Fear is a Vampire

Friday, April 3, 2009

I attended an informal talk with two art critics recently. The room was packed with energetic, forward-looking artists, eager to absorb useful information and insights from the arbiters of culture employed by our local newspapers. The moderator asked them to comment on their view of the local art scene, the trends and potentials. The first one to speak on the subject opened up the conversation with this line - "As we sit here on the cusp of the next Great Depression, completely paralyzed,....", and he went on from there in a low-key, almost bleak tone of voice; it felt like he was going to stop at any moment and take a deep sigh, maybe melt into a puddle of dark, black despair in front of our eyes. As you might imagine, the energy in the room immediately began a slow fizzle, the audience's shoulders drooping, eyes furrowing. I felt like shouting out "Speak for yourself!", but kept my mouth politely zippered (in retrospect, I wish I had spoken up).In thinking about his comment on the way home it occurred to me that practically every meaningful discussion these days is prefaced by a reminder that the economy is bad, as if none of us is aware despite endless news reports and headlines warning of impending doom. I thought this might make a good Saturday Night live skit. Imagine a room full of people at a cocktail party sipping drinks and chatting, the conversation going something like this:John: Well Glenda, since the economy is tanking, can I get you a drink?Glenda: Yes John, I'd like a red wine in light of the highest unemployment rate in 25 years.John: Being on the cusp of the next Great Depression, I bet you'd love a good Cabernet. I'm paralyzed myself, but before I go to the bar, let me introduce you to my good friend Hilda. (takes Glenda by the arm and steers her to a woman just entering the room) Hilda, so good to see you! Have you heard that 5.3 million jobs have been lost since September? Let me introduce you to my friend Glenda.Hilda: Well John, given that we're in the middle of the worst recession in 30 years, I'd love to meet your friend!Ok, SNL would do it better, but you get my gist. Musing on this brought my mind to a book I read a while back, "Toward a Psychology of Being" by Abraham Maslow. A psychologist born in 1908, Maslow came of age during the Great Depression and the slaughters of WWII, and his studies were steeped in the pessimism of Freud and the Existentialists. Curiously, his writings managed to turn Freud inside out, and his philosophy developed quite differently.Maslow took a look at motivation, and made some interesting observations. He identified one type of motivation, the predominant one in our culture and age, as deficiency motivation. This is a motivation based on lack, on the desire to fill an empty hole, so to speak. Primary biological needs come under this category - hunger, thirst, shelter, etc. - but also a need for love, for attention because of lack of self-esteem, for prestige, for fame, for a new shiny car, for all of those things we don't have but want want want. In other words, neediness. Most people are driven primarily by these motivations. But he also took a focused look at a type of person he found intriguing, what he called the self-actualized person. These people have deficiency motivations, but their primary motivations are what he called growth motivations. These motivations are for creativity, exploration, learning, loving (versus wanting love), expansion, etc. He found this was a group who were more joyful, more giving, more ambitious, more curious, whatever the circumstance they found themselves in. He also found that these people were superior problem solvers, theorizing that those dominated by deficiency motivation saw various aspects of reality in light of whether or not it satisfied deficiencies, while the self-actualized had a more complete picture of reality, saw situations more clearly for what they were rather than for what they might be useful for, and therefore were able to make better choices and decisions. While Freud focused on the unhealthy - the neurotic and the psychotic - in order to learn how to cope, Maslow chose to focus on the healthy - the self-actualized - in order to learn how to live fully.Motivation built on fear is a deficiency motivation. It clouds our thinking, confuses us, "paralyzes" us. I have a friend who spends most evenings on the Internet researching theories and opinions about the current world economic crisis. Every time I see him it's all he can talk about, and he's worked himself into a frenzy of paranoia and misery, an out of control feedback loop. He has chosen this, of course - deficiency motivation can cause us to make bad choices. He's a bit like the art critic I spoke of, not only afraid but insistent on making sure everyone else views reality from a vantage point of fear (misery loves company). They both drain energy from others, sucking it into a vortex of their own imaginings. They are cowards, afraid to live while simultaneously cringing at that fear of all fears, the fear of death.Fear is a vampire - it sucks your lifeblood and turns you into a zombie, the living dead.