Let’s discuss Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. According to this theory, each of us has a series of needs which must be fulfilled, starting with Physiological needs (food, water, etc.), then continuing step by step through needs for Safety, Love and Belonging, Esteem, and, finally, Self-Actualization. (For the purposes of this post, let’s consider Self-Actualization as Finding God.)

Each level, once fulfilled, pushes us to feel an urging for the fulfillment of the next level. Thus, someone who has their physiological needs fulfilled and leads a relatively safe life will be working on feelings of belonging, love, and also (eventually) self esteem. For example, a typical middle-class teenager living in suburbia will be much more concerned with feeling part of a group and gaining esteem than s/he will be with where the next meal is coming from. In fact, some may begin to skip meals, etc., to lose weight in a bid to gain acceptance and esteem.

At no matter what level we are, we are all at risk of falling quickly back to the base level of physiological needs – for example, in the event of a disaster, we may find ourselves scraping for food and water and not spending much time reading Sartre. However, history is replete with anecdotes about artists, scientists, philosophers, and saints who were able to maintain their concentration on self-actualization activities while in the most dire of physical circumstances. Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus while fighting on the front lines of World War I. Viktor Frankl developed his theory of meaning while a prisoner in a concentration camp. We grow up hearing stories of people like Thomas Edison going days without food or sleep in order to complete his work, and our culture declares as icons (with good reason) such people as Gandhi who had the will to forgo his physiological needs for a higher purpose.

If we accept Maslow’s theory, then the psychological goal of our lives is to reach the level of self-actualization (God) – but, current societal thinking is wrapped up in the lower levels. In the United States, while some people are stuck on the level of physiological needs (e.g., the homeless), and quite a few more are stuck on the level of security (e.g., victims of domestic violence), our culture seems to be mostly concerned with the levels of love, belonging, and esteem. But, our concept of these is skewed: love is often mistaken for sex, and esteem is often mistaken for a BMW. Thus the time spent on higher questions is considered wasted.

But to accept life simply as a giant game of Monopoly ™ is to run four fifths of a foot race – to be winning, and suddenly to drop out saying “Well, I’ve proven I could have won if I had bothered to.” We may gain esteem by collecting the most hotels, but we fail to take the last steps, where we see that collecting the most hotels was a means to an end, not the end itself. The value of the first four steps lies only in their being used to get to the fifth – self actualization, enlightenment, or the direct experience of God. By reaching this stage, one can look back and see that the other stuff means, objectively, nothing. Thus, we often see references to wealthy people saying that money “doesn’t buy happiness” etc., while the poor people react incredulously. To those scraping out a living on the physiological level, money indeed would buy happiness – a loaf of bread, for instance. But, for those at the top of the fourth step, but unable to get to the fifth, their money indeed will not buy that happiness – because the definition of happiness has changed.

But the first four levels of need must be transcended, not ignored. Some people try to circumvent the first four stages and go right for the fifth – sometimes this works (such as with Jesus), but often it breeds a person who is stuck in the first four levels and doesn’t know it. Such a person may live with a constant chip on his shoulder, admonishing those who are working their way through the levels in their own manner as “superficial.” It seems to me that many advocates for various causes fit into this mold. Such people will rail against the waste and inequity of “the system”, using the words of some of the truly enlightened, but without the spirit in which they were initially uttered. They have suppressed their baser needs, not surpassed them. Thus they are filled with jealousy and rage which they try to pass off as “righteous indignation.” The opposite error is seen in so-called prosperity theology, which seems to get stuck in the first four Maslow stages.

Working your way up through the stages is like what Wittgenstein wrote near the end of the Tractatus:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.54

Unless you’re super human, you can’t leap 20 feet into the air; unless you are a saint or a mystic, you can’t leap up to the top level of Maslow’s hierarchy. But keep in mind that the first four levels are only a ladder to the goal, not the goal itself.

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