Being Comfortable & Self-sufficiency

Dogs show themselves to be comfortable. My dog lies on his back under the air conditioner, the breeze going through his whiskers and onto the hairless part of his undercarriage. He has just been walked and so has relieved himself and he has been fed. His social nature is also satisfied in that I am present in the room with him while he stares out into space doing nothing but being comfortable. He exudes his comfort even though he doesn’t know he is comfortable, is not self-aware of his comfort. Maybe the dog is close to Nirvana, though I am not big on thinking it is better to be unconscious rather than conscious of one’s state. People, for their part, know when they are comfortable and knowing so is itself a pleasure and a satisfaction. I am ever more conscious of this self sufficiency as I get older even though I don’t think there ever was a time for me or for anyone else when we did not both sense and know when we were comfortable. I wake up in the middle of the night, aware of the silence, of the fact that I am breathing comfortably, that my bowels are untroubled, that the temperature is just about right, and that my thoughts can wander whichever way they care to. It is like when my wife slept next to me before she died though not as good as that, my listening to her unlabored breathing and touching her warm skin though not with so much pressure as to wake her.

This phenomenological sense and idea of self-sufficiency can be extended into being a social theory, and that is what I want to dwell on now. A theory of self-sufficiency is very different from any number of theories of human needs, the most well known of which were forwarded a half century ago. Human needs, as Abraham Maslow conceived them, were cravings that people had that could be more or less satisfied and there was a hierarchy of these needs, some of which had to be fulfilled, more or less, before one could go on to the next one.  Physiological needs had to be fulfilled preceding the need for safety, and after than came love and belonging, and then esteem and then, finally, self-actualization, which was a fancy way of saying one had the free will to choose one’s own direction. I never could understand the sequence or the degree to which each stage had to be fulfilled to go on to the next. Couldn’t cripples and people with cancer still be self-actualized? And why was love and belonging prior to esteem, either logically or actually? That was the opposite of the also cliched understanding that people had to esteem themselves before they could love another.

Another practitioner of the human needs approach was Erik Erikson, who articulated better than Maslow did how basic trust underlay everything else, and that eventually people came to be mature enough to be productive members of society and, after that, to accept that they were no longer important actors on the scene, reflecting on what they had accomplished with their lives. It was never very clear in Erikson any more than in Maslow how much was enough to satisfy a need nor why the ordering of needs was anything else than the sequence of stages that people inevitably go through, resignation naturally enough coming after an earlier burst of creativity. Both Maslow and Erikson were trying to dress up moral philosophy as science by observing their case studies going through the processes of their lives and giving labels to stages that were less illuminating than Shakespeare’s portrayal of the seven ages of man that ends with

“Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Self-sufficiency, for its part, has the advantage of being a condition that is either experienced or not. One can be more or less comfortable, but to be really comfortable is clear enough to everyone involved with that person. It does not define a precondition of comfort but is in the event itself.

A good source for a sufficiency theory is one that is surprising only because we do not regard its author as very theoretical, his speeches and statements, unlike those of Jefferson and Lincoln, having been merely rhetorical. This is the doctrine of the Four Freedoms that Franklin Roosevelt introduced in his 1941 State of the Union Address, the world already embarked on the Second World War, and Roosevelt, elected just a few months before to his third term, no longer very reticent about his hatred for the Nazis and which side he wanted to win the war. To the contrary, he was pointing to the freedoms to be guaranteed to all people all around the world when the war was over. These freedoms, the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship and the freedom from want and from fear, might seem a hodge podge of appealing tags, but have a certain logic to them, even if two of them (speech and worship) are positive and two (want and fear) are negative in that the first two are to be furthered and the second two to be abolished. They are, in fact, very general. Speech is the foundation freedom on which all political freedom is based, as the Founding Fathers well understood. Freedom of worship can be taken as the archetype of the independence of all cultural institutions from governmental interference. Freedom from want refers to everyone’s economic condition, and half a century later might be said to include health care and an education. Notice that FDR is not saying that income has to be equitably distributed, only that people have to have a sufficiently high standard of living so that they no longer have to worry about being deprived. There is such a thing as a sufficiency of material things so that one can be comfortable even if not surrounded by luxuries. And freedom from fear for Roosevelt meant to be unthreatened by foreign armies, not to be immune to the blandishments of ideology. Sufficiency is not to be confused with a utopian society or the lack of it with the distortions of the soul available in modern society. Freedom is a qualitative thing. It refers to when there is enough of something, not when it is bountiful or easy. Human rights, for example, are either there, unalienable, or not, and so they are examples of freedom.

One can push the point and say that sufficiency theory is the characteristic theory of the modern world. Hobbes thought sufficient security made possible other freedoms, like the forging of contracts. You know there is sufficient security when you can indeed depend on contracts to be enforced. You are not terrified into thinking you need to triple lock your door or allow the cops to run amok. Enough security is security. That is how the modern rationalist approaches social issues. It is a discrete matter whether people have enough to eat or whether they are getting their insulin or have an opportunity at an education, education itself too nebulous a thing to be guaranteed. But without going that far in identifying modern thought with sufficiency theory, it is easy enough to see how an idea of sufficiency ties together the world of my dog and my own world.