The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Mass Delusion of Self-Actualization



Don’t part with your illusions: when they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live. — Mark Twain

The latest plague to sweep our planet has seen me thinking hard about Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And I’ve concluded that, for roughly the past decade, I’ve been viewing myself with the 20/20 vision that only the truly delusional are capable. I honestly thought that I had attained the stage in my life that Maslow dubbed “self-actualization.” I haven’t. And if you think you have, well, you’re delusional too.

For those unfamiliar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a bit of context. Maslow set out his theory in a paper published in 1943 titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In it, he describes a five layer pyramid of ascending human needs beginning with the most basic like clean air and water, food, sleep, and intercourse, of course, because none of would even be here if we didn’t procreate. We’re intrinsically motivated to satisfy these first level needs, and once satisfied, our motivation to action matures to the next level — safety. Once we feel safe, our motivation turns to interpersonal needs. Those satisfied, we seek confirmation of social status from ourselves and others. Finally, we reach the pinnacle where we express the motivations society generally ascribes to what it really means to be human.

I say “what it really means to be human” because we can find examples throughout the social animal world of the four previous motivations. But, are you self-actualized? Are you, really human? Or, just another animal hanging on by your fingernails to a precarious simulacrum of humanity? Only recently, I’ve come to understand it’s the latter. I’ve come to understand we are only as self-actualized as the society we live in allows us to be.

It’s an easy mistake to make when times are good. When happenstance allows one to focus on “individuality.” But let’s break the pyramid down from the top. I can honestly say there is little about me during this pandemic that is feeling particularly creative. Little thought to my ego. True, I’m lucky to be loved, and, in turn, have others in my life that I love. But, as an abstract concept? Or, being motivated to “belong” to anything outside of my family? No — I can’t say that I’m too interested. Rather, I’m stuck squarely at making sure my family and loved ones are safe.

This is the society we live in. This is the society our “best and brightest” have engineered. It is the opposite of resilient, and therefore, the opposite of safe and dependable. As a result, the daily energy I could be exerting toward creativity, spontaneity, and problem solving instead goes into making sure myself and my family are safeguarded against being deprived of their most basic needs. And, as such, it is only logical to conclude that in order to attain self-actualization, I must be prepared to exist as an individual wholly independent from the “system” we’ve created. Everything I need for the survival of my family must exist at arms length. Remember that basic necessity of of sleep? Well, without these assurances in place, I really don’t.

Our world’s systems, despite the many labels we place upon them such as capitalism, socialism, or any number of theologisms is really little more than precaritism. This isn’t a new insight. The “precariat” is a term that has been thrown about in certain circles for some time now. However, it is typically reserved for the poor. But please, show me a self-actualized billionaire and I’ll show you a frightened effete building a bunker in New Zealand.

It took this pandemic to remove the blinders from my eyes. The rich aren’t building bunkers because of Covid-19. They’re building them, perhaps, because of global warming. Or, perhaps mass insurrection. Maybe an asteroid? The point being, those society deems most worthy of attaining the holy grail of self-actualization feel, deep in their bones, that one butterfly flapping its wings in just the right place and time will bring this entire charade to the ground.

The world we live in has never been one of anything more than basic animal motivations. And so I conclude, the ability to attain self-actualization isn’t what it means to be human — the ability to lie to ourselves is. Delusion, get behind me.


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – April 19, 2020


April 20th US Covid Numbers


  1. We have to stop doing what we’re doing. It isn’t working.

    Now, this Great Pause, is a good time to talk about it.

    Time I fear by summer will have passed.

    This summer I hear a drumming.

  2. GlassHammer

    Even partially existing outside of our system requires some amount of creativity and problem solving.

    So don’t sell yourself short.

    Creating some of your own food supply takes work, planning, and creativity.

    Heck, even home maintenance takes some ingenuity.

  3. GlassHammer

    It’s probably worth noting that existing outside the system (even minimally) consumes more of your time/labor. The products of the system really are shortcuts in time/labor and you are deciding to go without some of them.

