Me And Maslow's Pyramid of Human Needs Down By The Schoolyard
I've been contemplating Abraham Maslow's Pyramid of Human Needs a lot lately. He actually called it "the hierarchy of needs," but I like the words Pyramid and Human more; better branding. In any event, it's a really handy idea to have in your toolbox, one of those semi-obvious insights into human nature that's easy to miss, or forget, but never gets old.
Basically, you start at the bottom with your fundamental Physiological needs, starting with the need to breathe, because if you can't breathe or eat or perform certain biological functions, those things more or less take over your existence. That's the bottom line, and most of us first-worlders have it covered, thank goodness. Direct manipulation through the withholding of food and water is rare in our lives.
After that you climb up to the level of Safety. If you don't have a sense of security about yourself and the things you consider yours, be they material, familial, or whatever -- if you're afraid -- you're stuck with that, and you really can't go much further as a human being. Safety is a psychological concept of course (real security is impossible; you can't control rocks in space that might fall on your head or wipe out your species) but it's important for this concept to make its way into your mind, however that happens for you.
For most of us, being in debt, especially "bad debt," can stick us at this level. Sickness definitely pegs us here. Also, this is arguably the level on which a lot of politics operates; overt fear-mongering, appeals to anxieties about "them," the specter of ruin, apocalypse, etc. Unfortunately, when an appeal to this psychological level works, it's very potent.
Assuming you're able to rise above the chains of fear, uncertainty and doubt, you reach the level of Social needs, summarized as:
- Friendship and belonging
- Sexual intimacy
- A supportive and communicative family
This is where most people, myself included, consistently run into problems. This is where a lot of human drama plays out, where you were most likely agonizingly stuck during adolescence. This is High School.
Now, it's not like you need to check off those bullet points to have your Social needs met -- hey! two out of three ain't bad! -- they're just good succinct illustrations of what this level is all about. If you ain't got love in your life, from your friends, from your family, from a lover, you ain't got nothin'.
When you have your basic need to Belong and Love taken care of, you get into the real tricky shit: Esteem. Maslow made the novel observation that humans, being social creatures, need recognition and respect, and maybe most of all self-respect, in order to be fulfilled and truly happy. This is something that is often taken for granted rather than really fully considered.
I really like what's written in Wikipedia on this section so I'll just quote it:
There are two levels to Esteem needs. The lower of the levels relates to elements like fame, respect, and glory. The higher level is contingent to concepts like confidence, competence, and achievement. The lower level is generally considered less advanced and more external; it is dependent upon other people. Someone in this level needs to be reassured because of lower esteem. People with low esteem need respect from others. They may seek fame or glory, which again are dependent on others. However confidence, competence and achievement only need one person and everyone else is inconsequential to one's own success. It may be noted, however, that many people with low self-esteem will not be able to improve their view of themselves simply by receiving fame, respect, and glory externally, but must first accept themselves internally.
This is where I feel most stuck at the moment, even moreso than on sex, even going on (tick tick tick) seven months without. I do miss sex, and sometimes I worry that my lack of urgency or activity in that realm is symptomatic of a wider wilting of the spirit, but the stuff that keeps me up at night is all about Achievement, work, self-worth, etc. We'll get back to this.
Now, Maslow thought all these levels that we've passed through were basic, reductive, and could more or less only drag you down in the lack and want. Your task as a human being is to cover all these bases, overcome the multiplicity of issues inherent, slay your dragons and face your demons and take the final step to the top of the pyramid: Self-Actualization.
Self-Actualization is the level of human need that never ends. It is a growing, living, evolving thing, essentially the man's answer to "what's the point of life?" It is creativity, spiritual transcendence, true community service, grace and goodness. Basically, you live in order to be:
Maslow was popular in the 60's, as you might guess -- he also coined the term "peak experience," which fits right in there -- and like I said all this stuff is pretty damn obvious, but then again so is most religion or self-help. Don't tell lies. Help a brother out. Be in love with yr life. I really do believe that this is what the worth of human existence boils down to.
The theory says that people who reach this level are often involved in solving problems in one way or another, often the problems of others, helping other people make their way up the pyramid. They have an internalized sense of morality, and having risen above the basic levels of need they find their joy and ecstasy in living out their principles.
