In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic book, “The Little Prince,” a pilot whose aircraft is forced down in the Sahara meets a little prince from another planet who seeks the secret of what is important in life.
At one point, the prince meets a fox who promises the gift of that secret and reveals it when it is time to say goodbye. “It’s quite simple,” the fox says. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eyes.”
In life, the essentials—which can be clasped not by the eyes but by the heart—are those that make life meaningful or significant.
When we were small children, what filled our fancy were all the kiddie stuff: nourishment, the attention of those around us, and fun. From grade school to college, we dreamed of being more successful than our peers—in terms of work, fame, wealth. Then when we were beginning to tilt at the windmills of a career, we learned the tricks of “I-use-you” and “You-use-me” to climb the corporate ladder. And finally, when we were starting a family, we aimed for security, stability and lasting success.
Related: In the moment: ‘mon petit jardin’
5 basic needs
The psychologist Abraham Maslow cited five basic needs for a fulfilling life. These are, from the bottom upwards, physiological (food, clothing, shelter, and sex), safety (job security), love and belonging (friendship), esteem, and self-actualization.
However, scholars recently unearthed a sixth need: “self-transcendence.” Though Maslow didn’t mention this in public before his death, he actually described self-transcendence as the attainment of intrinsic values like truth, goodness, perfection, excellence, fairness, etc. One’s full potential is not realized through self-actualization alone; one must go above it and attain intrinsic values through self-transcendence.
Clearly, therefore, it’s the “essentials” that make our life matter. The ultimate values of goodness or fairness, love, truth, and life purpose are the essentials of life because they make life worth living. These essentials are considered transcendental because they go beyond or surpass Maslow’s physiological, security, social and self-esteem needs.
These essentials are not just physical but also metaphysical realities, if not spiritual in nature. And, as the fox reveals to the little prince, these essentials are not visible to the eyes but are felt by the heart, where true happiness resides.
What about at life’s end? What are the essentials that should matter most?
As it has often been said, “At the end of life, what really matters most is not what we bought but what we built; not what we got, but what we shared; not our competence but our character; not our success, but our significance; not how much we have acquired or achieved, but how much we have loved.”