In my thinking about activism, I keep reassuring myself that people will listen when they’re ready, and that by working with those who are ready to initiate change, we are more likely to make a difference collaboratively than in isolation. What I want to understand better, though, is what motivates others to do what they do, and believe what they believe. If I understand this, I hope, I’ll be able to find and recognize others who are ready to work with me to do the radical work that must be done to make the world a better place.
Much has been written about what humans need, physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. I’m more interested in the moment in what people want, and specifically, what we want from others (rather than from ourselves and our environment). We are, after all, inherently social creatures, and that quality has proven to be a tremendous evolutionary success. In my recent article on empathy, I identified forty emotional needs, of which these 26 were “needs from others”:
What we want from others, I think, is what we believe, if we get them, will fulfill the above needs. In my observation, most of us particularly want six things from others, which map very well to the three lists above:
These are the six means to the 26 ends of fulfilling our needs from others. By giving these things to others, authentically, we are most likely get people to learn, understand and appreciate what we want them to, in order for them to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Let’s look a bit at the motivations for these six wants.
We desire attention and appreciation because we cannot know ourselves well without the context of seeing ourselves as others see us. Their perspective, and our conversations, are essential to understanding who we are and what we believe, and, more importantly, why we are here. In my experience (and this is a somewhat dangerous and changing generalization) most men seem to crave attention more than appreciation, while most women seem to want appreciation more than ‘mere’ attention. I think this probably has more to do with cultural conditioning than biology. It’s a cliche that ‘women give sex (attentive) to get love (appreciative), and men give love to get sex’. And both genders want lots of both attention and appreciation.
When we get attention it tells us “what I think and feel matters” and “what I say and believe is important”. When we get appreciation it tells us “what I do has value” and “what I say and believe makes sense”. We get these assurances through others — no amount of solitary rationalization is sufficient to do this (which is perhaps why some unappreciated artists suffer so much).
We desire authority and control because we believe that it will give us comfort, freedom and security. Authority can be bought (with money and/or influence) or it can be earned. Unfortunately, earned authority usually comes with a catch — responsibility. If you’re rich and powerful you can wield authority irresponsibly, but the rest of us have to accept responsibility before we are given commensurate authority — and often we get caught, stuck with the responsibility but not the authority.
Authority can give us some control, but less than we might think. People are remarkably adept at ignoring decisions and instructions from authorities when they don’t think they’re optimal. Bullies and sociopaths are expert at controlling other people, but it’s usually coercive, manipulative, and resented, and rarely sustainable. With authority can come wealth (and vice versa), which can buy a measure of freedom and security. But for the most part, the only thing we can really control is ourselves (and there are some arguments, well hashed-out in these pages, that our bodies control our minds, not the other way around).
We desire knowledge for the same reasons — comfort, freedom and security. Unfortunately, most of what we are offered today is not knowledge, because it is unactionable and useless — it does not enable us to increase either our capacities or our competencies. The only means to achieve these is practice, and our modern frenetic society provides us with neither the time nor the process to practice effectively. Instead, we are forced to buy into a civilization that is fragile, overextended and dependent on others we don’t know. Paradoxically, our knowledge of this lack of self-sufficiency, capacity and competency actually reduces our sense of security.
We desire a sense of purpose because it gives our life meaning and direction and enables us, through a shared meaning and values, to belong to our communities. We instinctively give to and share with others, because it’s a bonding activity.
When I think of all the relationships in my life, I recognize the extent to which my interactions with others are mutually motivated by these six wants, and the 26 needs that underlie them. I can see how salespeople, seducers and sociopaths learn to cater expertly to these wants (by both satisying them, and instilling fear that we don’t have enough of them) in order to get what they want and need from us in return. And I see how gullible most of us are to these ruses, in our almost indiscriminate hunger for these six things.
We have pyramidal hierarchies where authority and wealth are hoarded at the top and meted out stingily to others. We are bombarded with terrible news and cynical lies that persuade us that everything is out of control, to the point we need to arm ourselves with guns and duct tape to protect ourselves. And we have to cede control over everything — what we eat, where and how our clothes are made, where and how we live — just to keep a job, to keep what Derrick Jensen calls “the fear of never having enough” at bay.
We have a firehose of information, but we don’t have any of the essential knowledge that allowed humans in previous generations and other cultures to life a healthy and decent life — how to grow our own good food, how to fix things, how to prevent illness and accident and self-diagnose and (for most illnesses) self-heal when we are sick.
We have no sense of our purpose because we are too busy doing what we must to think about why we are here at all, or about what the world really needs (in place of whatever junk commodity or overhyped service our employer has us offering sixty hours a week to customers as dumbed and numbed as we are), or even about what we love doing or are uniquely good at doing that would, if it were known and applied, allow us to be of use effectively, and learn what we’re meant to do and hence why we’re here.
I have always been blessed with exquisitely good fortune, and I now have a surfeit of all six things (or, in the case of the security-driven wants, their most useful surrogates — financial independence, self-control and self-knowledge). But I recognize that these are not things I can give to others to enable them to join me in my activist pursuits. And now, what I most want from others that I do not have is the companionship of those who have, by fortune or hard work, reached the same place that I have, and who are able and willing to dedicate themselves, with that terrible knowledge, to doing what we must do to make the world a better place.
Our journey is the nine-step one above that I have been showing on this blog for months now — the reconnection, action, and reflection steps that will tell us where we have come from, where we are, and what we must do now.
Joanna Macy would have us believe this is a journey that anyone can take, if they have courage. But I’m not sure. If your life is preoccupied with the needs of the moment, and driven by a terrible lack of time/attention, appreciation, authority/independence, self-control, self-knowledge, and understanding of your true purpose, how can you possibly have the presence of mind to pursue, or even see the value and urgency of, this journey?
I guess this is my way of saying that, perhaps arrogantly, I’m still feeling very much too far ahead. I’m impatient to find those who are with me, ready — not to follow me but to journey with me, as peers, as collaborators, as radicals determined to take back the Earth from those who have stolen and desolated it, and return it to the collective stewardship of all-life-on-Earth.
Not that I’m looking for attention or appreciation, you understand.