Sounds good, don't it? That's the life.
Oh Geez! Look At My Navel!
Since this is my autobioblog, I'm going to go stare at my belly-button and delve into what all this means to me and my life.
I've more or less got the first two layers licked. I can survive, and there's not much I really fear outside the normal existential shit. I have foundation level of confidence in my ability to live through whatever happens, and paranoia doesn't get me; my person is secure.
At the third level, when I said "two out of three ain't bad," I was fudging a bit. I have a lot of good friends, true, and most of my family is fantastic, but there are needs here beyond romance that tug at me. My estrangement from my Father fits in here. He seems to think that communication is impossible, and while I try to take a light and long view of this -- if I can manage to make babies before he dies, chances are he'll come around -- it's a weight I carry.
The romance thing is also an issue, and for better or for worse women are, among other things, a signal to me. Messengers of fate; signs from the universe. Things aren't bad in this realm, just slow. There is a sense of incompleteness. Something is supposed to happen here, and until it does I'll be waiting. I don't like waiting.
There's also the long-running problem of finding a wider tribe beyond my little intentional community of friends and family, a broader cultural identity or whatever. I have a lot of facets to my life and I deal with a lot of different kind of people, but I don't really feel like I belong with any of them. I don't know that this will ever be resolved, and I don't think it really has to, but it's something that holds me back.
But perhaps really what I'm feeling there (and in other places) are my big challenges with the Esteem level. I like being ambitious, but I also recognize there are some jittery undercurrents to my drive for glory. I have serious problems with satisfaction. As Billionaire Tyrant Rupert Murdoch is portrayed as saying on The Simpsons, "It's never enough!"
At this point my thinking starts to get a little loopy, or maybe spiraling. I start to think about scale, about how wide I set my focus. To be totally honest I'll never be satisfied, because I look at the world and there's just too much work to be done. There's too much wrong to right. In my better moments when I rise above my loneliness and insecurity, start thinking with my whole brain and breathing with both lungs, nothing seems more important than getting more of my fellow monkeys up the Pyramid.
Shit's fucked up out there, and the planet is too big for anyone to carry. I realize that I can't literally save the world, but as soon as I start shrinking my scope -- you're just one man, scale it down a bit -- the whole business becomes very unsatisfactory.
For instance, politics are very boring and depressing at the moment. There are no movements I believe in, save the broad awakening to humanity thanks to greatly enhanced global communication. There are a million causes worth fighting for, but no plans or organizations or leaders to line up behind that I find credible.
In response to this, my attitude becomes more self-centered. If I can't save the world, I want to save myself, and my friends. But I don't really believe the end of the world is coming, just a bunch of shitty shit shit and the royal screwjob (war, famine, pestilence and death) for a lot of poor folks I'll probably never meet or even see on TV. The Red Dawn isn't something I can really devote my life to, because as much as I like going up on a mountain and shooting guns, I don't think the odds that my survival will depend on such things are very high. It's nice to be ready, but I'm not going to retreat into the compound any time soon.
So then, what does "saving myself and my friends" mean? By default it seems to mean the acquisition of material and capital things. "You ain't no kind of man until you own some land," and all that jazz. But things are boring, and while I do enjoy being out of debt and can't pretend I don't covet shiny baubles, I distrust this covetousness. I hate it. Piling up numbers in some account literally does not get me out of bed in the morning, and the suit that grows around you, the slow and half-conscious slide into a bourgeois endgame, this stuff gives me nightmares.
Caught in this crux, doubt creeps into my heart. I feel I'm wasting my energy, my youth, my potential. Time is slipping away, and it's almost a moral wrong: all that evil needs to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
Which of course knocks me right back down into the muck, dealing with my own reductive needs and vainglorious desires until I manage to climb back up and take another run at the summit. Lather rinse repeat.
Wither From Here?
People have told me often enough that I think too much. It's probably true. If I didn't run myself around like this, I'd probably be a happier and more productive member of society, but this is who I am, and I don't fancy a lobotomy. I much prefer to talk and write my way all the way through, sometimes in public!
Stepping back, I wrote:
Basically, you live in order to be:
Those are good things to work on, and with them in mind when I let all my pretenses (defenses) drop, I feel something real. I feel the love I want to share. I feel the future I want to build. I feel the hope I want to give, the joy I want to bring, the adventures I want to have.
