I have always loved the study of what makes people tick, hence I dedicated part of my education to psychology. While I understand that not all parts of psychology mesh well with Christian ideals, there is much in psychology that can be applied to these ideals, and Benjamin Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs is one.
The Tragic Side of Maslow’s Hierarchy
In its most basic form, Maslow’s hierarchy proposes that people satisfy their needs in a very rational and practical progression from basic physiological needs to safety needs to social needs followed by self-esteem needs and finally making a difference in this world. The fact that this progression is presented as a pyramid only emphasizes the idea that fewer and fewer folks actually achieve each progressing state. Put in another way, Maslow suggests that most people barely move beyond just surviving to perhaps thriving and never reach the point of caring about others, much less fulfilling their own mission and destiny in life.
The image is a stunning representation of human tragedy given the implication that most lives are centered around scraping together survival and safety needs in a world overrun with dangers from all sides. At the lowest level, a starving man searching for food in a garbage can is not too concerned about the danger of eating rotting food much less how his behavior might prevent him from getting a date. Likewise, someone might not attend a social gathering in a dangerous neighborhood regardless of the fact that she might make valuable job connections there. Portrayed in its most poignant form, this image shows us as threading water on instinct rather than worrying about how our lives will make a difference to anyone else.
The Ironic Glass is Half Full
Contrasted with the gloom above is the notion that Maslow challenges us to recognize that we each have a calling representing our full potential. Implied in this idea is the audacity to suggest that we are all capable of reaching that mission and purpose in life given the right circumstances. Thus, a great child singer can aspire to become an opera star and may achieve this goal where she can offer her gift for the enjoyment of others. What is ironic in this apparently inspiring image is that ultimate success is defined by one’s particular arena. This world often defines achievement in terms of money, material goods, fame, and power. Purchasers of that bill of goods will, therefore, measure their success by how much of these latter goodies they obtain. Such an effort may seem practical and rational on a secular level but may certainly be a path to destruction on an eternal plane.
Optimism is defined as seeing the glass as half full while pessimism means seeing that same glass as half empty. The irony here is that a half full secular glass which ignores the eternal implications of one’s actions is as empty as one can get.
The Catholic Spin on Maslow
Let us see Maslow from a Christian perspective, and let us, therefore, redefine each level of his hierarchy. At the most basic levels, we can strive to survive spiritually in a world so bent on removing Christianity and Christian ideals from the intellectual marketplace. We do this through mass, prayer, reading Scripture, practicing the great virtues, and striving to be a good person and role model to others. We also do this through immersing ourselves in spiritual reading and following the example of the saints. Most importantly, we do this via the spiritual nutrition of the Eucharist.
Moving beyond what should be basic Catholic survival tactics, we can find security and safety in trusting God and placing ourselves at the service of His Divine Providence. What good is a daily Rosary if we doubt God at every turn and turn bitter at every request not answered as we like? Once rooted in Catholic basics and fully open to God, we can more fully embrace belonging to God and our parish family and finding our true value in loving and serving God and others.
Maslow revealed the true nature of his hierarchy by calling the pinnacle “self” actualization. Certainly, his pyramid is a GPS map for an obsession with self-needs. If we are to truly apply Maslow to a Catholic perspective, we must rename this pinnacle as God actualization and redefine it as fully using our God-given gifts to love and serve God and others. Ultimately, what greater life can we proclaim that one constantly emptied in bringing greater glory to God through love and service?
2017 Gabriel Garnica