they took you from you mother’s womb and put you in a school
told you how to run your life by following the rules
told you not to pick your nose or disrespect the queen
scrub your teeth three times a day keep your mind and body clean
save all your pocket money nothing is for free
and you’d better trust your parents cos there’s no one else you see
and when they send you off each day remember what your told
“you may think you don’t need teaching but you’ll need it when your old”
and if your too intelligent they’ll cut you down to size
they’ll praise you til you’re happy then they’ll fill you full of lies
cos intelligence is threatening and genius is a sin
if you could ever see through them they know they’d never win
so they channel your ability into the right direction
if you’re good enough and rich enough you can be a politician
Subhumans, The Cradle to The Grave
Water, Food, Shelter (including clothing). These are the three absolute needs we have, as humans, generally in that order.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs expands this to: Physiological Needs (those above), Safety Needs (physical, financial and familial security), Social Needs (eros, and philia), Status Needs (community and personal esteem), Self-Actualization (“Self Actualization is the intrinsic growth of what is already in the organism, or more accurately, of what the organism is. “(Maslow, Psychological Review, 1949) ) and Self-Transcendence (spirituality).
So what, you ask. Over the past few weeks, I have been writing about the necessary characteristics of successful and functional life ways. Obviously, one of the first things any potential life way must address is how we will acquire those basic needs. Before we can consider alternatives, it seems like we should clarify and explore how our current cultures satisfy these needs.
Water, Shelter, Food. In our modern culture(s), most people spend most of their time acquiring these three most basic needs. Throughout much of the third world, and for an alarming large segment of the population in the first, water, shelter and food are hard to come by and sometimes impossible to acquire. The biggest reason for this? Our culture controls access to these basic needs as a means of coercion. In order to live, everyone in the world must produce something with which to then ‘purchase’ food, water, shelter. The more efficiently the system works, the greater the divide becomes between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Of course, this creates secondary effects so that once the disparity reaches a critical point, we often see civil unrest, rebellion and revolution. But the only real effect of revolution is a reallocation of resources and a shift in the individuals characterized as ‘haves.’
Safety Needs, in modern civilization, are generally conceived of as needs provided by the state. Herein lies the basic divide between conservative and liberal forces. Conservative individuals, in very general terms, wants the state to provide protection for the status quo. Military Action and Law Enforcement (physical safety), minimal or no taxes (preserving the financial hierarchy), and Legitimization of Social Structures (marriage licenses, divorce law, “The Defense of Marriage Act”). Liberal individuals, by comparison want the state to provide protection for individual expression: International Treaties and Human(and animal) rights agreements, Military Forces as deterrent and individual opportunity (i.e. GI Bill, Financial Aid for Education), Progressive Taxes for wealth re-distribution, programs to promote self improvement and economic safety nets, and protection of social diversity (Gay Marriage, Freedom of Choice, Education).
Social Needs, frequently are seen as secondary, or unnecessary wants rather than needs in our culture. For all the time and energy we spend on relationships, there is a tendency to see social needs as something that we should pursue only when we have satisfied our more basic needs. Even Maslow, by placing these needs within a hierarchy is emphasizing the lesser importance of social needs. People are individually responsible for acquiring these things for themselves.
Status (esteem) is frequently seen, in our culture, as an effect of success. As such, it is restricted to those individuals that society deems successful. Yet, from a biological perspective, status is more about leadership and personal respect. It is possible for every person to achieve some measure of status in the eyes of another person, but our culture often degrades those relationships that do not ‘measure up’ to societal standards. ( I am vaguely remembering the testament of a woman speaking of her drunkard, gambling father as he carted her around the country following his addictions. Not someone we would normally think of as ‘respectable’, yet she recounts his emotional supportiveness, his respect for her as a person and his efforts on her behalf… and so she finds that she both loves and respects her father, for all his flaws.)
At the very top of Maslow’s hierarchy we find Self Actualization and Self Transcendence. Self Actualization is the need and ability of individuals to be the most they can be. Maslow believes that very few people ever achieve Self Actualization. He describes these individuals as:
They embrace the facts and realities of the world (including themselves) rather than denying or avoiding them. They are spontaneous in their ideas and actions. They are creative. They are interested in solving problems; this often includes the problems of others. Solving these problems is often a key focus in their lives. They feel a closeness to other people, and generally appreciate life. They have a system of morality that is fully internalized and independent of external authority. They judge others without prejudice, in a way that can be termed objective.
It is common to hear stories of persons (in the middle-upper classes of the first world) that love the work they do, that describe themselves as fulfilled and happy. These are the people we all want to be, but very few actually achieve this. In our culture(s), these are goals you pursue only once the more basic needs are fulfilled: what this generally means in practice, is that only those lucky enough or talented enough to find work that expresses their passion will ever achieve Self Actualization.
Self Transcendence, by comparison, sits all the way at the peak of the pyramid, although anyone is capable of reaching it momentarily. This represents our spiritual needs, and Maslow believed that it is represented by Peak Experiences: experiences that literally transcend every day life, that connect our dispirit characteristics and experiences. He believed that everyone has these experiences, but individuals that are Self Actualized had them more frequently and were better equipped to fully experience these moments.
This whole scheme of Maslow’s intrigues me. However, I find myself a tad suspicious of anything that is functionally hierarchal and this, more than most. Next time I write, it will be to consider a completely different structure, a new way of looking at how we satisfy our basic needs and make the most of ourselves as human animals.
(Originally Posted October 8, 2006)