This above all: to thine own self be true.
– Hamlet, 1.3.78, by William Shakespeare
(Lord Polonius to his son Laertes as he leaves for France from their home in Denmark)
To thine own self be true. It carries as much wisdom today as it has throughout the centuries. It’s sound advice. However, I find myself stumbling to answer the question, “Who am I?” Who is this “I” to be true to?
The answer is perhaps embedded in the Zen question, “What was my face before my parents were born?” The Zen Buddhists are not speaking genetics here but are instead seeking a mythical or archetypal identity. In other words, before time existed for me here, where was I and what was I all about? Most importantly, is that who I am now? If so, how do I know? These are the big questions in life, eh?
Recently, I sat down with my Magic 8 Ball and one of my crystal skulls to ponder these deep questions. I don’t claim to have the answers, maybe I do, but I can certainly say I have the impulses, the intuition, and the cellular knowledge, if you will, of what’s right for me. Is there more?
Magic 8 Ball: Without a doubt.
Do I need to know more?
Magic 8 Ball: Most certainly.
Must I look closer?
Magic 8 Ball: It is decidedly so.
All right, then. Where do I start — the beginning, the middle, or the end? And if I know what was my face before my parents were born, so what?
Magic 8 Ball: Ask again later.
Ummm, okay. Guess I’ll start at the beginning. Well, I’ll start at the beginning of this life anyway. Oh, how my life was messed up before from the get-go. Simply put, I was born into the wrong family. Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls it the mistaken zygote syndrome and links it to the story of The Ugly Duckling.
Hermia the Amazonite Crystal Skull: Wrong approach, Karen. You need to talk about self-discovery, but it might be best to write about your journey of self-development, about how you became who you are now, about your road to self-actualization. The serious stuff. Leave out all the gory details and the blame. Lay out the template you’ve used to connect to who you were before your parents were born.
Yes, of course. Like many people, I seem to have more questions than answers. But unlike many people, I find self-enquiry to be necessary as well as urgent. Simply planning and working toward a goal has oftentimes not manifested it for me. I thought that was rather odd until I realized there must be a missing ingredient in this process. It’s taken all my life (so far) to discover it.
But first, if you want a quick refresher on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, here’s a brief video:
Dr. Abraham Maslow believes there are two processes involved in self-actualization (realizing your talents and potentialities) : self-exploration and action. While that may be true on a physical level, my experience shows there’s an intermediary level that goes beyond self-exploration to a deeper psychic level just below the surface that involves feeling the answers in your bones, in your guts, your heart, in each tiny cell of your body. The solution, the answer, the action, lives within me, actually inside of me, and it’s as much a part of me as my heart and lungs and hair and DNA. It’s mine, only mine. No one else’s. It’s unique to me. This is how I know any given path, any option is correct for me. This knowing is my global positioning system, my compass. It guides me toward and then along the direction that’s mine alone. And it’s always right. Always.
Hermia the Amazonite Crystal Skull: Now you’re talking! Now tell us how to connect to who you were before your parents were born.
You’re talking about self-actualization, the highest realization anyone can have, the desire to achieve your greatest potential in life. Maslow believes self-actualizing people share the same set of characteristics. They’re:
- Devoted to duty
- Private and detached
- Prone to having peak experiences
- In kinship with others
- Democratic in their values and attitudes
- Philosophical about humor
- Resistant of enculturation
- Aware of their own imperfections
- Realistically human
- Able to resolve dichotomies of being
That’s a heavy list. I want to talk about only a few of these here because I can’t lay claim to possessing all of them, at least not completely, but neither do I intend to write 50 pages here (although that could be great fun). Some of the most predominant of these characteristics in me — or at least, the ones I’ll talk about here — are that I’m realistic, I’m private and detached, and I’m aware of my own imperfections.
