Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Safety Dance

I think we've all noticed by this point that the American economy is in the proverbial crapper. If for some reason you've been deaf and blind to the thousands of articles and/or news reports on the state of the Dow Jones, the housing market or the cost of food, there is always the personal experience of realizing that you cannot, in fact, afford something that once was taken for granted.

As S. points out to me when I start getting apocalyptic (the sole reason I work out is to be sure I can run after scarce goods when it all comes down), we are fortunate to have enough expendable income to cover most extremes. If rice triples in price, we will still be able to afford to buy it. It doesn't mean priorities won't change. It doesn't mean we won't feel the squeeze, or that psychologically we won't feel anxious. But we'll be able to eat.

Remembering this helps me to be thankful for the fact that I am in the top itty-bitty percent of this world that is not truly suffering from poverty. Real poverty. Not "I-can't-afford-to-live-in-Manhattan-and-I-don't-have-any-new-Prada" poverty. Not "waxing-my-eyebrows-AND-my-bikini-line-is-getting-too-pricey" poverty. No, not even the poverty that wakes up at 5:30am to take a train an hour before working nine hours of manual labor. Even that (which looks like poverty to most first-worlders) is poverty relative to the wealth of (in this case) New Yorkthat rubs up against it on a daily basis--poverty that only knows itself by immediate comparison to those who "have" for as far as the eye can see.

There are days when I feel poor. Days when I've sweat myself into a funk on the platforms of the city's heaving underbelly, only to finally get on a train without air-conditioning, packed to the gills with people, their unsavory offspring and their large plastic sacks filled with stuff. (And that's on a car without any homeless.) Days when I fall down the stairs, when my back spasms from carrying my groceries home after a long day at my desk, when I stub my toe on the door, when the refrigerator breaks, when our neighbors blast bluegrass just as I'm going to sleep, when the air is so polluted and heavy that I become asthmatic just from stepping outside, when the sidewalks are covered in dog shit, when....when everything conspires to make city life the dirty, ugly hell suburbanites claim it is.

But this isn't poverty, really. Poverty of the spirit, maybe. Definitely poor morale. But not the poverty that looks around the room (if there is a room to be looked around) and sees no possibility of food, water or shelter. Instead, it's a psychological poverty. The poverty that is fed, but that is fearful of not being fed. Of being full, but fearful of not being full. Of having, but forever fearful of losing.

Some might call this the purest expression of the animal human drive to live, to procreate, to conquer. There are certainly moments when this view feels true, and right. There are other moments when I wonder whether it's a terrible lie. Whether a perverse extreme of Maslow's hierarchy has taken over our psyche, causing us to run laps around the first level, which is the only level, of his nifty triangle.

As we see in the illustration above, our primary drives are for obtaining our immediate physiological needs. (I never really viewed sex as one of these needs, per se, but I suppose I can see the point.) But I'm left a little cold once we start moving up the ladder. Isn't safety just the control (or illusion there of) that our physiological needs will be met? How did property and morality come into the safety level, I wonder? It seems that for all the jargon, all levels save the top level are little more than stages of security that must be met in order for a being to strike out on the path of self-actualization.

My revised hierarchy:

So, we are big babies. Essentially. But what does this mean in terms of psychological poverty versus economic poverty? Arguably, one will never make it up the ladder if one doesn't obtain the barest means of preserving physiological needs. So, if one is truly poor, one probably cannot make it to safety or love/belonging. Does that mean that the poor do not love their children? Does that mean their children do not feel safe with their poor parents? Hmm.

Let's attack it from a different angle. Let's look at artists. Are we to assume that because one has reached the "top," and thus tapped into creativity, that he or she has obtained safety? Sexual intimacy? Self-esteem? The consistent means with which to buy food and other trappings of a safe, middle-class life? Hardly.

In fact, it seems anyway you cut it, this structure is based on a very middle-class assumption that "safety" is the prevailing force moving us around. That we are but in search of health and property. So why doesn't art stop being created in poor countries? During times of war or famine? (There are clearly stressors put on artists NOT to create during these times, but the history of humanity speaks against any sweeping argument for economics-based creation.)

My mother used to tell me that in China, telling a man his wife was fat was taken as a compliment. I suppose Maslow would agree.

I'm going to think about this a little more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. As I think I've said before, I'm lazy and advertising has crippled my critical skill, so I can't write an engaging response to your entry. (I'm in read-only mode.) But thanks. A pleasure to read M. in the morning at work.