Whenever I examine Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or, really, any stage theory of personality, I am amazed by how neat it all appears. How tidy. How such models, no matter how helpful they are for understanding the overall process of personality development, can also, if we’re not careful, give us the false impression that our own growth and evolution are linear. That completing a particular stage of development means we’ve fully mastered it. Almost like conquering an enemy. Onward and upward, as the saying goes.
When in reality, I expect, the entire process is a lot messier than that. And while we may, in fact, be on an upward, or forward-moving trajectory, our progress often looks a whole lot more like taking one step forward and two steps back. At least, that’s been my experience. Indeed, it both satisfies and embarrasses me rather deeply (if I’m to be honest) to look back at myself ten years ago. Because I sense that, in a very real way, I no longer resemble the person I was. In some aspects, that previous version of myself is cause for embarrassment. That embarrassment, however, is largely overwhelmed by feelings of satisfaction, even pride, that I have effected positive change. Even (and often) despite myself.
To be sure, if there is one thing I’ve learned about human nature in the past 38 years, it’s this: there is a frighteningly short distance between the good and the bad within ourselves. Between the caring, the productive, and the virtuous, and the wicked, cowardly, and self-destructive. And it’s our responsibility to cultivate ourselves continuously in one direction or the other. Of course, this is the kind of insight that’s gained largely in retrospect. The present moment is always more muddled.
When I started The Used Life, I was, in fact, looking for something greater. A way to express the good within myself. Something of a vocation or a creative contribution to society. Or simply to nurture my talents and see where, if anywhere, they might lead me. But I never would have told you—never, ever, ever, ever—that I might be looking for God. That was not a possibility. For many reasons, all of which, as I see it, can be lumped under the category, outworn attitudes.
I was, no matter how I progressed in my self-guided education, in developing my skills and style as a poet, very stubbornly clinging to outworn attitudes about myself, my relationship to God and religion, and about what it means to become the highest version of myself. Even the essence of my core religious attitude—my belief that all life is miraculous and should be approached with an attitude of thanks and celebration—was pointing me in the right direction. I felt I experienced the divine in nature all the time, that nature had taught me what it means to have a worshipful heart. But, I still kept refusing to see the bigger picture—that what I was moving toward was actually God. Clinging instead to a series of old attitudes and habits that were no longer serving me (if they ever did).
But within the past month or so, I began experiencing a change of heart. It started around the time I bought William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I’d been feeling I should perhaps start reading the Bible. It was a quiet, yet persistent inner urging that just wouldn’t quit. And so I thought, rather than keep fighting myself, I’d might as well get a Bible and start reading it. So I did. And now (I can’t believe I’m saying this) I have decided to go to mass this weekend. It’s an odd thing, really. But I am beginning to think this is what’s been staring me in the face the whole time. The whole time I was looking for something greater than myself, searching for purpose and meaning, looking to philosophy, psychology, and even my own creativity to give me something to hold onto. Taking one step forward and two steps back. I think I was looking for God. I think it’s as simple—and as complicated—as that.