    That said, you might not even care about this loss of time/labor.

    Just be careful not to lose your health trying to do too much. Like I said, your are going to go without the systems shortcuts and that requires more rest and recovery.

  4. highrpm

    “Delusion, get behind me.”

    Big money, get behind me.
    Big _____, get behind me.

  5. Z

    I’d say that it seems possible to hop straight from the Physiological and Safety tiers straight up to the pinnacle of the pyramid: Self-actualization.

    Maybe that jump over Love/Belonging and Esteem is in some ways a form of enlightenment.


  6. nihil obstet

    As a very vague framework, Maslow’s pyramid provides some organization of thought. More specifically, it falls apart. Our politics show the failure to recognize this. Our campaigns consistently fail to recognize the importance of what Maslow calls “esteem” and I’d call “dignity”. The one argument that I’ve never won is “You’re stupid and evil”, although interestingly enough, most people will cop to being evil before they cop to being stupid. The willingness to go to war is another indication of the importance of ideas above the lowest level. And let’s hear it for the health care workers who keep on during the pandemic.

    We’re social animals. If the need for food and safety preceded other issues, our ancestors who lived among saber toothed tigers would have been catfood. The thing we need to take care about doing is deciding what our fellows ought to care about.

  7. Joan

    I think it makes sense for people to realize their position among these layers is in flux because we are experiencing societal decline. Finding a way to feed and secure your family on your own is definitely something to be looking into as things destabilize.

  8. Mel

    The Taoist approach is to say that these categories are not categorical, and that questioning your own self-actualization takes creativity that you wouldn’t have except that you’re self-actualized. So keep on going; why not?
    Hope this helps? — ha! fat chance, Mel.

  9. Jr

    Twain also said : \”The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.\”

    It\’s not easy to know what living fully means, but we\’ve created a lot of illusions around what that means and they seem wanting.

    I\’ve met few people that struck me as much above the muck.

  10. gnokgnoh

    #Nihil, this is the conundrum.

    Everything we critique about modern capitalism is the focus on self at the expense of the communal. But, that is just an illusion. The most efficient capitalistic enterprise is a beehive or ant farm, with everyone, even the robots, properly in their place, happily doing their work, very much self-actualized. But a proper beehive or ant farm is also in sync with its ecology.

  11. krake

    Most edge-lords are “frightened effete[s]”. Maybe the problem isn’t that they are “soft”. Maybe it’s closer to this: that only the “hard” win the scarcity games, and they were unlucky enough (for themselves; for the rest of us who have to suffer them) to have parents who bought them advantage.

    It does nothing, all the same, to make public notice of their protected fraility. They are trapped by the masculine ethos they hope to attain, but which always retreats from their every victory.

    They aren’t necessary. They aren’t necessary. They aren’t necessary. Least of all, to the worlds that are the rest of us.

    Dispense with the masculism. The ‘hard’ and the ‘soft’. We already know what to do and mostly how to do it. Bravado doesn’t counter precarity. Nothing does. Our cosmos is itself a ghost on the way to its final annihilation.

    Embrace the precarious, the ephemeral, that we are all already dead at some point in the immediate future.

    Grab an implement, whichever suits you best, and walk away; or, rise up; or help your neighbor, a stranger, or an old and tiresome adversary. Climb a mountain, bury a cache, organize a cadre. Weep, mourn, dance.

    Anyway, act like their world has already fallen down around our feet. Because it did, more than a generation ago. These are its ruins, painted garish and uniform not so much to distract us, but rather themselves. The plague, like all the inhuman and inhumanizable things, shows it so very clearly, now.

  12. KT Chong

    Who was not familiar with the hierarchy of self-actualization? That BS was taught and repeated in every introductory course, every elective course, in every field: business, marketing, economic, psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc., which was just ridiculous.

