Maslow’s Hierarchy

I’m sure some readers of last week’s essay (Nantucket) thought my instant anxiety about needing a place to stay one night was a bit much.  Maybe they just thought I’m a wimp.

I was interested in my reaction to the ferry cancellation and the potential that we could be without shelter in 36 hours because I had been thinking about homelessness for a few weeks, and I had been thinking in particular about Maslow’s hierarchy.

Remember Maslow’s hierarchy from Psych 101?   All I remember is a pyramid of human needs.   Everything I know now comes from the Wikipedia article.

Essentially, Maslow posited in 1943 that human beings share certain psychological needs, and that in general the more fundamental human needs must be met before a person can pursue more advanced needs.   He displayed those needs in a pyramid, with the basic needs at the bottom and more advanced needs above.  At the base of the pyramid are physiological needs, then safety, then belonging, then esteem.  He deemed these “deficiency needs,” meaning that if these needs aren’t more or less satisfied, then a person tends to have difficulty moving on to growth needs, such as the development of the intellectual and aesthetic self.

Maslow’s theory has been challenged and criticized over the decades, but it remains a viable framework for discussing human needs because it has a certain fundamental appeal that rings true to most people.  In its broadest, oversimplified application, the hierarchy suggests that it is difficult for human beings to accomplish high-level thinking when physiological needs are unmet.  What are the physiological needs?  Air, water, food, sleep, clothing, shelter.

In other words, it’s hard for human beings to study Aristotle if they’re starving. Or, more to the point, it’s hard for me to focus on having a good time on vacation if I don’t know where I will sleep tonight.  The point isn’t simply that it’s unpleasant to get up and go to work each morning if you’ve slept on the street.  The more important point is that the knowledge that one has no place to stay is so disruptive that it actually impairs one’s ability to accomplish ordinarily routine tasks.  Put another way, it’s difficult to assemble hamburgers on a four-hour shift at Burger King if you have no place to call home that night.  Not impossible, but difficult.

Our Nantucket trip emphasized the point for me.  When our ferry was canceled, my intellect told me not to worry.  My inner being told me something else, it put me off my game.  I was a small step closer to those people who lost their homes in Louisiana, and I knew I didn’t want to be where they were.  I needed an answer to the roof-over-my-head question.

I’m sure some of my friends are thinking, “oh, those homeless folks should just suck it up and flip those burgers,” and I get that point of view.  However, what Maslow teaches us, and what’s worth remembering, is that the state of homelessness is emotionally and psychologically debilitating.  When you have an apartment and a job, it’s stressful to change jobs.   If you have an apartment and no job, it’s more stressful to find a job.  If you have no apartment and no job, finding a job and keeping it is more stressful still.  Life becomes more difficult as our fundamental needs become more immediate.

Most people experiencing homelessness haven’t chosen that condition.  The deepest parts of their being need to have some kind of home, but achieving that goal is more challenging because, as Maslow teaches us, the condition of homelessness itself is so disruptive emotionally.  It’s easy to become homeless, but not so easy to climb out.

These people need help.


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