Psychology students will remember Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. Maslow believed human physiological needs such as oxygen, food, and water must be met first, before the need for safety and security. Next comes the need for love and belonging to community. Then self-esteem or pride in achievements can be addressed. Once these four lower levels are achieved, a person can move on to the top of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs. Uppermost is self-actualization or becoming one’s best self by developing one’s full potential.
I was introduced to this theory during my middle age, while taking courses at a local community college near Sarasota, Florida. My classmates were in their twenties while I was in my late forties. I was fascinated by the idea of being fully actualized, which seemed unachievable. As “just a housewife” in an unhappy marriage, I knew I was not functioning anywhere near my full potential. I remember asking the instructor if he’d ever known anyone who was fully actualized. He seemed nonplussed by my question.
Several years later, in 1985, I was new in Gainesville, Florida, and taking adult education courses for entertainment. In one course, each student was given the task of creating a personal mission statement. After some thought I came up with the simple goal “To be myself, and to know that is enough.” Knowing that was enough allowed me to be unstressed for my remaining years. That is, I am who I am, a Tennessee farm girl who did well in school and likes lifetime learning. I am not trying to be anything else, just my authentic self. The idea was liberating.
As a painfully shy child, I grew up with virtually no self-confidence, modeling a mother who, to avoid “showing her ignorance,” never spoke up. As I became older, I found my voice through writing. Abraham Maslow would be pleased that I finally made it into the top tier of his pyramid of human needs.
My grandchildren were quite impressed and pleased when I helped my husband write his World War II Missing in Action story. In 1944, at age 21, he was shot down in his P-47 behind German lines. With the help of Belgian and French families, he evaded capture, living for eight months in the woods with other rag-tag escapees of varying ethnicity. My grandchildren encouraged me to write other family history, and I did. As an additional writing challenge, I joined the Writers Alliance of Gainesville (WAG) on my 86th birthday.
I subsequently enrolled in a Santa Fe Community College adult-education course called Writing Your Memoir, taught by WAG member, Susie Baxter. When asked why I wanted to write my memoir, I answered that I wanted my life to count for something. It seemed that up to that point, everything had always been about my husband’s daring and colorful life.
I started to write more of my own stories and found they did count for something. My readers were intrigued by descriptions of life on a farm with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and there were accounts of losing a brother to war and a son to HIV. Plus, there were tales of living at various places around the world as wife of an Air Force fighter pilot. Readers found the stories amusing, and sometimes heart-breaking. I was encouraged. I began to see that my life did count. People seemed to get something, perhaps even occasional wisdom, from my writing.
As Maslow posited, with my basic needs met, a home I love, in a safe neighborhood, a comfortable amount of money, surrounded by loving friends and family, I am free to enjoy the luxury of self-actualization through writing. At least one WAG member agrees, proclaiming “Writing IS self-actualization.”
Now, fast approaching my ninetieth birthday, I am becoming my most authentic, best self by writing my own life stories.