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Jul 20

Why We Ignore the Important Things In Life

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We stopped at the base of the gently sloping gravel road and looked back for my wife and daughter. Being dudes, and having to prove our awesomeness for no other reason than we are guys, my son and I went flying down the gravel road on our bikes trying to prove we were king of the universe. We were on the long path home. We waited a few minutes but no one followed. Maybe the girls took the short cut. No matter, we will loop around and meet them.

When we got to the expected location there was no sign of them. Did they beat us here and start heading home? I went up the trail a little and did not see a trace of them so we started racing towards home to see if we could catch them. After a half mile or so things did not seem quite right, so I stopped and texted my wife. There was no reply.

Maybe they were on the way home, but maybe they were behind us and something went wrong like a flat tire or mechanical problem. We backtracked, and after we came around a curve I spotted them in the distance, walking, my wife frantically waving her arms. Shit, this cannot be good.

The adrenaline hit me and I don’t think I’ve biked that fast in a while. As I approached I saw my daughter holding a bloody fleece to her chin with tattered clothes and scrapes everywhere. My wife was a little pale; she said “get the car and come get us, we need to go to the ER.” Those words felt like running into a brick wall.

 

***

 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is an often cited psychological framework proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”. You have probably heard of this, but in case you have not I will summarize.

According to the theory, we seek to fulfill our basic physiological needs (food, shelter, water) and safety before other needs like belonging and self-esteem. Only after these needs are met can we move to the highest level which is self-actualization. It is commonly portrayed as a pyramid, with the more basic needs forming the foundation. Maslow himself didn’t think of these in pyramid form, but it looks cool so I will stick with it for now.

Source: Wikimedia commons

Source: Wikimedia commons

This makes intuitive sense. But it is incomplete and not really totally true. We constantly strive for things that are not in our best interest. We often seek to fulfill higher level needs (like belonging/fitting in) while sacrificing lower level needs (safety, financial security).  Often we seek things that don’t really fulfill any need, and in fact sometimes we seek out things known to be destructive to us. Why is this?

 

Visibility

I think this makes more sense when we think about our needs as those that are visible and those that are unseen or hidden. We tend to ignore things that are unseen, even when they are the most important things in life.

This dichotomy sometimes distorts our ability to prioritize in a way we would refer to as rational, as we naturally tend to address things that are noticeable.

Above basic physiological necessities in life, the important things are invisible (health, freedom, happiness, love), and the trivial things are highly visible (status, cars, McMansions, granite counter tops, etc.).  We peruse the visible and neglect the unseen.

The seen becomes a proxy or placeholder for the unseen. We see something new and shiny and assume it will fill a void somewhere higher on the pyramid. It distracts us.

The most obvious way this happens is sacrificing financial safety and health(in the form of not working towards a higher degree of financial freedom or engaging in unhealthy behaviors) in order to purchase or peruse things that we think will bring us our higher level needs.

I see this play out all the time.  People kill themselves slowly with stress due to a job they hate. They don’t have the time or motivation to exercise and eat a healthy diet. They destroy the things in the middle of the pyramid like their relationships with their family and friends. They instinctively know their needs are not being met so they look around to the seen.

I can see food so I’ll buy and eat more of it. I can see my house (shelter) so I will remodel it or buy a larger place to show the world I’m doing great. I can see my kids are miserable so I will buy them some stuff to make them happy.

People reach for self-esteem and belonging by filling it with these material things, while they slowly chip away at the base of their pyramid. A bigger house, a better car, a closet full of shoes, the latest kitchen gadgets or electronics instead of less stress, better health, closer relationships, etc.

Meanwhile they are heavily in debt, on the path to type 2 diabetes, are taking 3 different antidepressants, struggling with their alcohol addiction and can’t walk up stairs without becoming short of breath. Their physical, financial and mental health have deteriorated so slowly they didn’t see it happen.

Now this is an extreme example and is maybe a little over-dramatic, but this happens in only slightly less toxic and destructive ways in all of us. It sneaks by and flies under the radar.

What we don’t see we can’t address.

