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Monday, March 23, 2009

What we need


This pyramid is a visual representation of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”. I remembered this scheme when I was thinking about the story of Jesus feeding of the crowd of thousands. You may remember the pyramid from first year psychology or sociology courses. Maslow’s interest was in factors that motivate and determine our choices, and which shape our personality.

Maslow theorized that people are only able to “rise” to addressing the needs expressed at the top of the pyramid when the needs on the lower tiers have been met. In Maslow’s thought, the physiological needs are the most basic, and must be met first.

I initially thought I would use the pyramid to illustrate the wisdom of Jesus concerning himself with the feeding of the crowd. I thought I would say that Jesus made sure that the most basic needs of the people were met, in order that they would be freed to pay attention to “higher” needs. But on reflection, I realized that there are problems with this interpretation.

The story indicates that Jesus actually taught and preached first, and only later asked about feeding the crowd. When I thought about that, I wondered if there is a “first world” or “developed world” bias built into Maslow’s hierarchy, that would hint that people are only capable of self-actualization and spiritual “progress” when they are well-fed and have big homes with 2 car garages, and all the attendant “stuff” that we tend to associate with well-being.

My recent experience of visiting a woman who is dying of cancer was a reminder that we do not live “by bread alone”.

I would not suggest that we concern ourselves only with the “higher” things, and tend to people’s souls and not worry about whether they have a place to lay their head at night. I think that Maslow has done well to identify some categories of the things that we need to live well, and which motivate us. I wonder if it might be more useful to depict the items listed in a kind of inter-connected “constellation” rather than in a tiered pyramid. I would also want to name spiritual needs: connection to God; sense of purpose; vocation, transcendence of self; compassion for others.