    It was more of an indoctrination than an education: if you are at the bottom, you should concentrate on meeting your physiological and safety needs, but know that people at the top are “self-actualized, they are moral, creative, free of prejudices, and they solve problems. So follow, obey and worship them.

  13. Willy

    When I look at the Needs Pyramid, it seems that Maslow was projecting his own psyche onto the rest of us, as if everybody is always going to be wired just like he was.

    But assuming this is all true, I consider the malignant narcissist. Does anybody in their right mind actually want a highly intelligent and power-skilled malignant narcissist to reach self actualization (desire to be the best they can be)? I think not, since history says that gulags, genocide and mass poverty often result whenever that happens.

    I know as a fact that their kind cares nothing about the Love and Belonging Level, outside of those things being a means to their own ends. I mean, who needs love and intimacy from friends when you can get so much more out of them when they’re utterly terrified of you?

    And then I think of Nancy Pelosi. I just saw a video of her self-isolating/self-actualizing/luxuriating in her mansion with many expensive chocolates. Can she even imagine what it’d be like to be a precariat these days? If so, then I’d think that as a self-actualized leader she best get cracking on helping them right about now.

    I’m wondering if Maslow ever worked on stuff like power game dynamics, cultural integrity vs cultural sociopathy, those dangblasted authoritarian-enabling mob zombies… you know, the nasty stuff the human race has to deal with which prevents regular guys like me from becoming the poets and philosophers our self actualized selves were meant to be?

  14. GlassHammer

    Most people (if not all people) use groups for an ends.

    Being a talker and not a doer/helper is really looked down upon among most communities especially working class communities.

    Influence at the most basic level starts with a reciprocity system of doing for others so they can do for you.

    Build a resume of good/helpful deeds for your neighbors and community. That will get you through more hard times than just about anything else. The pillars of a community, the people others actually rely on have no credentials outside of “he/she has always been there to help”.

  15. StewartM

    Eric, I think you are being unnecessarily harsh on Maslow’s pyramid. I think his idea runs that for people to aspire to “higher” morality and goodness, to look beyond their own needs and to see and recognize the needs of others, they first need to feel secure about their own needs. I don’t think this is an unreasonable argument; in fact, to me it echos what Ian says that ‘if you treat people with kindness and goodness, they will respond’ and moreover it contains a message of “don’t be harsh on judging the behaviors of people who are struggling with the satisfying the needs of the base levels of the pyramid, be it sustaining the very physical needs they have or in satisfying safety needs or in combating loneliness or lack of intimacy, they may be coping badly with their problems but they do have unfulfilled needs”. Or in short, often, “don’t blame the poor or the people at the bottom” and “think about what it might be like to be in their shoes”.

    You see it in politics–when anti-immigration hysterics who yelled and shouted profanities at a schoolbus full of Hispanic schoolchildren returning from a school outing a few years back, mistakenly thinking the bus was filled with merely children escaping violence in Central America (as if that would make what they did better). Maslow might say that these people were either suffering from or fearful of Step 2 of the pyramid–of job safety and economic security. The fact they were blaming a busfull of children for the decisions made by economic elites on Wall Street, and if their needs were being met–easy enough to do–then they’d probably not care–is something a lot of people here might agree with.

    Also–when talking about the billionaire class–most sociology and anthropology excludes trying to predict the behaviors of outliers. Billionaires and multi-millionaires are statistical outliers, a tiny proportion–0.27 ppm in fact–are billionaires. One can argue by Maslow’s pyramid that these are ‘fixated’ in their psychological growth at step Four (desiring recognition), or one can simply say they’re outliers and they do not follow Maslow’vs theory. Maslow’s theory, while reasonable, has the weakness of so many other theories in these disciplines of being a “just so story”—explaining what is observed but not predicting anything in particular well.

  16. Willy

    Tried that GlassHammer. I’m pretty handy. After years of helping my sister do work for her hapless husband and getting nothing in “reciprocity” return, I quit helping her. Now she isn’t so nice to me any more.