I went for a deep dive into my life thus far and into my psyche and came up with some examples that best illustrate these characteristics in me. It’s tempting to use real life examples harvested from my time as a caregiver to my late husband, but that would be cheating. A number of situations presented to us in life are Advanced Placement Courses from the Universe, and that’s one of them. Traumatic events are urgent calls to grow and develop, to show what we’re made of, to become the best we can be to benefit others above ourselves. Be honored to have received the invitation. But for this post, I want to keep it a little lighter, so I’ll start with discussing my self-actualizing in the context of the time I spent working in Corporate America. I spent nearly 21 years employed by a global telecommunications company. I was with them from 1985 until 2007 and survived there beyond the mania of the dotcom bubble. Why and how? Who knows? But read on.
Self-actualized people are realistic. By this, Maslow means that a realistic-oriented person perceives reality without a screen and doesn’t throw their personal spin on things to benefit their way of seeing. This implies that the unknown doesn’t threaten the realistic person.
Here’s how this applied in my corporate life. The company I worked for, let’s call it The Corporation, had been downsizing since I started working there in 1985, and it’s still laying off employees in 2015. Goodness gracious — it’s been downsizing for 30 years already! When I worked there, it seems like people were being let go nearly every week. Some of them were dear friends. All of them are highly capable. No one was let go due to poor performance (and how I dislike that word performance to refer to the work people do, but that’s another blog post). The people who were downsized or caught in a work force reduction (don’t get me started on those words either) were at the top of their game. If you happened to be in a slot that wasn’t needed anymore, or if there were simply too many people in your department, you were outta there. This created an aura of anxiety among many of the employees of The Corporation, as they feared for their jobs, and as a result, for their families, lifestyles, you get the idea.
I was a librarian for The Corporation. It was a technical library, a working library that provided the books, journals and magazines employees needed to do their jobs. Most of the collection was software related. I don’t know what it is about librarians that people seem to open up to them. So by default (or maybe it was because I’m a good listener), I became a counselor of sorts. Almost every day, at least one person would come in and offload their concerns.
Really, all I did was listen and nod my head a lot. But it also gave me a rich sampling of the prevalent mood in the cubicles and hallways. Employees lived their days wondering if they would get laid off or if they wouldn’t. Would they be able to find another job? One that paid as well? Would they lose their homes? They were saddened by the possibility of losing the lives they had built dependent on The Corporation. They were angry and bitter about losing something they had depended on. They thought they had joined a stable company that would be around for a long time and they’d never have to worry about losing their jobs. This, I think, demonstrates the personal spin we can put on things to benefit our way of seeing the world. It’s an unrealistic filter put on reality to reinforce a flawed expectation.
Here’s what I think, what I thought during those times of possible lay-offs. Could I change The Corporation’s thinking about lay-offs? No. So why worry about it? Realistically, if it happens to me, then it happens to me. I’m not going to rob my good mood by worrying about something I can’t control, by something that may not happen. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a Plan B, which basically was to find another job. Duh.
Meanwhile, I went to work every morning and swiped my identification badge, the system beeped and let me in, and the paychecks kept coming. That is real.
And oh, yes. I was laid off after 22 years. One of the best things that ever happened to me. That is real too.
Private and Detached
Maslow refers here to the ability to be alone but not lonely, and to be unflappable. This is who I’ve been all my life. Although I can be extremely social, I’m most content when I’m alone. This characteristic is most useful on a journey of self-discovery, for no one but you can do the inner work. The job is yours and yours alone. Others may guide you or point you in an appealing direction, but it’s you alone who must travel the path.
To discover self requires time for reflection, introspection, meditation. Yes, yes, I know it’s a lot of time to devote to yourself, and it’s difficult to do that amidst the hustle and bustle of ordinary life. At best, some of us can only carve out small blocks of time here and there. I believe we’re getting better at that as we’re learning the importance of self-discovery. But we’d best not be prone to loneliness, and we’d best be able to become detached and unflappable. It doesn’t mean that we don’t care, but it does mean to let go of what can’t be influenced. To cultivate privacy and detachment means to be able to take things as they come, not take them personally, and to let things be as they are.
Here’s another illustration of me being unflappable while I worked for The Corporation. During one of its expansion phase (why it was growing while experiencing work force reductions, I don’t know), a grand new building was under construction on The Corporation’s campus where I worked, and my little 10,000 volume library moved into a state-of-the-art space in the new building. I was invited and encouraged to work with the architect to design exactly what I wanted. That was exciting — researching the design and layout, the electronic and electrical needs, the special lighting, the shelving and furniture, and seeing it all come together in a new space that rocked the library world was the pinnacle of my library career. The library users loved the new space because it worked great.
