I learned about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs freshman year in college. It made so much sense to me, the idea that you couldn’t be attentive to the “un-necessaries” that enrich your life until your most basic needs—food, shelter, safety—are stable. It is a seemingly simple way of understanding the impact of physical wellbeing on the development of our social and intellectual humanity. It is what holds so many back in third world countries—and it is what some of us have learned to take for granted. Maslow’s genius was to fit all of this into a giant, layered triangle, with the base of that triangle as our starting point in life.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Level Five: Self-Actualization: Morality, Creativity, Spontaneity, Problem-Solving, Lack of Prejudice, Acceptance of Facts.
Level Four: Esteem: Self-Esteem, Confidence, Achievement, Respect of Others, Respect by Others
Level Three: Love/Belonging: Friendship, Family, Sexual Intimacy
Level Two: Safety: Security of: Body, Employment, Resources, Morality, Family, Health, Property
Level One: Physiological: Breathing, Food, Water, Sex, Sleep, Homeostasis, Excretion
Maslow’s hierarchy hit me particularly strong one year when I was driving my young sons and their cousins back to our house for a shared visit. We were talking over one another about all the things we could do in our time together. King’s Island! A picnic in the park! Then, somewhere in mid-Ohio, my car started to make ominous noises. Five miles later, it died.
There weren’t any cell phones in those days. Somehow, I managed to get the car to the next exit where a mechanic pronounced the problem way too complex to worry about that late in the evening.
“Is there a hotel around here anywhere?” I asked. He pointed out one we could walk to (quite awkwardly, the unwieldy suitcases banging against our legs with every step.) We arrived, bedraggled, Peter donning a tired toddler’s fussiness.
Unfortunately, the hotel was full, or at least they didn’t want to take us on. I asked if there was anything else around and we were directed to another hotel in a small town. The clerk called a taxi for us and we waited, too tired to make much of a fuss anymore.
The taxi driver picked us up and asked where we were going. After I told her, she took a look at the kids and said, “Now honey, why are you taking these nice-looking kids to a hotel like that? It’s not exactly safe. Or decent.”
Bam. I felt myself slide down that hierarchy right down to the bottom. I looked at her desperately. No thoughts of picnics were in my mind anymore.
“Ma’am, can you find some place to take us where the kids and I will be safe?”
We survived the night with humor and Johnny Carson. I found my way back on that hierarchy again, climbed up to “Love and Belonging.” And there I sat. For years.
I’m not sure I agree with all of Maslow’s subcategories. I’ve worked hard to lead an ethical and moral life. But for all my struggles, the category of “Self Esteem” completely eluded me. My excessive weight, my struggles with body image and inner-self image just bore down on me with too much force to climb any higher.
That was the first sixty years of my life, before I took my physical, spiritual and emotional journey towards health and wellbeing. Before I wrestled with the demons gnawing at my soul and holding me down.
I think one of the reasons I feel such joy now is that, at the age of sixty-three, I have newly discovered “Self-Actualization. It isn’t that smallest apex of the triangle from Maslow’s hierarchy. No, it is an entire new landscape, a whole new hierarchy to explore. This is my version of the “Self-Actualization” hierarchy. I suppose it looks different for different people, because it is a blank canvas where we can create whatever we want.
Hierarchy of Self-Actualization
Level Five: Fun: Spontaneity, Creativity, Humor and Giggles
Level Four: Challenge: Intellectual, Physical, Complexity
Level Three: Beauty: Art, Music, Nature, Literature
Level Two: Community: Contribution, Service, Giving, Sharing, Interacting
Level One: Love: Faith, Belonging, Intimacy, Purpose
Have you been able to explore self-actualization for yourself? If not, what has been holding you back—and more importantly, what can you do about it? If you have arrived at that blank canvas, what does your hierarchy to look like?