Sunday, December 30, 2012

What A Man Must Be

"What a man can be, he must be." - Abraham Maslow

Whenever I taught Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, I also taught my students about Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, his theory of developmental psychology which posits that the final stage of development, self-actualization (the realization of our full potential), can be achieved only after all of our other needs have been met. It is a process that Shelley's amazingly articulate and introspective creature undertakes.

Those who control our broken world, I suspect, have a vested interest in inhibiting the achievement of self-actualization. By keeping wages low, cultivating resentments that keep us sniping at each other (eg. anti-unionism), and empowering oligarchical governments that ensure daily life is a struggle for so many, corporations, in their pursuit of profits at any price, leave a debris field of social, economic and environmental problems in their wake for others to worry about.

It is easy to become discouraged and cynical in such an environment, easy to forget that there is another dimension entirely to our existences, a dimension where the primacy of the self gives way to concern for the other. This broken world abounds with such examples, and every so often we need to be reminded of that fact.

That is why I was pleased to read a story in yesterday's Star by Catherine Porter about actor Sean Penn's ongoing direct and very personal involvement in the rebuilding efforts still underway in Haiti almost three years after its devastating earthquake.

A man who 'has it all' by Hollywood standards, Penn seems to have abandoned that comfortable life to work virtually full-time to help the island nation through the Jenkins/Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) which he formed with funding from Californian philanthropist Diana Jenkins. Hard-headed, pragmatic, and clearly not afraid of hard physical work, Penn understands that the rebuilding process will take many years, and uses a project-based approach to ensure tangible results, including

... two community health clinics, a bakery and, Penn’s favourite, a community centre. “Any day, you can see 50 kids taking judo classes and dance classes while adults are taking computer classes. It’s community, volunteer driven. We staff two supervisors,” he says. “I’d like to see it used as a model.”

And what does Penn get out of all of this? As he explained to Catherine Porter,

“The hardship that’s here allows an individual to feel alive with a clearer lens and more honest perspective” ... “You feel your life while you are living it.”

Has Sean Penn achieved self-actualization? I don't know. But without doubt, he has found real meaning in his life. May we all be so fortunate.


  1. Great Post.
    Besides men many well-off women do similar work. Angelina Jolie and Melinda Gates comes to mind and many others.

  2. Very true, LeDaro. Indeed, I read a story today in which Warren Buffet, being interviewed by Melinda Gates, says that the efforts of women will ultimately be the salvation of the United States. There really are giants and giantesses who walk among us.

  3. Almost thirty-five years ago, Lorne, my wife and I spent a week in Porte-au-Prince, not to vacation, but to see the poorest country in the Western hemisphere first hand.

    My wife had worked in Africa, so what we saw was not new to her. But it was to me. And it changed my outlook forever.

    1. I would love to hear about the impact it had on you, Owen. Perhaps one of these days you will write a blog post about it?