During this pandemic, everyone is properly worried about making sure that people’s physical needs are met. But our research in Peace Literacy shows that people have many non-physical needs that are as important, if not more important, than their physical needs, especially during times of crisis. We’ve put together this series to discuss what these non-physical needs are, how people can meet them (and help others meet them) in healthy ways, how people during a crisis can become more vulnerable to tangles of trauma such as mistrust, rage, alienation, and helplessness, and how we can deal with trauma constructively rather than destructively. Each entry in this series will focus on one of humanity’s non-physical needs, along with practical ideas to help us create stronger relationships and communities as we navigate through this struggle together.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists food and safety as among our most basic needs.
However, our need for belonging is even more basic, because belonging to a community allows us to reliably obtain food and safety. In other words, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs got it backwards. Although this hierarchy lists food and safety as being more basic than belonging, the opposite is true. Since the time of our earliest ancestors until today, belonging to a community has been essential in the human struggle to obtain food and safety.
To better understand how belonging can be more basic than food, consider the following question. What is more important for a wolf-pack: food or belonging? Belonging is the precondition that allows wolves to obtain food, because they are social animals that hunt as a pack, as a community. If newly born wolf pups do not belong to a pack, they cannot get the food and safety needed to survive. In a similar way, belonging is the precondition that allows humans to obtain food, water, safety, shelter, and all of our physical needs, because we rely upon a community for our survival. If you were to put a two-year-old child in the wilderness alone, that child would starve to death.
For many species, especially human beings, belonging to a community makes life possible. Belonging to a community also enables the strongest forms of cooperation, greatly enhancing our ability to obtain food and safety for ourselves and others. Someone might say, “But what about hermits who live alone in the woods? Aren’t they able to survive without belonging to a community?” First of all, practically all “hermits” rely to some degree on human communities, such as occasionally procuring resources from other people. Second, when “hermits” live alone, this is only possible because they continually rely on what they have learned from other people. Most of the survival skills they use were developed by other human beings, and most of the tools they use to survive were invented by other human beings. Thus, it took a community to give them the means – the skills and knowledge of tools – so that they could live alone.
When we think of people lacking belonging, our tendency can be to think of rare hermits living alone in the woods, rather than the many people in our own communities who lack belonging. Alienation is a root cause of a wide variety of societal problems, including mass shootings. The most common characteristic that mass shooters have is feelings of alienation. We can think of alienation as difficulty experiencing a sense of belonging. Alienation, which people can suffer from in varying degrees, can be caused by trauma. Alienation is not the same thing as being alone. A person can be physically alone, yet feel deeply connected to humanity. A person can be surrounded by family, yet feel completely alienated.
For someone to become a mass shooter, many risk factors are typically needed, but alienation seems to be a necessary risk factor. If you found a magic genie that offered to grant you three wishes, and you wanted to end mass shootings, you could accomplish this by wishing that all feelings of alienation were removed from the world. Keeping this in mind, we can ask: what is more important for humans, food or belonging? People do not become mass shooters because they lack food. However, people can become mass shooters because they lack belonging.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs got it backwards by putting physical needs such as food and safety before non-physical needs such as belonging. It is surprising that this hierarchy is taught in so many education systems, not only because its depiction of our humanity is both backwards and immensely incomplete, but also because Abraham Maslow himself saw this hierarchy as flawed. On August 30th, 1962, he wrote:
“This a.m. finally dictated a little bit about being cautious with the overextensive use in business of my theories and findings. They’re being taken as gospel truth, without any real examination of their reliability, validity. The carry-over from clinic to industry is really a huge and shaky step, but they’re going ahead enthusiastically and optimistically . . . I must publish the critiques . . . of my motivation theory. Even so, I must expect to be blamed for all the mistakes of these enthusiasts if any real discrepancy or contradiction turns up. Then I’ll really get hopped on as an unscientific optimist. Oh, well! There’s no avoiding that. All I can do is to stress caution more and more . . . My motivation theory was published 20 years ago and in all that time nobody repeated it, or tested it, or really analysed it or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole with only the minor modifications.” (The Journals of Abraham Maslow, 63)
One of the biggest weaknesses of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is that it does not address trauma or the destructive desires that can result from the many tangles of trauma. During my childhood, tangles of trauma such as nihilism, mistrust, a ruthless worldview, rage, alienation, and self-loathing caused me to develop a mass shooter personality, in the form of an obsessive desire to destroy as many people as I could and self-destruct in a single violent act. Abraham Maslow is one of the founders of humanistic psychology, and in an exceptional example of intellectual honesty, he says that humanistic psychology is “worthless” for understanding the most dangerous forms of human destruction and self-destruction. In 1966 (four years before he died), he wrote the following critique of humanistic psychology:
