Self-Actualization: An Integral Phase of Ethical Character by Wayne Clark, D.Min.
In a fascinating way, Margaret Mahler, et. al. (2000) describe in, The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant Symbiosis and Individuation, the developmental process a person has from birth through the first thirty-six months. Moving away from the normal autism phase to discovering the self within relationship to (an)other (the beginning of object constancy), an individual begins to conceptualize presence and place of relationship(s) through identifying or creating a sense of an internal image (object constancy). Murray Bowen relates this early developmental phase as the birthing place for self-differentiation within the context of the significant other(s) in a person's world. Rene Spitz and Heinz Kohut understand the early developmental period as a process of involving object relationships with age specific tasks and the complex task of internalizing object(s) in order to fully evolve within a balanced sense-of-self identifiable from others. Along the journey of developing into a healthy psychological and physical being, there is another journey taking place that is just as crucial, interwoven into the first, the journey of moral and spiritual development. One may argue the point that this second journey has as much of a genetic origin as does the first.
The parallel trek to physical and psychological development is the journey through a moral and spiritual maze. While physical and psychological development are significantly influenced by genetics and environment; moral and spiritual growth are profoundly influenced by familial, social, and circumstantial conditioning interconnected with emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual need fulfillment integral to relational systems.
In humanistic psychology, Abraham Maslow formulated a new theory on motivation. According to Maslow, individuals have six kinds of needs: physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness needs, love needs, self-esteem needs, and ultimately, the need for self-actualization. Ironically, these six basic needs can be identified as anchor or pivot points of many biblical narratives underscoring the roots of moral development and ethics.
In Genesis, God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden where their physiological needs were appropriately met. With awakening of conscious and early emotions as shame and fear, humans are clothed and the internalization of boundary formation begins. When Cain kills Abel, Cain is disciplined by God, but also protected by God, assuring his safety. Issues related to physical needs and safety needs are in abundance throughout early Biblical narratives. Noah's ark provides shelter as well as being stocked with food for humans and animals alike. A rainbow becomes a symbol for safety. Lot's home becomes a sanctuary for visiting messengers. Out of her meager supplies the widow sits a meal before the Prophet. The Prophet, Elisha, in turn, restores her son's life.
Adam and Eve are endeared to one another in a scene of Maslow's word, belongingness, by the Genesis writer's description of their physical and emotional bonding. Later, the writer recalls the innate need humans have to "call upon the name of God," symbolic of a spiritual yearning to be connected, transcending one's physical being. The need to belong and be part of another and community is weaved deeply into the covenant history God initiates and without, humans are left empty and unfulfilled.
Qualities of Maslow's "love need" on a continuum from emotional dependency to intimacy are expressed in stories such as Esau's pain in the loss of his rightful blessing, Jacob's desire for Rachel, and God's response to Israel's children in slavery.
Maslow's recognition of self-esteem as a basic need takes us to the storyteller's dialogue regarding God's own words in the story of creation, "It was good." The words imply that God is confident with God's own competence. Further, it would seem the work of the Prophets would have been dismal without a good dose of self-esteem as they faced their adversaries and a society who held the collective prophetic community, often times, in suspect.
William Crain (2009) in Theory of Development writes that Maslow, in his research and studies, was most interested in the drive for the fulfillment of the person's highest need, self-actualization. Maslow believed that an individual's needs were arranged in a hierarchical order. In a simplistic way, this hierarchy of needs can be understood by a person's physiological need, such as hunger, needing to be met before the individual fixes the lock on the door, a task that might be related to the need for safety. When an individual's psychological self-discipline is thwarted, processes such as delayed gratification, or impulse control, do not reach levels of age-appropriate maturity and mental exercises such as negative thinking, entitlement, and obsessive thought take on a sense of driven-ness. Need-deficiency is then carried and connected into the next need level. Referring back to the Genesis narrative illustrating this driven-ness, the storyteller says:
"Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country famished. He said to Jacob, ‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!' Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.'"
"'Look, I am about to die,' Esau said. ‘What good is the birthright to me?'"
"But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.' So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob" (Genesis 25:29-33, New International Version).
Throughout the Genesis narrative of Abraham, Jacob, and Esau stories, Esau's lack of ability to fully integrate the psychological developmental process into the hierarchy of needs is evident. Individual and collective stories of Esau and Jacob remind us of the illusiveness attached to reaching and maintaining the level of self-actualization.
