Our current level is Safety.
We’ve been here before.
In fact, we have been on a rollercoaster of sorts throughout time, continuously drifting up and down Maslow’s hierarchy over the centuries.
America is not unique in this journey as every nation and empire has followed a similar path; the main difference coming from the choices of the people. Cultural proclivities such as attitudes about technology, conservatism, time and change are additional influences that affect one’s trajectory. When something new enters our world we tend to recalibrate in order to accommodate, reject or integrate with the new concept, trend or group.
Recalibration opens up the possibility for power shifts and these shifts then push us from one level to the next. Today, these recalibrations seem almost constant. Change accelerates today faster than any other time, which is jarring, but also gives us the ability to see the patterns more easily within our lifetimes. We can use these patterns to create a better future, however before we can talk about the solutions, let’s take a look at our historical trajectory to provide some context for our current environment.
A Walk through History
Looking at recent decades in American history we can start to see a pattern of collective shifts between the hierarchy’s levels. While we could trace this path back centuries, it makes sense to start with a time most Americans find familiar. Let’s start in the thirties with the Great Depression.
A Depressive Sink into Survival
The Great Depression (1929-1939) would have been a harsh reset into Survival from the highs of the twenties. Many with the most to lose felt a lack of hope so great that they ended their lives rather than have to start to build again. A “Gilded Age” of strong economic and technological growth had been rising since the 1870’s and seemed to offer the masses a promise of a better future.
Unfortunately, hubris grew high and we allowed our greed to blind us from seeing reality. Little to no regulation coupled with a desire for opulence toppled our over inflated economy, and our country paid a high price once everything fell. Today, the Great Depression still lives in our minds as the worst economic situation we have faced as a country. A time of struggle, where so many suffered that we made a collective promise that we would never allow it to happen again.
World War II saved us from the survival mode of the Great Depression, and drove us quickly into Safety. A war we didn’t want finally showed up at our shores and overwhelmingly we all became Americans who had to defend our nation. Americans were asked to sacrifice for their nation by giving up the little luxuries they had left. Volunteering for the war effort was a source of pride because everyone was doing their part to keep our borders safe.
Laws were passed during this time to provide a safety net for those who had suffered through the Great Depression. Before the war America was not a super power, we had yet to become the biggest kid on the block, so there was a lot of fear that we may be taken over by another nation if we didn’t get this right.
Post War Reset
WWII provided a sheen of belonging; one washed away quickly at the war’s finale. While we had won and it was a time to celebrate, soldiers came home to see their world had changed (or had not changed enough). Women were working; men had to fight for their jobs. Reality set in and the ever growing middle class was still out of reach for those who looked different from the majority of the population. While one could say the sheen of Belonging was purposely promoted as a guise to gain America victory, more likely it was a bout of wishful thinking that allowed us to run head first into disappointment. It sounds good to promote equality, to say that we are all in this together, especially when we had all been in the same trenches, but reality is much more than words and thoughts.
Trust dipped for “outsiders” more than it had during the past decade because we were back in control and there were more resources for the taking. Our population was fragile, and it was easy to create enemies. A once tentative partnership with Russia, so important for winning the war, was torn to shreds. Sputnik and Communism would be the death of us all, and Space became the final frontier.
Fear has two sides and the push for a reversal to the way things were before was just too much to bear for the groups who had gained so much freedom during the war. Pandora’s box had been opened and we had all seen too much as a country to let progress be stopped. Civil rights, the women’s liberation movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, Mexican American’s fight for rights, environmentalism, and equal opportunity for people with disabilities all had huge movements in the sixties. Counterculture, they called it; Equal rights the request.
A huge movement towards progress was promoted by those marginalized and it pushed for a collective sense of Belonging. “Make love not war” was the slogan of the decade. Hope and Change were the ideals of the masses. Belonging had a good run during this time and lasted into the seventies, but not because we were heading to a utopia. We held onto hope as we moved towards the seventies because the sixties were also a time of pain. So much pain hit the populace in the late sixties with the loss of great leaders and the collective struggle to gain acknowledgement that we all felt Empathy for each other and for our nation.
It didn’t last long. In fact, the seventies brought with it a slew of alternate realities. Empathy started to dissipate amongst those who fell through the cracks. Crime rose as the promises made to many never fully materialized. Our leaders struggled to find a way to keep us from sliding back down the hierarchy. They offered us sports, toughened our laws and reopened Wall Street.
From Hippies to Yuppies
Money in the Eighties created a smoke screen where many were lulled into a sense of Esteem. The world seemed ripe for the taking. Technology was overtaking the world and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Our issues seemed to dissipate with many in the mainstream believing that sexism, racism, and all the other “isms” were in the past as the best, brightest and luckiest of our subcultures saw a jump in upward mobility.
Freedom was on the menu: we could wear what we wanted, act how we wanted and it seemed like anything was possible. Independence was felt in the laws of the land all the way from mass deregulation to the greater acceptance of divorce. My childhood told me that we could be whomever we wanted to be as long as we worked hard enough.
Belonging with a twist…
Resiliency is a double edged sword. Once again, the broken promises of the eighties were felt in the nineties and still our country was not reconciled, but many of us growing up during this time saw something else. To us, it was a different world where it didn’t matter if you were Black or White. Where we all wanted similar things at our core, yet wanted to learn about each other’s differences. The nineties became a world of mass customization where individual stories gained importance and people of subgroups felt safe enough to become who they really were instead of living up to a cookie cutter existence.
