that a body at rest will tend to stay at rest.  Witticisms aside, that principle clearly does not apply to human beings.  Rest is merely a reprieve from living. Those of us that seek to stay at rest are not seeking that oasis in life that allows us to feel fulfilled and satisfied, but are seeking to avoid the challenges that interaction with the world demands.  Yet, many of us describe our idyllic oasis in terms of doing nothing!

In my articles on finding your oasis in life, I have focused, to date, on self-realization.  Self realization principally enables us to recognize who we are, what we want and how we relate to the world around us.  It is self-actualization – the endeavour to become the best we can be – that provides the fulfilment necessary to being comfortable with ourselves and our lives.

In the early 1900s, Abraham Maslow proposed his hierarchy of needs.  This schematic implied that the most basic needs must be met before we could hope to climb the eight-rung ladder to self-actualization.  More recently, psychologist Steven Reiss suggested that there are sixteen basic desires that all of us seek to satisfy.  Psychologist Clayton Alderfer revised the Maslow model, and formulated his Existence, Relatedness and Growth theory.  He subsequently added in a regression component, saying that, when higher needs such as self-actualization and self-esteem needs are not met, we redouble our efforts to achieve lower-level needs.

These theories all imply that humans have needs that are ongoing, and that we, internally and externally, seek to have those needs satisfied.  We all, therefore, are seeking that oasis where we can regroup and renew our attempts to reach self-actualization.

Ironically, as we near the self-actualization level, our concerns begin to focus more on our role in the world around us, and our perceived needs begin to give way to the needs of others.  Social responsibility becomes one of those integral elements in self-fulfilment.

Many people, altruistically, place others well ahead of themselves.  My mother, for instance, would sit up into the wee hours of the morning from September to December, making presents for children who needed to have a Christmas gift.  She ached to provide for “those people who are less fortunate.”  However, she failed to consider herself to be one of those less fortunate, even though our household income never exceeded $3,000 in a year, our 450-square foot home sheltered six family members, one of the rooms in the house had no floor, and she was dying of cancer.  Others came first, for her.  Most of the year, she lived an embittered existence, but, as Christmas approached, she found her oasis.

As I was preparing this article on motivation and self-development, I took time to view a documentary on Harry Belafonte.  I was in the midst of writing about achieving self-satisfaction.  But the documentary changed that focus, dramatically.

In one scene, a starving child lay passively, as flies crawled over his gaping, listless eyes.  And I was thinking of how we should seek out tranquillity?

In another clip, Belafonte and Martin Luther King struggle to make the Kennedys understand how unjust the treatment of blacks in America was at that time.  And I was considering ways to escape from the world around us, to alleviate the angst and stress?

Neither Belafonte or King reached the point where they could say that they were satisfied.  King never saw the progress that he stimulated.  Belafonte has never been satisfied to say that he has done enough.  Yet, each reached a point in their lives that very few of us ever even strive to reach.

Finding your oasis, consequently, should not be about finding a level where one can be at perpetual rest.  It is not human nature.  Finding your oasis must be as much about enduring the travails of the desert, so that one can pause, look around for a few moments and say, “I’m ready to continue my journey of being a better person.”  Without satisfying those higher-level human needs, we are doomed to continually attempt to slake our human thirst to be better by turning to our more base, self-serving needs.  That, in turn, makes us no better than the animals around us.  Our oasis can only be found when our focus is on being a better person, and a better part of humanity.