"Man is a perpetually wanting animal." This is a quote by Abraham Maslow, 20th century American psychologist and mystic. And it goes for women too. Ah, the days we could be unabashedly sexist. Maslow was best known for his theory of psychological health. And to a much lesser degree for dying of a massive heart attack while jogging in Menlo Park at the still tender age of 62. He wasn't sexist at all, though he did marry his first cousin when he was twenty, and they stayed married until his coronary. Probably because they were related before relating. Or because they didn't have kids. My bad: they had two.
Maslow's theory, called the hierarchy of needs, is cleverly dubbed as it is based on the fulfillment of basic human needs. These needs, among which are physiological needs (such as food and water, and arguably sex), the need for safety and love as well as the need for self-esteem, culminate in what Maslow called self-actualization. Each yearning, once satisfied, gives way to a new and "higher need." When there is plenty of food you are free to devote your attention to such pursuits as writing sonnets, buying a house, studying psychology and getting married, perhaps not in that order, if at all. Until a basic need is satisfied you cannot climb the ladder, so to speak, which is why starving artists are never literally that, since if they were perpetually ketototic or catabolic, to borrow medical terms, their waking hours would be spent procuring foodstuffs rather than painting portraits.
Part of the safety need (stage 2) is for undisrupted routine or rhythm. We all share this desire as babies, and are so innately satisfied with "a predictable, orderly world" furnished by all-powerful parents that the common notion of the ideal society is one which makes its members feel safe enough from wild animals, harsh weather, criminals and tyranny so that its citizens can concentrate on sonnets, which nobody writes anymore. But falling in love has not yet gone out of style.
From the desire for safety spring such modern inventions as tenure, health insurance, retirement and the trusty savings account. Even religion, with its attempt to organize the world into a meaningful whole, is aimed at providing us with security, which is safety with one extra syllable. Watching the news may trap you at stage 2, since your world view becomes whatever the media presents to you, which is a planet dominated by violence and bloodshed and social unrest. I prefer sonnets. But the neurotic does not. The neurotic, like the obsessive compulsive not to mention our fictional starving artist, is stuck at the lower motivational levels and is so preoccupied with these more basic drives that love seems far-fetched, fanciful and completely unnecessary. For the product of romantic union is a usually a child, and who would want to bring a kid into such an unsafe planet, where there is not even enough food to go around! I need to watch less news. And if sonnets are not your thing, love comes in many shapes and forms, notes Maslow. In fact, a desire for an ice cream cone is often just a thinly veiled desire to get busy. Both can be sweet. If only ice cream existed in Casanova's time, we wouldn't have his memories. Wait, it did!
Of course love is not synonymous with sex, which unlike cookies 'n cream is calorie-free. Love often exists in the absence of coitus, as between friends, or first cousins, or the longly wed - but not always. And whether platonic or no, for its perfect fulfillment love must be reciprocal. It may be better to love than to be loved, but it's best to do both. Who says you can't have your cake and eat it too, especially when dessert actually makes you hungry again (at over 400 calories an hour, I wonder for what position).
We all desire self-esteem and the esteem of others, which is the penultimate need. That is to say we want to achieve something great, and to be appreciated for our efforts. Either one on its own does not quite satisfy. What use is it to write the perfect essay if nobody reads it but me? (And yet I continue to try.) Conversely, universal praise for what the starving artist knows to be derivative garbage falls flat. Although with the hefty payday he can at least fill his fictional belly with ice cream.
Maslow was aware that even with the satisfaction of all these needs, even with a full stomach, safety, a stable relationship and financial success, a new discontent invariably follows, and restlessness soon develops. Why? Because we are wanting creatures, like the man said. But we are also creative creatures. And even making boatloads of cash will not cut it if your job does not really fulfill you. You must do what you are meant to do. What a person can be, he must be. The writer writes, the painter paints, and the performance artist does whatever the hell performance artists do. Self-fulfillment lies in actualizing what exists in you in potential. I'm beginning to sound preachy. It's not me! It's my man Mas, who makes a very good point when he says that people who are satisfied in the basic needs are basically satisfied people, and from them comes the highest art and creativity. But here's the rub: basically satisfied people are the minority, perhaps accounting for 1 percent of human beings. And so most of the what's out there passing for art is rubbish. Or as a writing teacher of mine used to say, it's mulch. Mulch is actually pretty versatile and inexpensive, and it really brings to life the garden, as I've recently come to find. Another matter, I mean mulch. Maslow actually believed that he could judge from a piece of art how fully the artist had satisfied his basic needs. That is he could gain insight into the writer's soul by reading his words. I know I can. How about you? What does this piece say about me, I wonder.
Of course, most "normal" people are partially satisfied in all their basic needs but also partially unsatisfied. Who wants to be normal? I say strive for that one percent. Strive for perfection. The fortunate few who have realized their true potential have "no sex needs or hunger needs, or needs for safety, or for love, or for prestige, or self-esteem, except in stray moments of quickly passing threat." Why, because they are fulfilled, if not transcended. It is possible to do without, especially if in the first 2 years of life you had great parents who saw to the satisfaction of your every craving. I think my mom and dad did fine. I just can't remember. So, transcendence is the key.
Many sages have been noted to bypass the fulfillment of many needs, for example choosing celibacy over matrimony (stage 3) and taking up the begging bowl and walking stick in lieu of practicing a more traditional profession (stage 4). And yet these exemplary individuals are regarded as great beings and revered throughout history. I'm talking about the reluctant founders of the world religions, Christ and the Buddha and the like. When you think of how integral a part of our security religion can be, you are really grateful for these saints, who in exposing themselves to the harsh elements and jeopardizing their personal safety added so greatly to our own; and in declining the fame and fortune that their talents may have won them had they been so like their egoistic peers, their selfless deeds and simple ways have become celebrated for centuries after their death and earned them the recognition of ten Bruce Lees or Muhammad Alis. Doesn't life work out just right all the time?
Now, the popular version of Maslow’s hierarchy is based on his early work and includes only the ﬁve aforementioned levels. But his later work and private journal entries point to a sixth motivation. This zenith or high point for which we all should strive is, you guessed it, self-transcendence. This higher octave of self-actualization lies in giving yourself to some goal bigger than yourself, such as altruism and spirituality. Altruism is universal over individual; and the aim of spirituality is to experience the unity of all being. Maslow's highest need therefore, the one all lower needs pave the way for, is to sink our ordinary consciousness into some ineffable whole and perfect truth, whatever this truth may be.
To quote Maslow in an article entitled "The farther reaches of human nature," published in 1969 in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and later expanded into a book:
You do not live by bread alone. That being said, eat, drink, sleep, be safe, have sex and make a name for yourself. But when it's all done know there's something bigger than you that awaits you. To find out what it is, look inside your heart. If you are not guided by your inner light, then help others find theirs. For as Maslow concludes his Theory of Motivation, the sick person is the frustrated person, and frustration of one's basic needs is made possible only by forces outside the individual. That is, by society. A sick individual is therefore a product of a sick society, and a healthy society is one which permits our highest purpose to emerge by satisfying all our basic needs. If that's not an argument for ice cream, I don't know what is! But I still prefer chocolate.