    I know a couple who’ve done tons for my neighborhood community before finally getting burned out. Sometimes it’s a thankless task, this do-helping. One must be cautious. Because this personal-responsibility/selfishness is such a strong cultural value these days.

    I’m thinking that one must be wise about who they are a doer/helper for. Building a coalition of honest reciprocity good/helpful deed doers willing to fairly trade specialized skills seems the way to go.

  17. GlassHammer


    Never do for others who won’t do for you because they are selfish. Weed those people out of your life and out of what you consider as your community. Selfishness of that sort should be met with exclusion until they change their ways. I have an Aunt and Uncle who are too selfish to help or interact with.

    However, if they can’t help you because they lack the means that’s fine. Just don’t burn out because nothing gets better when your infirmed.

  18. John

    Odd interpretation of Maslov’s pyramid. I would have thought it clear that the sociopaths who run our financial and political structures are still rolling around the bottom two levels of the pyramid. I read recently that Mark Zuckerberg has so arranged his life that he feels he needs to pay $27million/year for his security team. Jeff Bezos seems to still feel the need to increase his fortune by $34 million since the pandemic began. That’s hungry ghost behavior. ‘Let them eat chocolate Nancy” is cluelessly trapped in the bottom levels of the pyramids. The current president is a seething mass of physiological and safety needs and insecurities. Someone so afflicted can never have enough. Someone living in fear can never feel safe.
    The upper levels in that pyramid are rarely and infrequently experienced. The are all process…not a grade to be passed like in high school or college. It’s not a race for individuals to get to the top of the pyramid first. It’s not the money pyramid like on the dollar bill.
    A rich society that deliberately maintains a precariat with physiological scarcity is never going to experience much safety….regardless of “moral hazard” or any other such bs.

  19. Adam Eran

    Beyond the Maslow problem is one that is truly daunting. Humans have a limit of about 150 people with whom they can interact. It’s possible for one to attend a large event at a stadium, but the interactions are impersonal rather than personal.

    Yet society, and the level of goods and services to which we’ve grown accustomed requires literally thousands of people interacting in at least a modicum of good faith…(Remember the poisonous dog food the Chinese tried to slip by U.S. inspections?)

    Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested a civic “religion” would be necessary to make a large, coherent society behave with integrity, even though there would be lots of opportunities for people to be dishonest without being caught. “Religion,” of necessity, requires irrational beliefs. As Jared Diamond points out: it’s reassuring to know that your fellow defenders on the castle wall have the same genital mutilation. Sure it’s crazy, but it’s *our* crazy, and we’re all crazy the same way, together…something that’s handy when facing the crazy attackers trying to storm the castle.

    So we have to include the irrational to have a useful society, and as the writer here points out, “self” actualization includes that collective in the bargain.

    How to do it right?… That’s the big question, isn’t it?


    And Adam, 150 is the limit as you say so it’s by no means the ideal. I’d say the ideal is 30 to 50.


    Where does Tony Robbins reside on this pyramid, I wonder?

  22. Eric Anderson

    Holey Guacamole you guys!
    Incredible comments, and all much appreciated. You’re prying open corners of this post I hadn’t anticipated whatsoever.
    Again, thank you.

    Now, I must log-off for a bit as you’ve all made my brain hurt thinking about it 🙂

  23. GlassHammer

    You know when we talk about the goods and services we have grown accustomed to and have since lost due to the pandemic we really should talk about how God awful the quality is.

    So much plastic and slapped together circuitry that never last and can’t be repaired.

    We went from being the world’s manufacturing house to the world mall and now the world’s dollar store.

    Frankly much of what we can’t get was/is junk.

  24. Willy

    Did somebody say God?

    Here’s another brain-busting thought topic. Self actualization and Christianity. Not the old school spiritual and love everybody kind, but today’s more conservative evangelical self-righteous kind with guns and freedumb.

