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Just shy of the middle of the 20th century, Abraham Maslow put forward a hierarchy of basic human needs (called, fittingly, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). It’s shaped like a pyramid. At the bottom is the widest layer: “Physiological.” Then, moving upward, comes “Safety,” “Love/Belonging,” “Esteem,” and “Self-Actualization.”

If you study the hierarchy for several moments, you realize that from its bottom to its top, each new “need” is more of a privilege than the previous. In other words, Physiological is at the bottom because that’s fundamental: We can’t live if we can’t breathe or get out of bed, etc. But Self-Actualization is at the top because that’s something you can arrive at if you exist in relative comfort or at relative peace.

But what makes me curious for the sake of today’s post is what happens to people when their most basic needs aren’t met. See, all day long, all of us have to work together in co-creating our human reality. When somebody’s rude or hostile, we’re quick to brand that person with negative terms, effectively weeding out good guys from bad guys. The jerk who cut us off in traffic must be a narcissist. Shame! Ain’t nothing you can do about that guy!

Let’s Dig Deeper

Let’s avoid judging people on their outward behavior, and instead frame each other in terms of whether or not our basic needs are being met. Kind of changes the picture, doesn’t it? It’s one thing to say, “Oh, Bob’s just jealous ’cause I got a raise and he didn’t!” And it’s another thing to slow down, take a minute, and realize that Bob was really hoping for that raise because he really needs to feed his four kids.

Taking Maslow’s hierarchy piece by piece, we see that the human behavior that results from a lack of needs being met gets more extreme in accordance with how fundamental the need in question is. For example, if one is in a poor or compromised Physiological state, one simply cannot enjoy much of what life has to offer. Mobility is impaired. Basic comfort is lacking. A future outlook is hard to hang onto.

Moving up, you have Safety. For me, having grown up in Detroit, I was told from a young age to keep a watchful eye and conduct myself in ways that minimized invasive behavior on the part of others. Whereas with Physiological limitations, the body is compromised, with Safety-oriented limitations, the environment is compromised. One feels it’s difficult to thrive, for too much energy is being devoted to self-protection and the vigilance it calls for.

Love/Belonging is central to the hierarchy, and indeed central to basic human functioning. Whether we like to admit it or not, all of us are social creatures. We crave the acceptance and approval of those around us. If we didn’t, social media wouldn’t have very recently taken over our planet. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be glued to our phones, awaiting more contact, alerts, and LOVE. Love and Belonging are two sides of a very human coin. We gain Love from those with whom we share romantic, familial, or even friendship-based intimacy. But a sense of Belonging can be just as powerful, as it allows us the feeling that our Community values who we are and what we have to offer.

When such central needs aren’t being met, a person might feel that his or her very life lacks value. Loneliness factors in here in a huge way. People who aren’t loved or included feel isolated, alienated, left out, and brushed aside.

Higher up, we have Esteem and Self-Actualization. If one’s bodily, environmental, and social needs are fulfilled, one has the privilege to attend to more personal and deep-rooted needs. Here’s where we cultivate a sense of SELF-LOVE, having not only achieved a sense of value, but the time and wherewithal to BUILD UPON that sense ’til it becomes Esteem. One rung higher than that, we know exactly who we are and why we’re on this planet. We’re living our dreams, attending to our missions, and serving as fountains of good to those around us. Which is all a long-winded way of saying we’re Self-Actualized.

Now flip the equation once again: How does one behave absent a sense of Esteem or Self-Actualization? Imagine the inner torment of a person who’s lacking in self-love, in addition to a sense of overriding purpose and mission. Imagine the FEAR experienced from such a vantage point.

In fact, none of us HAVE TO imagine it, ’cause all of us have been there!

In this life, it’s unusual to always be firing on all cylinders. At any given time, some of our needs will be met and others won’t. With any luck, we’ll have the luxury of pursuing the higher ones without having to pour energy into preserving the lower ones.

And more importantly, viewing others through a need-based perspective will allow us to be more patient, understanding, and compassionate. Where we once saw sheer unpleasantness, we’ll now see plain old fear. Where we once jumped to classify and categorize, we’ll now see an opportunity to help other people get where they need to go.