Reflections on Motivation and Meaning

This essay comes from my attempt to understand the stress I sometimes feel when I am with family. How does the individual come to know himself and what he truly wants?

My idea is that each individual, in his early, formative years, develops a deep, central set of desires for his life. This “core of needs” is the foundation on which the individual builds his self-image (inward projection of self) and personality (outward projection of self), and is the source of his motivation, explaining his behaviour.

I try to use this concept to tie together the ideas of several writers that I have encountered over the last few years, and conclude with the thought that frustrations and stress from interactions come from a lack of understanding of one’s own central desires. Emotions are connections to the “core of needs”, which can be masked by one’s self-image, if it has not been restructured through an adolescent rebellion. Since early development occurs within the family, the self-image has deep roots tied to family interactions, with the potential for more acute emotional reaction and stronger access to one’s “core of needs” in comparison to many other interactions.

Ruiz’s “life-force”

Author Don Miguel Ruiz writes about the childhood roots of adult psychology in his books The Voice of Knowledge and The Four Agreements. For Ruiz, all children are born as free inquirers, but are necessarily “domesticated” by their subjection to the authority of their parents and other adults. This domestication process teaches the growing human to make sense of the world from the point of view of a child – of a dominated person. In this way, the individual forms beliefs and internal and external behaviours that she uses to survive in a society of adults and other children. A natural and needed step in becoming an adult is an adolescent rebellion against these childhood psychological constructs, in the form of a “spirit quest” in which the adolescent breaks away from the childhood domestication and becomes an independent-thinking adult.

Ruiz’s concept is echoed by Paulo Freire’s insistence that a child who does not discover authentic rebellion at some point in her growth will be lost and never liberate herself. Our society, through the education system, is highly geared to stymy and cap off the development of this needed rebellion. In the most severe cases, the child identity is prolonged until after the peak reproductive stages and “frozen in” with the completion of professional training. The name that the adult-child never chose for herself becomes firmly anchored behind a title such as “Dr.” There is thus an arrested development of the child-adult transition, where the “spirit quest” is delayed until middle age, when it has lost its vitality, honesty, and authenticity, and gets expressed as pathetic frivolity; for at that late stage there is too much to lose in undertaking an authentic rebellion.

Ruiz’s key message is that one’s domestication, if not broken through a “spirit quest” rebellion, masks and hides one’s “spirit”, or “life-force”, as he calls it. In place of a knowledge of her deep desires and needs, the individual has an elaborate personal system of lies and rationalizations that are constantly played and replayed in her internal monologue and expressed in her behaviour. The gateway to a deeper understanding of the self is through the emotions, which provide the individual with valuable and fundamental information about herself.

Drama and critical life moments

In an essay about the writing of fiction, Paul Goodman explained that the writer’s task is “not to show the man in the scene, but to show the man fulfilled, destroyed, or chastened in the scene”. Drama is about life-changing events; epiphany. Writers of drama learn to know their characters, and understand “what the character wants”; it was Tolstoy’s deep understanding of the central desires of his characters that made him a master. Drama has an essential place in human history because of its relation to the individual’s struggle to break out of his domestication and become more fully human. Each true dramatic episode, in which the character, driven by his defining desires, acts in the creation of his life and is fulfilled, destroyed, or chastened, tugs at critical moments in the observer’s own life, incites emotions that break through, momentarily, the hard shell of his domesticated psychology, and provide connection with his own fundamental, hidden desires and needs.

The “Core of Needs”

At a very early stage, the individual forms a “core of needs” or foundational desires that remain with her for her entire life. On this hidden “core”, which corresponds to Ruiz’s “life-force” or “spirit”, the individual constructs her self-image and personality. Depending on the actual events occurring in the individual’s life, her self-image and personality may poorly serve her “core of needs”. In this case, an existential crisis results, in which the self-image (and aspects of the personality) must be reconstructed to better serve the pursuit of the foundational needs. The individual’s motivation and sense of meaning in life have their source in the pursuit of her “core of needs”. All of the individual’s behaviour is thus guided directly or indirectly by these hidden needs, mediated (effectively or ineffectively) by the built-up self-image that enables the individual to interact with the world.

In interactions with other people, the individual will experience various emotions, all resounding from the submerged “core of needs” formed in early childhood. To the extent that the individual has not undergone a “spirit quest” rebellion and restructuring of his “domesticated” self-image from childhood, she may experience internal conflict (emotions). This conflict may be particularly acute in interactions with family, since it is the source of the individual’s early “domestication”; at the same time, the emotions representing the conflict provide a strong connection to the “core of needs” and an opportunity to understand it more fully.

Joseph Hickey is Executive Director of the Ontario Civil Liberties Association (OCLA). He is also completing his PhD in Physics. Read other articles by Joseph.