This is good. It feels a little scary, which is often a sign of truth. There's an awful lot of life wound up inside me, so much that I get nervous about letting it out.
jengaSun, 2007-07-15 23:46 — Joe Felice
Beautiful read, Josh. Do you have any opinion about what it means to be top-heavy? For instance, religious devotees (of any tradition) who reach a high level of actualization, with very little social interaction. Or terminally ill people (atheists, for simplicity) who begin functioning on a higher, peaceful plane despite being...fated.
My guessMon, 2007-07-16 12:41 — Outlandish Josh
As I grok it, the concept isn't so much about balance as it is ascent. The state of self-actualization is a broad and expansive one, and includes all the range of life's experiences. Life long learning. It's also not supposed to be very egocentric. Like, once you are there you're not "working on it" anymore, you're just being. Maslow believed that people who reach this stage will be creative and engage the world around them, because that's what's left to do.
I know he had a thing about monks and stuff, but I haven't read it. But I also know that the quest for spiritual satisfaction functions at all levels, and the state of self-actualization is something that would probably come afterward, when whatever needs which were woven into yr vision quest have been fulfilled.
As for the case of a terminally ill person who finds herself rising above things that previously limited her -- lower-teir needs -- when she realizes that life is short, well that makes sense to me. All these needs are totally psychological, or at least we experience them psychologically, even at the lowest level. So nothing needs to change outside in your life in order for you to rise above something, in theory. So if impending death causes you to release your fears because, hey, there's no point, that would seem natural.
upside down frownMon, 2007-07-16 00:03 — Joe Felice
Somebody stole his colors...
I'm with youFri, 2008-11-28 03:48 — Justin Duval
It's a little scary how similar your writing is to my own. I have the thoughts that don't shut off. I've got my own website where I'm writing about basically the same things, and I even came across your website searching for maslow's pyramid to write about it in my own journal.
My advice to you if your goal is to get a bunch of your monkey friends to the top of the pyramid is to reach the top yourself first.. then be that beacon of light, hope, and strength other people need to follow you.
Where we differ?
I think I'm more selfish than you, and I'd be fine with not necessarily living in a mansion wearing a suite for the rest of my life, but sporting a suite for a few years so I can live cheaply w/o working... be around friends, streaming music and movies. Though maybe I'll achieve that through helping a few people on the way..
I think you get confidence from knowing exactly what you want, and constantly progressing towards getting it. (Because you feel more ABLE/confident in your abilities.)
Best of luck Josh, I've felt the exact same frustration with life itself. check out my site Darkgrin.com I need to put back up a comment section like yours.
Im at the bottom againMon, 2009-04-27 22:29 — Rich
Like everyone, I started at the bottom as a child.
Then, I began to have my needs met as I grew older.
I was actually working on the the top level, self-actualization.
Than I was FALSELY ARRESTED , June 17th, 2001 on Fathers Day.
My father died the year earlier. I was 49 years old.
I lost a 28 year career, my financial security, my friends, my esteem, my feeling of belonging, a wonderful girl, I didnt trust the police, so I didnt feel safe.
My house is in foreclosure. I have just enough money to stay off the street.
No one cares about me. ( In other words, I could die in the house tonight and no one would find me for weeks until I began to decay. The smell would be so bad, and maybe someone would find my body. No one would miss me. I just finnished watching the A&E show, "Intervention". Even the subjects of the intervention had someone who cared about them!.
Guess I'll have to start all over again. Except Im a lot older now.
Hope this doesnt happen to anyone reading this.
You're Not The Only OneWed, 2009-04-29 14:17 — Jennifer
You're not the only in this boat. With this terrible economy the way it is a lot of people have lost everything - belongings, family and friends.
My husband and I had a falling out a few years ago and were separated a few years ago for several months. Though I did not know it at the time his life was falling apart. He had lost his job and savings and was living out of his car. He was basically homeless but did tell anyone about it. When I found out about what was going on with him I felt so bad that I had rejected him and took him back him. He got himself back together and is now working and successful again and we couldn't be happier.
I wish you the best, all you need are some good friends, time and a lucky break and this will pass.