by Sarah Connor
I first came across Maslow’s hierarchy at college. I didn’t think too much about it – I had a lot of facts to learn, and this was just another one. Two or three times in my life I’ve learned the triangle well enough to be able to answer a multiple-choice question on it, if it should happen to come up. It has face validity. What more do you want?
You know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? It’s been around since 1943. It’s been meme-ed.
Maslow stated that you move up through the hierarchy. You need to have your physiological needs met first, then safety, then love and belonging, esteem, self-actualization. The big joke these days is that you need to add a further foundation layer, usually labelled “wi-fi”.
It wasn’t until I came across a random tweet the other day that I even questioned this. The tweeter pointed out that Maslow was writing from a particular time and place (America in the 1940s), and his thinking was inevitably affected by the culture he was living in. She gave “ubuntu” as an alternative to self-actualization as the highest point on the pyramid.
I spent a happy half hour or so following up the comments, which led me to read a little more about ubuntu, and to the work of Max-Neef, who flattens out that hierarchy.
In fairness to Maslow, maybe he created a visual image that was just too powerful. We know (and he acknowledged) that this is not a rigid pyramid. You can be hungry and still take joy in great art, you can be homeless and still enjoy friendship, you can use creativity to manage your insecurities.
Ubuntu is a word from Southern Africa that can be translated as “humanity”. The philosophy of ubuntu was first developed by Jordan Kush Ngubane in the 1950s – again, an idea developed in a particular time and place, this time a continent developing a post-colonial identity. The basic idea of ubuntu is that I am human because you are human. We create each other’s humanity. This is a much more community, relationship-based view of what makes a complete human than the “self-actualization” we value so much in western society. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was an exponent of ubuntu, and it influenced his work on reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. Here’s a description of ubuntu from him:
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Why did I follow up this particular tweet? Why am I writing about these ideas? I brought them to earthweal because they struck a chord with me – because I’ve just been watching these ideas brought to life during the covid lockdown and as we emerge from that. At the moment, viewing all those videos of people throwing tantrums because they are being asked to wear masks in communal spaces and seeing reports of people rushing to beaches and other public spaces, crowding together and leaving literally tons of rubbish behind them, makes me wonder if we’ve taken the whole “self-actualization” thing a bit too far. Poor old Maslow. I don’t think he intended us to think that self-actualization meant prioritising our individual wishes over everything and everybody else, but here we are.
On the other hand, during lockdown it was our communities that we missed. The communities we form at work, with extended family, with friends, all of those were stripped away from us. What did we do? We formed virtual choirs. We did Zoom quizzes. We attended Teams meetings. We connected with people in new ways, different ways, ways that weren’t quite the same, weren’t quite as satisfying, but did go some way towards fulfilling that need to connect with others, to be acknowledged as human and to acknowledge others.
This is not a surprise. We know it takes a village to raise a child. We know that we are primates, we live in troops. We’ve agreed that more than 15 days of solitary confinement is a cruel and inhumane punishment (and look at that word “inhumane” – that says it all). Social media is all about connecting. It uses the languages of relationships – liking, friends – and yet it leaves us wanting more. It’s not satisfying, it’s addictive. We crave the likes, when what we really crave is real connection. It’s not in Facebook’s interest to satisfy us. It wants us there, scrolling for connection. While we’re scrolling we’re seeing adverts, we’re having our data harvested. Twitter doesn’t want us to feel content. It wants us to come back for more. I’m not saying you can’t create community through social media, but I am saying there’s big money to be made out of our drive to connect with others.
At the same time, we all need moments of privacy. We’ve all kept secret diaries, we’ve all wanted to be alone. As poets and creators we need space to write and to create – and yet that writing and creating is ultimately a communication with others. As we try to effect change we have to take individual responsibility and individual action, but without a community of activists around us we are doomed to failure. There’s a balance here – movements are inspired by individuals, but it’s that movement that supports those individuals to make a difference. Greta Thunberg was admirable when she stood alone with her Skolstrejk för klimatet sign. She’s important because she inspired a movement around the world. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee studies are fascinating, but she’s important because she communicated them and used them as a basis to advocate for environmental and community development.
Let’s try a little mind experiment. Go back to Maslow’s triangle. What would happen if we erased “self-actualization” and put “ubuntu” in its place? If we stated that fulfilling ourselves through our connections with others was the highest place on the pyramid? Now let’s take it a step further. What would happen if, instead of ubuntu, we chose a different word – a word that doesn’t exist yet – a word that means connecting with the whole web of life across this planet? What would it mean to state that the highest level of personal development came through connection with the whole eco-system?
This week, I’d like you to think about that balance between the individual and the community. Where do you stand on the spectrum between lone wolf and team-player? How does your community support you? What are the communities you’ve chosen? What are the communities that have been thrust upon you? Can we be human without other humans? What are the threads that stitch us into place? They may be good or bad, or somewhere in between, but they are certainly there.