    Now every inquiring mind knows that a GOP strategy from back in the day was to capture the Pro Life / Moral Majority movement and then transmogrify it into a worship of Corporate Plutocratic Mammon. In the process, self-actualization had to be redefined from spiritual wholeness and into a belief that Jesus blesses his favorites with cold hard cash.

    Yes, I know that in times past Christian Crusaders did stuff like sack Christian cities for the loot, but we did seem to have a phase not so long ago where Cecil B Demille and Father Dowling Mysteries were all the shit. Self actualization came during these calm moments with a shining light from above. When the industrial-military complex took over most of Christianity they went right back to invading, sacking and force-converting outsiders as well as judging each other by how much bling they had.

    So little time, so much change in definitions.

    Did Maslow ever specifically define exactly what self-actualization was supposed to be? In my previous comment I tried to explain that it’s gonna be very different things for different kinds of people. And not always a good thing.

  25. Willy

    GlassHammer, since summer now means droughts in the PNW, I needed a new garden sprinker. As a kid I remember my parents all steel built sprinker which I could just toss out onto the lawn and let er rip. The thing was built like a tank. It worked upside down, abused by kids… lasted many years. I just got one that’s this thin plastic, and just now when I tried to adjust it the dial fell apart. What’s next? Cardboard?

    But it may be all for naught. The PNW used to be Marine Pacific climate. Minimal watering required in summer. It’s now classified as Mediterranean. Since the wild ferns have mostly died off we might have to replace them with drought tolerant like vinca or ivy.

  26. Mark Pontin

    Everything is Plundered

    by Anna Akhmatova

    Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,

    Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,

    Misery gnaws to the bone.

    Why then do we not despair?

    By day, from the surrounding woods,

    cherries blow summer into town;

    at night the deep transparent skies

    glitter with new galaxies.

    And the miraculous comes so close

    to the ruined, dirty houses —

    something not known to anyone at all,

    but wild in our breast for centuries.

  27. moonbat

    This is the society our “best and brightest” have engineered.

    No, it is not. It\’s the society those with a certain level of consciousness created. These are not the best people. To their credit, they got the race – at least Western people – to a level where physical needs are easily met. For a few centuries that was enough. Not any more.

  28. Hugh

    Society is mother, father, sister, brother. Without it, most of us would not exist, and those that did would know almost nothing and live lives that were both “brutish and short.” Society gives us the space to have a private life. Our duties and responsibilities to society come first because without society we would have no private life. This is why that people who put their religion first are both desperately selfish and irresponsible. This is why our elites who put their interests ahead of those of society are. This is why the rich who think there should be no limits on the wealth they steal/accumulate are.

    Self-actualization can occur anywhere and should in both our social and private lives. And it is not new. “γνῶθι σεαυτόν” know thyself was carved on the front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi 23 centuries ago.

  29. Chuck Mire

    “…Meanwhile, someplace in the world, somebody is making love and another a poem. Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known — an entropic spectacle insentient to questions of blame and mercy, devoid of why.

    In four billion years, our own star will follow its fate, collapsing into a white dwarf. We exist only by chance, after all. The Voyager will still be sailing into the interstellar shorelessness on the wings of the “heavenly breezes” Kepler had once imagined, carrying Beethoven on a golden disc crafted by a symphonic civilization that long ago made love and war and mathematics on a distant blue dot.

    But until that day comes, nothing once created ever fully leaves us. Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating across coteries and countries and continents. Meanwhile, people live and people die — in peace as war rages on, in poverty and disrepute as latent fame awaits, with much that never meets its more, in shipwrecked love.

    I will die.

    You will die.

    The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us.

    What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.”

  30. Ten Bears

    Only a small slice, Willy, of the PNW is wet. Your loss of fern is counter-balanced on the eastside by the loss of the boreal pine, the jack, the iconic ‘lodgepole’ pine. The weed trees. It has grown moister on the high desert, wetter. They won’t be coming back. Seems to be the trajectory, things will get drier on your side and wetter on my side of the mountains.

