By Bob Barzan

In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Abraham Maslow was watching a parade of citizens marching to patriotic tunes. Deeply moved, he resolved at that moment to explore a “psychology of the peace table”, to discover the best and loftiest ideals and possibilities of the human species. It was clear to him that to learn about the complete and authentic individual he had to study men and women that were remarkably healthy. He offered this analogy for what he was to do.

“If we want to know how fast human beings can run, we don’t study a runner with a broken ankle or a mediocre runner. Instead, we study the Olympic gold medal winner, the best there is. Only in that way can we find out how fast human beings can run. Similarly, only by studying the healthiest personalities can we find out how far we can stretch and develop our capacities.”

This new perspective, a focus on health and thriving, and the best that we are rather than the common focus on illness and surviving, gave birth to a new school of psychology that came to be known as “humanistic”. This perspective, in turn, became popular through the human potential movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Psychotheorists gave different names to this healthy life. Maslow called it the actualized life, Karl Jung, the individuated life, and Carl Rogers the fully functioning life, but what they described are individuals with very similar characteristics.

Healthy individuals are men and women who are, first of all, authentic. They do not try to live lives denying who they are in order to please society or others, but rather they live lives that are true or faithful to their inner callings. And here a distinction was made between a person’s true inner self and a superficial self. Second, these people excel, or strive to excel in the virtues that make it possible for us to live together harmoniously; love, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, joy, courage, patience, truth, peace, tolerance, generosity, and other similar virtues. The presence of these two characteristics, authenticity and what I call healthy spiritual virtues became for me indicators of what it means to be a healthy man or woman and they became the bases for my definition of spirituality.

For more than twenty years I’ve been aware that most people make at least one false assumption in the area of spirituality. Most people assume that all things having to do with spirituality, and they usually mean religion, are good and beyond judgment or evaluation. As I reflected on my own life, on my own coming out as a gay man, and on my experience of eleven years as a Jesuit, it became clear to me that spirituality and religion are not the same; rather religion is just one of many spiritual paths. More importantly I saw that some spiritual paths, including many religions, are not helping people live actualized, fully functioning, in other words healthy, lives, but making them sick or unhealthy. Instead of helping them live authentic lives characterized by healthy spiritual virtues, some spiritual paths encourage hate, greed, revenge, intolerance, and all the characteristics that make it impossible for people to live together in peace.

Like many gay men, I had tried to live in a society that made me suppress my own sexuality, my own identity. It was a society that deceived me, and told me that being gay is bad, unnatural, a sin. It was a society that encouraged me to be alienated from my self, and so was in violation of the first principle of healthy living, authenticity. Right from the beginning I was living a lie, truth had been sacrificed for some other priority, and I was expected to build a healthy spirituality on this false foundation. I realized that a spiritual path that had me denying the truth, especially about myself, may bring me all sorts of “benefits” like acceptance, security, position, and power, but it wasn’t life giving, it was making me sick.

Several years ago a wonderful story circulated in San Francisco about the opening of a new Zen center. A distinguished straight Zen master addressed the assembly of mostly gay Zen practitioners. Everyone expected he would give a typical dedication address, saying nothing of consequence. He astounded everyone, however, by proclaiming that unless you are out of the closet you are not practicing Zen. These are amazing, insightful, and rare words from a religious leader. But in these words he confirms what Maslow and others discovered years ago; the importance of authenticity for a healthy life. A healthy spirituality then is really about two major concerns; authenticity and the development of life giving spiritual virtues. An unhealthy spirituality is the opposite.

There is a tendency in our society to compartmentalize our lives so that spirituality has little or nothing to do with how we live day-to-day. Spirituality, however, is not something we do only when we are meditating, analyzing our dreams, or worshiping on any given day. Our spirituality is our whole way of life and that includes our sexuality, our play, how we make our money, how we spend our money, how we use our time, drive a car, make decisions, and how we treat people every day. Everything that is part of our life is part of our spirituality whether we are conscious of it or not. And everything we do can either help us live more authentically, help us develop healthy spiritual virtues, or it can do the opposite.

Over the years I have learned to discern when I am on or off a healthy spiritual track by watching the results of my decisions, my attitudes, and way of living. A healthy spiritual life manifests itself differently in every individual, but in general you can recognize it because you will see an increase in love, compassion, generosity, kindness, courage, patience, and an ability to live harmoniously with other people and all of nature.

Bob Barzan lives in Modesto, California where he created the Modesto Museum of Art.