Sitting on a pyramid asking, “How are you and what are we doing here?”

There’s nothing like a global pandemic and a year in lockdown to bring up questions about the purpose of life. And there is no better framework to ponder than Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to guide an internal conversation and community dialogue.

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist and psychology professor, developed his hierarchy of needs framework through the 1940’s and 1950’s and it has remained very popular within the fields of sociology, psychology and public health.

The five levels of the pyramid, a path for humans to climb in order to meet vital needs, are:

Physiological needs: the need for water, food, clean air, sleep, health, clothes, and shelter.

Safety needs: the need for a safe living environment (a vital component of a trauma-free childhood), job security, financial security and emotional security.

Love needs: the need for love within the family and with friends and intimate relationships.

Esteem needs: the need for self-respect, self-confidence, independence and freedom. It can also include the need for respect from others.

Self-actualization needs: the need to realize one’s potential and to be all one can be. This need drives people to develop talents and the capacity to pursue and achieve goals.

Maslow hypothesized that a human must meet the needs of each level of the pyramid before climbing to the next one. On a practical level this meant that a 12-year-old would need to be fed, clothed, housed and kept safe (physiological and safety needs) before she would have the potential to build a meaningful future (meeting love, esteem and self-actualization needs).

It should be noted that some see the “pyramid” as a combination of overlapping spheres, suggesting that one can begin the process of self-actualization (the top of Maslow’s pyramid) at any time along one’s life — even living in an environment where basic physical needs are barely met (surviving at the bottom of the pyramid).

Abraham Maslow, later in life, discussed adding another layer to the very tip of the pyramid. This would represent what he called “transcendence needs,” a phase in life where one sees oneself as an active participant in society with the need to contribute fully beyond oneself. This could be seen as a phase of altruism, demonstrated by the practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. This is where feelings of care turn into action. We might call this phase one of socially-engaged enlightenment, faith and spirituality.

This is the part of Maslow’s framework I am most intrigued with and a stage of development we humans would do well to engage with.

As every reader of this article knows, large segments of the population are living in environments where basic physiological needs are not yet met. Not more than a few miles away, you have neighbors who lack access to medical care, behavioral health care, stable housing, secure food and transport to vital services. One step up the pyramid, safety is far from assured for our children. Local data on the incidence of child adversity, abuse, neglect and trauma would (or should) mortify anyone.

This is where the grand disconnect appears. We have well-resourced people seeking self-actualization while others, on the other side of town, barely survive the day. Apart from being morally and socially unjust, it just doesn’t make sense to doom entire communities to desperation and disparities. It doesn’t have to be this way, when the services to ensure a swift rise up to self-sufficiency and security can be implemented everywhere at any time.

I believe our work, as individuals and collectively, depends on getting to the transcendence stage of development, moving from self-actualization (a very noble endeavor) to the place where each of us sees our connections to everyone. This is the place of social engagement that focuses on ensuring everyone can climb the pyramid, supported by vital services for surviving and thriving.

I grew up in the surreal world of 1970’s southern California. It was a hotbed of workshops on self-actualization and cult-like enterprises that pushed costly seminars on self-enlightenment. Looking back, I can see how most of this so-called consciousness-raising was trapping people in a phase of self-actualization with no acknowledgment of those living at the bottom of the pyramid, nor any awareness that one could move to transcendence and altruism. It was a culture of extreme (almost pathological) individualism, lacking any real awareness of the most vulnerable people around us.

Over the decades, those of us fortunate enough to arrive at a phase where we are no longer in survival mode, have also been given a front-row seat to the AIDS epidemic, the Adverse Childhood Experience Survey, 9/11, the housing and economic crisis of 2008, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movement. Now we exist within the Covid-19 pandemic. And we humans have been given new tools for pyramid climbing, holding mobile devices with the power to identify any challenge on the planet, along with access to the research that shows us how to solve anything — if we feel the need to do so.

If there was ever a time for transcendence and altruism, we have arrived. As one explores the pyramid, the only way to ensure that 100% can thrive is to climb up to the very, very top — a place of caring for all others.

Mobilize! Survive! Thrive!

Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. All cartoon characters are pure fiction and any resemblance to real humans, puppies or three-headed hydras is total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Questions? Push to front of reading list: 100% Community: Ensuring 10 vital services for surviving and thriving and Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras: Confronting Apathy, Envy and Fear on the road to saving humans and the future. Better yet, let‘s meet at the EYE bookcafe to share a latte and some bold ideas.

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

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