And then less than two months after my library had been in its new space, it all began to disintegrate. The Corporation’s property management department informed me they intended to move the library to a place much less desirable — a series of sunshine-filled hallways! There are a number of reasons why this wouldn’t work for a library. For one, there’d be no security in the corridors, so it was highly likely that books and other resources (not to mention equipment) would disappear. There’d be no quiet study area for software engineers to use (their offices were open cubicles). There’d be way too much sunshine beating down on the collection and compromising its physical lifetime. And, well, and on and on and on. Nothing about this move made sense for The Corporation. I was baffled.
With my management chain and library users behind me, we fought long and hard for some time, but we lost. One day movers contracted by the property management department walked into the library and said to me, “We’ve been instructed to start moving the books with or without your help.” The battle had lasted for eight months. And now it was over.
The library was moved to the hallway and remained in the hallway, while the space it moved from stayed empty — empty! — for a couple of years. The old library space sat empty for two years. Go figure. I wasn’t able to make any sense of it.
In any case, the point is that a good number of people asked me how I stayed so even-keeled during the entire ordeal. They wanted to know how I was able to still come to work with a smile on my face, how I kept myself from choking someone, how did I fight for the library and its users and stay calm about it. One manager said to me, “You must meditate.” The answer, of course, is yes, I meditate. It also helped when a friend said to me in a voice so calm I nearly missed it, “Don’t throw pearls to pigs.” Indeed.
So once again, the bottom line is this: why get upset over something that can’t be changed? My ID badge still opened the door every morning I showed up for work, and the paychecks kept coming.
But above all, I have the satisfaction, even these many years later, that I did the right thing in fighting for the people who used the library. The library users all knew this as well, and it meant a great deal to them. During the struggle for the library, I took the high road. And doing the right thing is always being true to who you are and being devoted to duty (which is one of Maslow’s characteristics that I hadn’t intended on talking about but snuck in here anyway).
Aware of Own Imperfections
To finish up, let’s leave Corporate America behind and move onto a more personal level. Do you know your weaknesses? Some are easy to see, some not so much. They’re hidden because for whatever fine reason we had for putting them there, they’ve outlived the protective filter we placed before them. The trick is in sifting through the muck to find what frightens us, what we run away from, how we overreact, where our buttons might be.
People who self-actualize, according to Maslow, are “joyfully aware of their own growth process.” I don’t know about you, but ever since I can remember, I’ve had a list of my own imperfections and weaknesses floating around in my head. I’ve been working on them for a very long time. Some are gone completely, some are fading, others are still there, refusing to budge — yet.
If you’re right there with me, you know the sense of delight in seeing the positive change — your own imperfections — melt away, or at least improving, or at least you becoming okay with who you are, especially if the imperfections turn out to be merely characteristics that you don’t perceive as favorable but are actually quite okay. If you’re right there with me, you’ve probably celebrated seeing positive change within yourself and experienced immense peace and satisfaction in attaining goals you had believed to be impossible. You learned it is possible after all for you to sometimes achieve the unachievable.
Of course, I’m not a totally actualized being. Maslow himself refers to self-actualization as episodic. In his words, self-actualization is “a matter of degree and of frequency rather than an all-or-none affair.” But I will say that I’m enjoying the journey now more than ever since I know after all these years that even my most remote goal can be achieved given time and hard work.
Which leaves me to wonder why everyone on the planet isn’t consciously working toward self-actualization. Sure, a good many of us are, but a good many are not. Why not? Douglas Harding puts the question eloquently in his book, Look For Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realization. He writes, “How is it that we need all this prodding, all these warnings and earnest invitations and promises of infinite rewards, to persuade us to take a really close look at ourselves? Why don’t all intelligent and serious people make it their chief business in life to find out whose life it is?”
This certainly seems to be an excellent question, given the path of self-discovery seems deserted at times. I don’t know. Why do we need to be coaxed to find ourselves?
Magic 8 Ball: Concentrate and ask again.