Part Three: Explanations

By |2020-10-19T16:02:32-07:00April 3, 2020|

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 physical needs such as food, water, and safety as our most basic needs, but this hierarchy is flawed because it does not list explanations as an even more basic need that allows us to get food, water, and safety.

What is more important for human beings, explanations or food? Our need for explanations is a foundational need that empowers us to acquire food and other physical necessities, because explanations enable us to understand how reliable sources of food, water, and safety can be found and sustained. Explanations also empower us to overcome threats to the fulfillment of our physical needs by allowing us to ask, “Why are my crops dying? What is causing this drought? Why am I not safe?” According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when people lack food, water, and safety, they want only food, water, and safety. But in every known culture, when people lack food, water, and safety, they also want explanations for why they lack food, water, and safety. They want answers.

Especially when there is a crisis, people want explanations. They want answers. Our explanations determine how well we can respond to a crisis, because the quality of our actions depends on the quality of our explanations—the quality of our answers.

Our need for explanations is so powerful that if people don’t have an accurate explanation, they will come up with an inaccurate explanation, such as the inaccurate explanation in ancient Greece that claimed earthquakes were caused by the god Poseidon, and illnesses were caused by the god Apollo. People will also argue over explanations. If you ask ten Americans, “What is the primary cause of mass shootings?” it is possible to get ten different explanations, and it is common for people to argue over these explanations.

Any struggle against injustice is also a struggle over explanations, since inaccurate explanations are always used to sustain injustice, and more accurate explanations are among the many weapons needed to defeat injustice. Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in 1818 and later became an advocate for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, described one of the inaccurate explanations that sustained state-sanctioned slavery in America: “[As a child I wondered] why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and others masters? These were perplexing questions and very troublesome to my childhood. I was very early told by some one that ‘God up in the sky’ had made all things, and had made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters . . . I could not tell how anybody could know that God made black people to be slaves.”

Our need for explanations begins when we are very young. Four-year-old children can ask questions such as, “Where do babies come from? Why does it rain? Why is the sky blue?” Sometimes adults can become annoyed by the large number of questions that young children ask. Young children need explanations, which form a critical part of their worldview, yet this basic human need is not listed anywhere in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Our need for explanations is as old as humanity itself, and can be seen in the explanations that our ancestors provided for lightning and other aspects of nature.

As far as we know, when lightning strikes the ground we are the only species that asks “why?” As far as we know, we are the only species that comes up with religious and scientific explanations that attempt to explain the underlying cause of lightning. Every known culture has explanations for lightning, natural disasters, illnesses, and the origin of humanity and our world. Every known culture has explanations in the form of “creation stories,” which strive to explain where humanity and our world came from.

The quality of our explanations, along with the quality of how we communicate those explanations, is essential to leadership. The best leaders I worked for in the army did more than just give me explanations based on the best information available to them. They also communicated these explanations in a way that built trust (the foundation of our non-physical need for nurturing relationships). They built trust by not being annoyed when I asked a question with sincerity, but by patiently and compassionately explaining something to me. One of the great powers available to leaders is the substance of their explanations. Another great power is how they communicate that substance.

These great powers are also available to adults when interacting with children. If a child asks you a question, you can build trust by not being annoyed but by patiently and compassionately offering an explanation to the best of your ability. Sometimes the only explanation you can offer is, “I don’t know, and I will let you know as soon as I find out.” This kind of honesty can also build trust. If leaders (or parents) have an explanation and are unable to share it, for whatever reason, the trust they have built through their previous behavior will help the people who rely on them bear the lack of an explanation with less difficulty.

Many people think of explanations as simply being about facts. To prepare for your exercise for this week, think of explanations as being not just about facts, but also being about feeding a basic human need that becomes hungrier during times of crisis, being a way to build trust, being a way to nurture through giving people our kindness, compassion, and attention, and even being a way to increase people’s sense of purpose and meaning when the explanation becomes a call to action to a higher purpose.

As your exercise for this week, you can work on building trust by offering kindness, compassion, and attention when you offer an explanation; you can reflect on how inaccurate explanations can support injustice and more accurate explanations can resist injustice; and you can use explanations to call yourself and others to a higher purpose. If we want to maximize our chances of getting through any crisis well, we need accurate explanations that keep us informed, and we need to communicate those explanations in ways that build trust and call us to a higher purpose.

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.

You can also read Part Four of this series on Expression.