One of my most memorable moments as a doctoral student in the 1960s occurred during a seminar in an advanced course on counseling psychology, taught by the most prestigious professor at the university. I, along with 11 others, studied the research and conclusions on self-actualization, including the specific characteristics of highly functioning people. These exceptional people, some of them historical figures, were called self-actualizers. The purpose of this advanced seminar was to teach us how to identify these traits and to help others embrace them to live fuller and more deeply passionate lives.
The traits of these self-actualizers included appreciation for beauty, sense of purpose, resistance to enculturation, welcoming the unknown, high enthusiasm, inner-directedness, detachment from outcome, independence of the good opinion of others, and absence of a compelling need to exert control over others. Each week we discussed the strategies we could employ as therapists to encourage clients to become self-actualized. At the halfway point of the semester, our distinguished professor gave the midterm examination, which consisted of only the following question:
“A self-actualized person arrives at a dinner party at which everyone is dressed in formal attire. He is wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers, and a baseball cap. What does he do? You have thirty minutes to write your answer.”
All twelve of us wrote furiously for the next half-hour, and then we were each asked to read our responses aloud. Some of the responses I remember were: He wouldn’t pay attention to those appearances; he wouldn’t leave or make excuses; he would just act as if nothing were amiss; he would just go on and enjoy the gathering and not worry about how others perceived him. I remember feeling particularly proud of my answer, which dealt with his feeling of purpose and a higher mission.
When all of us had finished reading our answers, our profession said, “I’m sorry, you have all failed the midterm exam. You only needed to write three words. And he proceeded to put the three words on the chalkboard. “He wouldn’t notice.”
The highest level of awareness is one in which the self-actualized person does not notice appearances and sees only the unfolding of God in each person encountered.