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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Deepest Need, Part One

What do you need?

A vacation? A phone call from a friend? Two hours of sleep? A bucket of Boardwalk Fries? Your answer probably depends a lot on your current situation. But beyond the immediate situational needs, are you aware of what you REALLY need?

American psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his hierarchy of needs. Maslow, who founded the humanistic school of psychology, describes the human hierarchy of needs as kind of like a pyramid. Physiological needs at the bottom--we need food, water, air, sleep, etc. Then Safety, Love, Esteem, and Self Actualizing in that order.

In spite of the fact that Maslow was very humanistic, his pyramid of needs does ring of truth in some ways. I'm a big fan of those physiological needs. I'm fond of safety. I like being loved and belonging. Having confidence and feeling good about myself are pleasant qualities of life. And certainly, I strive to be all I can be.

But more and more, I find myself recognizing an even deeper need. It's a need that circulates through all of Maslow's elements…through, beneath, and above them all. It is a need so absolutely critical to human health that to ignore it is the most tragic form of denial in all of human experience. If this need is not met, then all of the other needs cannot be met without some form of self deception.

See, in my experience, ALL of those other needs are flawed. Flawed in the sense that they are only temporarily satisfying or they come with strings attached. Take the physiological needs for instance. Food. We eat some. It tastes good. We feel full. But guess what? In a few hours (or minutes, if you're like me), you'll be hungry again. Oh, and depending on what kind of food you eat and how much of it, you might just contribute to your own demise.

Or, consider the need for love. I love my wife. I love my kids. And most of the time, I do a pretty good job. Most of the time. I hate to admit it, but from time to time, I willingly (or willfully) have failed to love my wife and kids like I should.

What about safety and shelter? Houses grow old. Pipes rust. And what is it with "home improvement projects?" Is it just me or do all of these little fix-it sessions take four times as long as you think they will??!!

And even the top tier: self actualizing. Sounds kind of pop-psychological, new age sort of know your inner person. But this is how Maslow himself defines it:

"A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write,
if he is to be at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.
This is the need we may call self-actualization ... It refers to man's
desire for fulfillment, namely to the tendency for him to become
actually in what he is potentially: to become everything that one
is capable of becoming ..."
You know, I dig this…to a degree. We all have talents and desires, the fulfillment of which grants us a measure of wonderful satisfaction. It feels great to see someone reading one of my books. It's an absolute blast to read my stories to kids. I imagine a race car driver winning the Indy 500 feels pretty wonderful. I'm sure the Giants enjoyed going to Disney World after thumping the Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Achieving such a pinnacle is spectacular. But…those feelings fade. Pretty soon, there's another race. Or training camp starts. I love to write. LOVE TO WRITE!!! And I've achieved a measure of success. I've been on bestseller lists. I've sold over 100,000 books. I've been on the front page of the Washington Post and on National TV. But in the most candid analysis: it was fun, but it still doesn't totally satisfy. I wonder what it takes to get to the next level and sell millions of books. I wonder if a movie deal is just what I need. But, I have a very certain feeling that even should I sell more books than a certain tussle-haired-wizard-boy, I still won't actually be self actualized. Because, maybe to get that popular, I'd need to shun my family. Maybe my teaching would suffer. Maybe in the end, it would feel somewhat hollow or even painful.

But (and this is the greater point) even if I reached the peak of my profession without hurting people along the way, the exultation--the satisfaction--will fade. I feel sure it will. Why else do we so often read about some highly successful person suffering from depression or admitting himself to a rehab clinic?

Maslow's needs are real. I don't think we can argue that we do not actually feel such needs. But I believe that we ALL need something more. Something greater. Something, in fact, that is flawless.

More next time.