I can tell you; once you have stepped back and seen this from the sideline it looks absolutely crazy. It is truly like being unplugged from the matrix. It’s walking around and seeing dozens of slow speed car crashes happening everywhere in the people you associate with. Sometimes one or two people put on a seat-belt or takes defensive action, but very few people get out of the car and wonder if they should even be driving in the first place.

People are not stupid, in spite of what you may think. We do not intentionally hurt ourselves. We are just wired to operate in a certain way. We are terrible at seeing the big picture. We are inept at bringing the unseen into our consciousness. If you have trouble with this, don’t worry, all is not lost.  You are normal. Humans have a great capacity to learn and change.

The key is to bring the important things to where we can see them. We need to remind ourselves they are there. This is easy when you see something taken away from you or is being threatened. You never appreciate your health like you do when you just recover from illness. You never appreciate being pain free until just after a terrible pain subsides. The sweetest peace you will ever feel is after exiting a period of great anxiety or depression.

We need to experience darkness to truly know the light.

 

***

 

In the moment I realized my daughter was injured I had perspective on my own personal hierarchy of needs. The pyramid was instantly reordered to everything that was important to me. There was absolute clarity. And there always is when I am in a state of fear, pain or loss. By recognizing this and briefly reflecting, I was putting all that fear and discomfort to good use. Everything was clear. Nothing else mattered but her well-being. In spite of the horrible situation, I simultaneously had overwhelming gratitude for all the worse possible states that were not present.

The key to reordering our lives and aligning our resources with our needs is realization of this perspective when we are NOT in a state of fear, pain or loss. This is much easier said than done and requires constant upkeep. As the painful things fade with time we forget this momentary clarity. The things that don’t mater; being late to something, temporarily losing car keys or having a coworker say something mean about you start to matter more. These useless distractions start latching on to our pyramid like ticks. They are visible and draw our attention to them.

Self-reflection, mindfulness and gratitude is the foundation of our defense against this. Yeah, yeah, I know…more Buddhist-y mindfulness bullshit. I know I keep circling back upon this concept, but there is no other way that I know of that is this powerful. These are powerful meta-life-hacks that you should be employing in your life.

After the x-rays and stitches we wearily headed back home. It was a physically and emotionally exhausting experience. She hurt everywhere, couldn’t open her mouth more than a couple of centimeters and had loose teeth that would require a check by the dentist a few days later, but there were no obvious broken bones or neurological injuries. We didn’t need a trauma or orthopedic surgeon. When I went back to pick up the abandoned bike and saw the shifter nearly ripped off and the handle bars rotated 90 degrees I reflected upon how badly she could have been hurt. I quietly thanked the universe for the bicycle helmet that probably saved her from much more severe facial trauma.

When I first saw her smile a couple days after the accident (at one of my typical stupid jokes) I was overwhelmed with emotion. I remember resisting the tears that were welling up (I have never been a good crier). In some ways the visible scar that will remain with her forever will be a reminder to me to keep my priorities in perspective. It has hopefully moved them permanently from the unseen to the seen.  I know they will fade though. It is my responsibility to keep them in my consciousness – to keep them visible.

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  1. The Wealthy Accountant

    I always consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when working with employees. It is important to understand what motivates them into action. A powerful post, Philosopher. Powerful.

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Thank you. For me the most difficult concept for me to understand is that of self-actualization. Hard to get my head around.

  2. Joe (arebelspy)

    WOW, was this some powerful writing. Well done!

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Much thanks Joe 🙂

  3. Mortimer

    Love this post. You are dead on about those moments of clarity, and how hard it is to maintain that clarity for long periods of time–but how important it is to do the daily work of focusing on those values. Theory is useless without praxis, and unfortunately we often forget that.

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      Thank you Mortimer. As I practice simply being aware and more accepting of circumstances, I’ve noticed these moments of clarity stay with me longer. They still fade though.

  4. comment

    Is there any book that talks more about this concept? Especially the visible vs. invisible?

    1. TheHappyPhilosopher

      That’s a good question. These ideas just simmered in my brain for a while; I didn’t do much reading or research for this post.

      I have not read anything that talked about these concepts this way, but if I discover something I will come back and post it in the comments. Can anyone else answer this question?

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