“For several years, I have felt that humanistic psychology’s tacit assumptions should be dragged out into the open and that an astute philosopher could legitimately raise questions about these unproven beliefs . . . First, it should be made clear that the entire model of humanistic psychology and self-actualization rests on the assumption that the person wants to live. When an individual’s death wishes are strong, the whole psychological system falls to the ground . . . In short, when life is judged as not worthwhile—whether through the accumulation of pains or the absence of peak-experiences and positive joys—then humanistic psychology is worthless.” (Future Visions, 26)
The COVID-19 pandemic further shows how incredibly inadequate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is for understanding our humanity, the societies in which we live, how tangles of trauma can cause both destruction and self-destruction, and what is needed to create a more peaceful and just world. Contrary to this hierarchy, which depicts physical needs (such as food) as the most basic needs for our survival, Abraham Maslow viewed truth and justice as being just as basic for our survival. Just as our physical need for food requires essential nutrients such as zinc and magnesium, our non-physical need for explanations requires the essential nutrient of truth and our non-physical need for belonging requires the essential nutrient of justice. Because Nazi Germany lacked truth and justice, millions of people died. The lack of these essential nutrients have killed countless people throughout history, which shows how a lack of truth and justice can kill people just as a lack of food can.
As essential nutrients, truth and justice often mean the difference between life and death. When leaders throughout history wanted to enslave or massacre millions of people, the first thing they typically did was distort the truth and deny people justice. For people to be enslaved or massacred, they must be excluded from belonging to the human family. The distortion of truth and the suppression of justice are always among the root causes of this exclusion.
When a society dealing with a pandemic lacks truth and justice, far more deaths can occur. The COVID-19 pandemic has been made far worse by the malnutrition in truth and justice that has been prevalent in our society and around the world for too many years. Malnutrition in truth and justice makes any kind of crisis more dangerous, and this will be true for every crisis that comes after the COVID-19 pandemic. Abraham Maslow realized that when societies do not have sufficient truth, justice, and also beauty, this results in various kinds of societal illnesses. These illnesses make societies less able to respond well to any kind of crisis. He said: “Just as we need to ingest a certain amount of magnesium or zinc in our diet for healthy functioning, I am suggesting that we all need to ingest or experience unadulterated truth, justice, or beauty for our inner wellbeing. The lack of these minerals or vitamins will inescapably cause certain kinds of illnesses.” (Future Visions, 95)
When beauty is concerned, we can benefit, and everyone around us can benefit, when we learn to see human beings as beautiful in ways that transcend what our eyes can see, and when we learn to see other forms of life and the mystery of creation as beautiful. This kind of beauty is a powerful nutrient that can help feed all of our non-physical needs, such as deepening and enhancing our purpose and meaning in life, giving us inspiration that expands and intensifies our zest for life, and opening paths to belonging that lead us deep into our humanity. If I see you as beautiful in ways that transcend what my eyes can see and that reveal your inherent dignity – a powerful form of vision that requires me to strengthen the muscles of my humanity – I will be a better steward and protector of your well-being, and I will be more capable of helping you feel like you belong. During a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to be good stewards and protectors of people’s well-being and help them feel like they belong becomes even more important. I will discuss this kind of beauty in more detail in the last entry in this series – on transcendence.
As your exercise for this week, explore these three questions:
- How can the nutrient of truth (that helps us understand root causes of problems), the nutrient of justice (that helps us build trust and fairness), and the nutrient of beauty (seeing beyond what our eyes can see to help us perceive dignity in others and ourselves) contribute to healthier forms of belonging in a family, workplace, community, and our broader society?
- How can the nutrients of truth, justice, and beauty help us heal tangles of trauma in ourselves and in our broader society?
- When people try to feed their non-physical needs in ways that are deficient in the nutrients of truth, justice, and beauty, what can this look like?
Just as we can feed our hunger for food in healthier ways or unhealthier ways (what is “healthy” exists across a continuum and depends on context), we can also feed our hunger for belonging in healthier ways or unhealthier ways. And just as unhealthy sources of food and water can kill millions of people, unhealthy ways of feeding our non-physical needs can be lethal to individuals, societies, and as we will discuss in the remaining entries in this series, all of humanity.
The kind of leadership that is needed in times of crisis, at all levels especially the community level, is leadership that reduces tangles of trauma and helps people meet their non-physical needs in healthy ways.