1. Your Most Important Relationship

I call the process by which one goes about acquiring an empowered personality self-actualization. The term was coined by the influential psychologist Abraham Maslow, who, in his 1962 book Toward a Psychology of Being (New York: Wiley, 1998), and other works, wrote that a self-actualized person exhibits many or most of the following characteristics:

• Realistic. Has a more accurate, objective and “efficient” perception of reality; more comfortable with complexities and contradictions than non-self-actualized people are.

• Accepting of self, others and nature. Not crippled by guilt or shame; able to enjoy himself without regret or apology.

• Unhampered by convention. Has a strongly autonomous and individualistic, but not isolationist, nature. Relies on inner self for satisfaction and has a strong inner sense of what’s right and wrong.

• Problem-centered. Likes to solve problems, and likes to have an ambitious mission. Stable in the face of adversity. Resilient.

• Spontaneous/Maintains a fresh view. Has a fresh rather than a stereotyped view of the world, and an authentic appreciation for it.

• Spiritual. Tuned in to a “deeper wisdom.”

• “Gemeinschaftsgeuhl.” “Identification, sympathy, and affection for mankind, kinship with the good, the bad and the ugly.”

• Democratically oriented. “The self-actualizing person does not discriminate on the basis of class, education, race or color. He is humble in his recognition of what he knows in comparison with what could be known, and he is ready and willing to learn from anyone.”

• Possessing a philosophical, unhostile sense of humor. Can laugh at himself, but never makes fun of others.

• Creative. Can express his “inborn uniqueness.”

Maslow characterized self-actualization as “the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is.” He believed that people are fundamentally good, and that “psychopathology generally results from the denial, frustration or twisting of our essential natures.” As you will learn in Chapter 5, this description is in line with what many progressives believe and how they strive to live their lives and treat others. Although some feminists and others criticize Maslow’s model for, among other things, overvaluing autonomy and undervaluing interconnectedness and relationships, both among individuals and between individuals and the natural world,1 I believe it remains a valuable guide, and I particularly like the way the term “self-actualization” doesn’t just define an end point (the self-actualized personality), but a process (self-actualization) that one can use to get there. When I use the term in this book, I am using it to refer not to Maslow’s exact model, but to a broader concept that largely, but not entirely, overlaps it.

As a human being and an activist, your most important goal should be to work on your own self-actualization, because in the process of becoming self-actualized you will gain the qualities you need to work on all of your other goals. Self-actualization creates strength and character and commitment: it is a political act, really, and the foundation for all of your future political acts. Let’s remind ourselves of what Confucius said: “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; and to cultivate our personal life, we must first set our hearts right.” Let’s also not forget that Gloria Steinem titled her autobiography Revolution From Within.

I would go so far as to say that one of the key differences between effective and ineffective activists is that the effective ones are more self-actualized, i.e., more empowered and able to express more of their unique selves. As Saul Alinsky puts it in Rules for Radicals:

How can an organizer respect the dignity of an individual if he does not respect his own dignity? How can he believe in people if he does not really believe in himself? How can he convince people that they have it within themselves, that they have the power to stand up to win, if he does not believe it of himself? Ego must be so all-pervading that the personality of the organizer is contagious, that it converts the people from despair to defiance, creating a mass ego.

Despite Alinsky’s and my exhortations, however, you may still be wondering, “How can I justify spending time working on my own tiny problems when so many others are suffering so horribly?” That’s a legitimate concern, and I’ll address it in the next few chapters. First, however, let’s explore the concept of self-actualization in more depth.