In the wake of multiple earthquakes and political discussions about unemployment benefits, health insurance, and the economy, I've been thinking about what the basics are in life.
Many people begin a conversation about needs by referring to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which are, in this order: physiological needs (air, food, water, shelter, sex, stable body temperature), safety needs, love/affection/belonging needs (both giving and receiving love and affection), the need for esteem, and the need for self-actualization. Maslow says that one must have one's needs met at the basic level (and so on) before being able to give attention to any of the higher needs.
When our needs are not being met, we find that we are restless. It is easier to know how to satisfy our need for food than it is to satisfy our need for self-actualization. It also seems to be easier to imagine that others do not need to satisfy needs for esteem or self-actualization, that they should be happy with that they have food and shelter, that esteem or finding one's vocation in life and living it out are luxuries and not basic needs. We love to decide what other people do and do not need; perhaps some of us even feel that such is our vocation. We like to talk about the difference between wants and needs - and there certainly are differences - and sometimes it feels to me as if we felt it our duty to keep from creating spoiled poor people even while we who have so much already continue to spoil ourselves and our own children.
And then there are some of us who are unable to state what our needs are at all, even to the point of not being able to allow oneself to recognize one's needs. In our family story-book, there is the chapter about my mother-in-law who was never able to express a desire for anything - asking her what she would like for Christmas would never yield an answer. Oh just anything you want to give me would be wonderful, she'd say. One year, she actually mentioned that she would like a sweater. We were thrilled that she told us something she really wanted. But she soon tried to take it back, she said she didn't need a sweater. Finally she qualified her desire - she didn't want a Nice Sweater - just a Crummy One.
There are times, of course, when basic physiological needs are all that can be met - after an earthquake or flood. After a crisis. But we cannot live in a crisis state forever. Otherwise, we are stunted in our growth. And when we act as though others should only have their physiological needs met, without acknowledging that there are other needs that warrant attention, too, we are acting to stunt their growth, as well. I would not like to belong to a group that decided that what other people need are crummy sweaters. But I probably do.
Irenaeus famously said that the glory of God is a human fully alive. This doesn't mean simply fed and clothed. It means self-actualized. It means not only physically healthy but emotionally healthy, too. A human who loves and is loved, who has self-respect and respect for others. A human who has found his vocation, a human who lives out her God-given gifts in the world for her own good and for the good of all of us. Because a musician has to make music, and artist has to do art, a teacher has to teach. And all people (not just "us") need a sense of belonging that comes from love, affection and acceptance rather than from feeling shut out or marginalized or just unloved. (There are, after all, people who "belong" to hate groups, but I do not believe that such is an example of self-actualization.)
During this season of Lent, when we focus on living more simply, giving up things to prepare to live into the glory of the Resurrection, I would like to truly give up the notion that self-actualization is a luxury, both for myself and for others. The glory of God is a human being fully alive. And, not being a literalist, I need to remember that this means all human beings, who are all God's, who all need to be fully alive.