The privilege of thinking abstractly and the obligation to pay it forward

I’ve often remarked here that one of my favorite writers is Charles D. Hayes, author of wonderful books that integrate themes of adult learning, practical philosophy, and life’s second half. Currently I’m slowly savoring his 2003 novel, Portals in a Northern Sky, a unique work that I can best describe as a multi-character philosophical journey, with a sci-fi, time-crossing element to it. It’s also an ode to Charles’s adopted home of Alaska.

In Portals, philosopher and bookstore owner Ruben Sanchez engages Bob Thornton, an ex-Wall Street trader, in an ongoing dialogue about the meaning of life. Here’s a snippet from Ruben that caught my eye:

There are two types of people in the world, my friend: those who live a concrete existence and those who live in abstraction. The difference is surprisingly simple, and, of course, it’s a matter of degree because all of us require some of both. The people who live in the concrete world lack basic wealth and spend most of their time in a perpetual struggle for survival. Abstraction is a luxury engaged in by people whose fundamental material needs are no longer important issues. What’s misunderstood by those who profess to know how people should be educated is that to be truly educated a person must be able to reside in both worlds at all.

The Sanchez-Thornton dialogues are just one ongoing storyline in the novel. You’ll encounter many other interesting characters and ideas.

Boiled down Maslow?

Ruben Sanchez’s words sound like a boiled down take on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In a classic Psychological Review article published in 1943, Maslow grouped human needs into the following categories, organizing them as a hierarchy: At the base are “physiological needs” such as food, clothing, and shelter, that are central to our survival. Next are “safety needs” such as personal health, security, and financial security. The “love needs” for close human relationships comprise a third layer, and “esteem needs” for belonging in society, make for a fourth. Finally, “self-actualization,” the full realization of one’s potential, stands atop the hierarchy.

Paying it forward

Whether we’re looking at human development through the eyes of philosopher Hayes or psychologist Maslow, I submit that those of us whose basic survival needs are met have a moral obligation to pay it forward in some meaningful way. This includes helping others meet their survival needs and playing some tangible part in making the world a more decent, humane place.

I realize that not all readers are in such a privileged position. (For example, a good number originally find this blog because they are enduring horrible situations at work that are threatening their health and livelihoods.) However, those who enjoy the luxury of living largely in the world of abstraction — engaging ideas, meaningful initiatives and actions, and the meaning of life — have many opportunities to change our world for the better. Whether one believes in fate, random luck, or something in between (another theme running through Portals in a Northern Sky), such an advantage should not be squandered.

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Related post

The social responsibilities of intellectuals at a time of extraordinary human need (2013, rev. 2017)

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