Living on Autopilot

Human personalities are incredibly complex. I know that because I have one, myself. And for some purposes, I think we should lean into and fully appreciate the complexity. But there are other purposes—I am going to explore one today—for which some simplification may be helpful.

Abraham Maslow’s famous and widely misunderstood hierarchy of values will serve as an example. He argued that humans have a drive toward what he called “self-actualization” A few other things need to be taken care of first—survival, safety, and community, for example—but as each “need” is met, our attention and our efforts move toward the “next” level of values. [1]

I have something simpler in mind. I have in mind a three part division and I start in the middle with something that could be characterized as “autopilot.” This is the level of functioning—cognitive, conative, affective, and behavioral—that I expect of myself on a day to day basis. [2] There is a plus version, in which I intend and enact “better things.” Notice how much complexity is wiped out there. There is also a minus version, in which I either intend and enact worse things, or simply neglect to intend or to enact at all.

So instead of Maslow’s five levels, I have three. Instead of Maslow’s drive toward self-actualization, I have “doing better” and “doing worse.” Maslow’s scheme is rich and sophisticated and, apart from the problem that his levels are notoriously hard to measure, better for researchers. My scheme is embarrassingly simple, but I will argue, on its behalf, that it is easier to use. I think I have been using it for years, but just today, I thought of names to call it.

In the early 2000s my wife died. We had been friends for a quarter of a century or so and married to each other nearly all that time. Her death devastated me. I withdrew from all the parts of life I could withdraw from and participated minimally in the others. In that deeply deprived state, I learned some interesting things. I learned, for instance, that some things gave me a little boost and helped me move on into the next hour. I didn’t intuit those things; I discovered them. “Hey,” I would say to myself, “That helped.”

Oddly, one of the things I discovered is that buying things helped. It didn’t matter much what it was, although whimsical purchases were better, and it didn’t matter how much they cost. I concluded eventually—no way to tell if I was right about this, but it doesn’t really matter—that making a purchase implied that I would still be there to use it at some time in the future. I would still be here when the TV dinner needed to be eaten or the new chair needed to be sat in or the new CD needed to listened to.

That is when I began to think about the boundary between autopilot and “better than autopilot.” I’m still thinking about that boundary although the depression based on grieving the loss of my wife dissipated [3] and I got on with the business of living.

What is my better self like?

To keep this from getting entirely out of hand, let me treat the “better self” with the metaphor of carrying capacity. This metaphor neglects entirely the fact that some days I really want to do better things, not just carry heavier burdens. It also neglects the fact that on those good days, I am more sensitive to just what is there to do. But, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to deal with Autopilot in terms of carrying capacity. This is what that looks like

Carrying capacity is the simplest kind of notion. Imagine that I am a lifeboat after a cruise ship has sunk. As the boat I am (autopilot) I can take on nine people before we all sink and die. But I am more buoyant in the plus version of myself and I can take on eighteen people without sinking. And I should.

I live in a senior center with, in round numbers, a couple hundred other people like me. We live in our own apartments and come and go as we please. We have the problems people have from time to time and that older people have more of. I can walk into a common area, say a lounge where people are loosely organized around a coffee pot, and tell a lot of things at a glance. I can tell who is hungry for conversation or, maybe, just for recognition. I can tell who is still pissed off from our last discussion. I can tell who wants to ask me to be on a committee or to tell me she was unhappy about the last meeting of the Resident’s Association.

On a buoyant day, I can take on all eighteen. On an Autopilot day, nine. On a minus day, I just keep moving and try not to make eye contact. The water is lapping at the gunwhales as it is.

As a scheme, it’s a lot simpler than Maslow’s, but it also doesn’t carry the ideological baggage of the Maslovian version and I can use it every day. I do like that.

[1] Jim Davies, my grad school mentor, was a Maslovian and he loved words. He used to say that the need for belonging and then the need to be differentiated from the group to which one belongs, could be expressed as the need to be a part; then the need to be apart.
[2] Three of those four terms are familiar. “Conative,” which refers to will and intention, is not often used. The others mean: how I think, how I feel, and what I am most likely to do.
[3] Grief at that level is never really “gone.” There are little triggers that I accumulated during all that time and every now and then something pulls one of them and I remember briefly what it used to feel like all the time.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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