5. Self-Actualization: A Progressive Value

In his books Moral Politics and Don’t Think of an Elephant! (see Bibliography), and other works, cognitive linguist George Lakoff explains how humans use metaphors, or models, to organize information and better comprehend the complex world around them. One of the primary metaphors we use for comprehending society and the political arena, he says, is that of the family—our own birth family, of course, being the first social and political system we experience. Progressives, Lakoff says, tend to use what he calls a “nurturant parent” model for interpreting politics and society, while conservatives tend to use a “strict father” model. The gender asymmetry between “nurturant parent” and “strict father” is deliberate because, “In the strict father model, the masculine and feminine roles are very different, and the father is the central figure. . . . In the nurturant parent model, there just isn’t a gender distinction of this sort.”

I’ll discuss the strict father model in Chapter 7, but first, from Don’t Think of an Elephant!, here’s Lakoff’s description of the nurturant parent model:

The nurturant parent family assumes that the world, despite its dangers and difficulties, is basically good, can be made better, and that it is one’s responsibility to work toward that. Accordingly, children are born good and parents can make them better. Both parents share responsibility for raising the children. Their job is to nurture their children and raise their children to be nurturers. Nurturing has two aspects: empathy (feeling and caring how others feel) and responsibility (for taking care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible). These two aspects of nurturance imply family values that we can recognize as progressive political values: from empathy, we want for others protection from harm, fulfillment in life, fairness, freedom (consistent with responsibility), and open two-way communication. From responsibility follow competence, trust, commitment, community building, and so on.

Is self-actualization a progressive value? I believe so, because Maslow’s characterization of self-actualization closely resembles Lakoff’s nurturant parent model. Reread the description of the self-actualized individual in Chapter 1, and you will see that both self-actualization and the nurturant parent model emphasize:

• The intrinsic goodness of the individual.

• The intrinsic goodness of other people.

• Independence of thought and action.

• Equality and freedom.

• Creativity and other expressions of “self.”

• The importance of treating others with respect, tolerance and kindness.

Moreover, as you will see in Chapter 7, these qualities are in direct opposition to those associated with the conservative strict father model.

Although Lakoff doesn’t use the exact phrase “self-actualization” in Don’t Think of an Elephant!, he does urge progressives to work toward a mindset that sounds very much like it:

If you empathize with your child, you want your child to be fulfilled in life, to be a happy person. And if you are an unhappy, unfulfilled person yourself, you are not going to want other people to be happier than you are. The Dalai Lama teaches us that. Therefore, it is your moral responsibility to be a happy, fulfilled person. Your moral responsibility. Further, it is your moral responsibility to teach your child [and others] to be a happy, fulfilled person who wants others to be happy and fulfilled. (Emphasis added.)

There is perhaps no better example of the nurturant, progressive mindset than a wonderful quote from Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. In June 2005, after Spain’s parliament legalized same-sex unions, he said: “We are expanding opportunities for the happiness of our neighbors, our work colleagues, our friends, our relatives.”

This really is the mission of all progressives, especially if you expand the circle to include not just our neighbors, etc., but every person and all beings who share the planet with us. Our goal is to help them all self-actualize.

It’s a glorious mission, but as Confucius says, you have to begin with yourself. So start working to self-actualize, and never feel guilty about your efforts to do so. Rather, let your joyous example inspire others to do the same.


Do you still feel guilt or other negative emotions around the topic of self-actualization, or around your own need to, or desire to, self-actualize? If so, try journaling to see if you can define and defuse those feelings—or consult a mentor, therapist or other advisor.