Maslow defined self-actualization as "a concept borrowed from Goldstein (1939), as . . . the actualization of one's potentials, capacities, and talents" (Crain, 2009, 373). Maslow's research, as reported by Crain (2009), suggested that people he identified as achieving self-actualization were by degrees independent of society and "are more spontaneous, free, and natural" (373). Self-actualizers are dedicated to growing their inner sense of well-being and their personal mission in life. They are out-of-the-box thinkers and at the same time, creatively see beauty for the first time over and over in nature, people, and life in general. They can be struck by awe and wonder and have the ability to value people as they are. The downside of Maslow's description is that some people might interpret his description of self-actualizers as mavericks, too self-absorbed, and not playing by the rules. For the purpose of how the movement toward self-actualization helps to define one's degree of moral and ethical character, attentiveness to the growth of one's inner nature by maintaining a sense of childlikeness wonder and awe, appreciation for life, spontaneity to being open, receptive and valuing the presence of the other (another) are qualities of self-actualization that cannot be ignored.
One of the key elements of early Biblical narratives that grows from the history of the covenant with God and humans, is the introduction of the Ten Commandments. One can imagine Moses writing or dictating his memories and pausing when he comes to the first Sinai visit. His mind opens doors that flood his conscious with long ago scenes of the bush that is not consumed by fire, his sandals neatly placed four feet behind him, his hands stretched out as if he is receiving the tablets once again, and then appear to slowly drop a few inches as if they were just being placed in his outstretched hands by the hands of God.
Over the centuries, laws that have governed human behavior across cultures and societies have their roots in the Ten Commandments. Morals are a baseline for ethics as ethical decisions are based on morally relevant action. A strong and consistent moral base keeps ethics from being subject to convenience, multiple choice, or redesigned by power brokers.
In Kohlberg's six stages of moral development, Stage One is identified as "Obedience and Punishment Orientation." William Crain (2009) notes that by instruction and discipline, a child "learns or assumes there are a fixed set of rules that he or she unquestionably must obey" (154). This thought parallels Maslow's understanding of how the free-will, freshness, and spontaneity of the child's inner nature is suppressed "through socializing agents attempting to direct and teach them things" (Crain, 375). Children are to degrees criticized, corrected, and goaded into the right answers, losing the enthusiasm to trust in themselves and their senses. Within this context, morals become less integrated as a sense of true-self and conscious and often more a set of rules to be followed, receiving external approval and acceptance by an internal stern parental image until the next decision related to good/bad, right/wrong comes across the mental screen. In societies and professional associations where morals and ethics are supposed to matter, while responding to human needs and social order, rules and laws often replace an integrative moral consciousness and ethical character. Rules and laws often carry punitive overtones and manipulative undercurrents usually controlled by power brokers, and can encourage underdeveloped moral conscious and ethical character.
Professions as ministry and counseling expressed in the context of Pastoral Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy, or Pastoral ministry are principle demonstrators of how Maslow's six basic needs parallel moral development and ethical character culminating in self-actualization.
The intellectual, emotional, and behavioral maturing of a person's sense of right or wrong requires positive models for discerning, appropriately guiding while honoring individual choices, creating an atmosphere within safe boundaries to explore troubling invasive thoughts, regretted decisions, and unhealthy behaviors. Professionals who counsel individuals along this pathway must own the realization that in the hour, in the sermon, in the visit, in the session, they, too, are on similar journeys. A major factor revealing movement toward self-actualization is being able to differentiate self from other and sustain a healthy identity and proper perspectives of each other's purpose and presence.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor (2009) quotes Henry David Thoreau, "Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something" (107). The secret to succeeding in this advice is not to use morals as external judgmental projectile missiles or ethical principles isolated from conscious. To be good for something is to strive for and work toward an integrated sense of self and well-being. In this sense, pastors, counselors, teachers, and just about anyone become self-actualizers when they truly understand and value self and other. Jesus set the tone when He took the Ten Commandments and summarized them in this way: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27, NIV).
As Margaret Mahler theorized, the process of individuation is being able to conceptualize a self separate from the other. I would add paralleling this process is the ability to experience basic needs being met and some day coming to realize the significance of how intricately woven together the psychological birth of the self and well-being are with a moral and ethical sense of self.
Crain, William. (2005). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. New York: Pearson/Prentice Hall.
Mahler, Margaret, Fred Pine, & Anni Bergan Mahler. (2000). The psychological birth of the human infant symbiosis and individuation. Jackson, TN: Perseus Distribution.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. (2009). An altar in the world: A geography of faith. New York: Harper/Collins Publishers.