The adults saw it differently and as the saying goes “what goes up, must come down”. The idealized world that was on the cusp of existence became too much for those in power to handle. They saw a world growing out of their grasp, a sea of different cultures that had more in common with each other that could take their power away. Companies were allowed to take what we once loved dearly and commercialize it; creating a world once again bathed in plastic meant to keep everything the same. Once the internet was commercialized the lure of it was too much for the masses.
The Beginning of the End…
So started our downfall. Fear grew as the year 2000 approached, and, coupled with the attack on the World Trade Center, our world again became fragile. There were those that worked hard to remind us that we are all Americans and with slogans like “Hope and Change” and “Yes, we can!” we held onto Belonging for awhile but it was too difficult to keep.
The pressure, and the responsibility, was just too great. If one has not reconciled their own pain it is difficult to push a narrative to others and our country had never truly healed. Pressure causes cracks, and the current pressure heaped upon nations seen as global leaders today is the heaviest yet. Our “experiment” could not yet be called a success as our populace was not ready. Every side is ultimately concerned with getting what they are “owed”. Hurt emotions stemming from our past are still too difficult to overcome, and impatience with groups that have differing views has eroded the little trust we had built. We spiraled into a land of ambiguity and pain where our fear of real change and our lack of growth has caused us to slip decidedly into a land where Safety matters most.
Living in Safety shrinks one’s “bubble”, causes tunnel vision and allows us to stop caring about our neighbors because we see them as a threat instead of part of our community. Fear of change feeds upon itself and conceived dangers trickle into every aspect of our lives. To combat these feelings we enact more laws, strengthen police, and create new boundaries and divisions to help us gain control. When these boundaries do not hold tight we lash out in anger at our perceived loss of self-determination.
Laws can force us together, but they cannot remove our emotions. Emotions need to be reconciled to create a place of peace, and this reconciliation is easily derailed. Each time we recalibrate we have new emotions to reconcile and our fast pace world makes this difficult. Progress has brought diversity, which is great, but as we have blended our multiple cultures emotions become more complicated.
Groups must storm before they can norm and without assistance this work can be overwhelming and bring about distrust. New fears crop up as we are pitted against each other, all fighting for the same scraps that we are allowed. Fear of not losing all we have built has overtaken our desire for Belonging.
The safety zone is characterized by an overwhelming sense of desire to create a safe place for yourself and loved ones. Not just desire, but one of urgency and need. All of our emotions, brainpower, ideas, the entire way we see the world are consumed with this viewpoint. Maslow states, “A man, in this state, if it is extreme enough and chronic enough, may be characterized as living almost for safety alone.” (Maslow, 1943)
Many times we head back to the safety zone if we have been pushed out of our current comfort zone or are heading into a new environment. Today’s environment is new for everyone and some handle ambiguity better than others. Think of the acts of aggression we continuously experience through our screens. Many of these acts come from a place of fear of losing control. We see this with the parents that have turned into activists, yelling emotionally on the subjects of masks and vaccines. People who feel a lack of control, who may otherwise have things together, will lash out when their control is challenged.
Other times such actions can be characterized by a fear of losing face. This fear grabs hold of our minds and makes us believe that everything we once knew will now be considered wrong if we accept the new idea. For example, a lot of Americans, many of them White, are struggling to accept that America has a flawed and racist past.
Doing so, they believe, would mean everything they work for, everything they stand for, everything they know and find comfortable would then be tainted. It also means they have more work to do to explain this to their children, balancing their self esteem with the burden from one’s past. We ask a lot of parents today. Coupled with our trends for nixing nuance and context, we live in a world where something tainted is rarely redeemable. This causes a cycle that we cannot escape and pushes us further into our respective corners.
The mainstream has become flooded with our desires to stay safe, or find control. Safe spaces at universities, “segregated” graduations and most of our parenting trends have all sided with Safety over Belonging. Militarization of our police, doorbells with cameras, laws that uphold cultural or religious battles, cold case podcasts, and the overwhelming amount of crime shows, are all examples of our obsession with Safety. Investigations into the Catholic church, #metoo, Gymnastics, Facebook and others all center around the idea of keeping us and our children safe.
Painting a Picture of Reality
We live in a time where Safety and security is important because we have a fear of the future. Uncertainty causes us to see everything as a threat and it has now infused our society. This is not to say that threats are not real, and we do have a right and an healthy expectation to live in an environment with less harm. No one should have to live in fear for their life.
However, Safety is not a place to stay and in order to change we need to be aware of our tendencies. Moving into Safety starts a slippery slope, one that we can only consciously choose to be different. If we do nothing, Survival is on the way, and no one would choose that except those with a death wish or an immense amount of greed. If we take stock, realize where we are, and implement ways to bridge these divides we can shift towards a new sense of Belonging. My hope is that this group of essays and the teachings of the Essential Elements of Life will help us see that it is better to move towards each other than further apart.
Next week we will take a look at Survival. It’s just around the corner, but we can stave it off if we try. However beware, there are tradeoffs with everything and Belonging will not be easy. Join me again next week as we unravel the patterns that connect us all and find our path forward together.
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