Do you remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Yeah, that pyramid we learned about in 9th grade health class. It postulates that humans are motivated primarily by our physiological needs like oxygen, food, sleep. When those are met, we are motivated by more long-term issues like health and financial security. When those are met, we can work on relationships, and then up to the top of the pyramid, where “self-actualization” sits. This means that those born with all the privileges of first world culture skip a lot of those bottom steps and are afforded the luxury of pondering things like morality, poetry, and what it feels like to get a bikini wax.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer argues that it’s immoral to be wealthy; the logic being that going without Starbucks in the morning would cause you mild discomfort but sending the money you saved to Oxfam could provide several meals for a starving person. Because it would only be slightly inconvenient to you, but literally save the life of someone else, living below your financial means in order to aid the disadvantaged is a moral obligation.
When people criticize navel gazing I wonder if they’re working toward the same kind of argument, living below your contemplative means. There are kids in Africa without any time or physiological security with which to stare at their bellies in wonder. The fact that we have such a superabundance of time and security with which to document prosaic issues like existentialism, romantic rejection, and the authenticity of Lana Del Rey seems absurd. But how do we send our extra thoughts over to Oxfam for them to dole out to those in need?
This is where the disdain for navel gazing stops making sense. The self-absorbed pursuit of contemplating our lives is unavoidable. As a social generation it’s natural that we turn this consideration outward, documenting our experiences and asking for feedback from our peers. Navel gazing is our modern philosophy because it considers the questions that are important to us in an effort to gain wisdom — even if that wisdom is how to be a better date. Becoming contemplative ascetics, denying any creative inkling we have that doesn’t pertain to a “serious” issue doesn’t create a surplus for someone else.
If you want people to spend their energy curing cancer and occupying Wall Street that’s great, but the fact is that the people who are going to think deeply about new ways to use science or the inequality that exists in the infrastructure of our economic system are the type of people who are going to think deeply about everything. Mental exercise is like physical exercise. Even if your only goal is to have huge arms, you still need to work out other parts of your body. The process of doing something less familiar to you can help keep you motivated and break through a plateau, adding to your overall goal even though at first it was only tangentially related. Luckily, as far as I know the internet is infinite and there’s room for as many conversations as we wish to have.