  31. GlassHammer


    I actually have a steel sprinkler that still sorta works which is great because the current replacements are subpar. (sorry yours already broke)

    I am slowly trying to create a more drought resistant garden with less water required but it ain’t easy. Mid to long term it’s going to be a mound system (maybe a trenched mound system) with stumps/logs at the base. Basically its going to look like I am growing on the top layer of a very structured compost pile. So it’s going to look a bit ugly.

    Water conservation is going to be a mid to long term issue for me.

  32. Ché Pasa

    Just a thought to throw into the mix. Maslow was dealing primarily with a society and culture that demanded conformity, at least from the ’30s through the mid ’60s. Not surprisingly, this was deeply unsatisfying and unrewarding to more than a few. So what do you do if you are a psychologist? If you’re Maslow, you find ways to make the stultifying and often fear-driven reality rewarding and make it possible to be satisfied with one’s lot.

    Demands for conformity were ringfenced by depression and war. One conformed for one’s own good in a very unstable and threatening context. But the war was far away for most Americans, and the Depression almost solved itself through war preparations and then the conflict itself.

    Self actualization became a release for many who felt confined by the social strictures of the era, an excuse for others to do as they pleased because of “who they were.” And of course when the whole conformist social system disintegrated in the mid and late ’60s, self actualization became something of a necessity for wide swaths of the younger generation.

    Maslow wasn’t so much wrong as he was very much a creature of his time.

  33. nihil obstet

    But the war was far away for most Americans

    I don’t think this is accurate. WWII brought huge changes — there was serious rationing that affected all Americans. The military effort at home affected most Americans — you could get drafted, get a job paying more than you’d ever expected to make, be exempt from the draft because you had an essential job (farming was the big one), and have husbands, sons, fathers in danger. The other wars of the time didn’t affect as much, but remember that throughout the fifties, there was a draft to which all young men were subject (unless you figured out how to dodge, like our current political class) and which sent them into active shooting battles. There was nothing, nothing like the control of information and domestic effects that we have for our wars now.


    Self-actualization can occur anywhere and should in both our social and private lives. And it is not new. “γνῶθι σεαυτόν” know thyself was carved on the front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi 23 centuries ago.

    So true. Maslow’s pyramid served to cement our materialist uber consuming society, hence the wealthy believe their perverted behavior is actually self-actualizing when in fact the mere fact they have so much wealth in the face of so much poverty and misery means they are immoral beings.

    Try this movie on for size. I would say Mùi self-actualized and yet she had nothing except herself and her willingness to manage her situation as best she could and she did so in stellar fashion. Compare her to Gwyneth Paltrow for example, or the pig obese blond Trump supporter who told the healthcare professional in scrubs to move to communist China. What a beautiful person Mùi is and an inspiration to us all.

  35. Ché Pasa

    The War — WWII, the Big One — was far away from most Americans. Korea and Vietnam were even farther away. Americans read about the War in the papers, saw the newsreels and later TV news, and pondered the trenchant analyses in the magazines, but the conflict was “over there,” not here.

    Even the draft did not bring in everyone. It was far from universal. Even so, being drafted did not necessarily mean being sent into combat. Both my parents served in the Army Air Corps during WWII and neither went overseas, nor did most of those in the military at the time and later — or now for that matter.

    Yes, the Wars changed routines at home, and they changed in many cases radically and permanently. That’s quite a different thing from what was happening in Europe, the Soviet Union and Asia. The world was turned upside down again and again, cities and towns laid waste, populations set to flight, and many tens of millions were consigned to flaming eternity. Nothing like that happened in the USA. Not even remotely.

    I see what’s happening now as a continuation of programs set in motion long ago, some of them right after or during WWII. Ian has referred to our rulership as decadent and I agree. But their decadence was all but inevitable. Power corrupts. And we’ve reached the point where the people have no say in the course of events. What’s happening now is the natural outcome of errors made long ago, errors which are not correctable by any ordinary means or process. We are stuck.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén