In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll cop to it right from the start: I was that student (in the front of the class, usually, which is probably even worse) rolling my eyes at some of the human development content in every practice/human behavior/child development class in my undergraduate social work education. My fellow instructors, you probably know the type–member of the Democratic Socialist Party, organizing a protest for just about everything, not totally grasping the intense privilege she enjoys in higher education?
I came, relatively quickly, to appreciate much of the clinical wisdom that seemed not-quite-radical-enough to me in those heady days before I actually did any practicing. Certainly I am glad that I had to learn how to listen actively, how to reframe, how to tap into people’s inherent motivations, how to identify hurt and accompany people through it.
In other words, I was (mostly) totally wrong, inexcusably impatient, and terribly naive.
I never really bought into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and, unlike most of the rest of what I was so eager to gloss over, my skepticism when it comes to Maslow has only increased.
Because, really, I just don’t believe that we need shelter or employment, or even health or food, more than we need to feel that we belong, that we are respected, and that our lives have meaning.
My work, especially that which happens alongside people who are experiencing tremendous need in those first 2 or 3 tiers of the hierarchy, has only confirmed my sense that the pyramid is fairly paternalistic, and that people’s real search for ‘quality of life’ proceeds in a far different manner than this ladder would have us believe.
I see it in the individuals with severe mental illness who, despite insecurity in their housing and distance from their family members, root themselves in the community created at their community mental health center and find ways to creatively tell their stories in pursuit of greater justice.
I see it in the individuals experiencing homelessness, who, major needs in that bottom tier notwithstanding, tell me that their primary advocacy objective is to address stigma, because what hurts even more than being homeless is being hated for being homeless.
And I see it, and have seen it, over and over again in the individuals with significant challenges–big gaps, sometimes, in their ‘hierarchy of needs’, who only need to be asked to join with their peers and fight for their rights.
They aren’t waiting until they have enough to eat and a good place to live and a decent job.
They are craving, just like we all crave, an opportunity to earn respect and build community and experience purpose…
knowing that, in our society, those ‘higher order’ tiers can be the foundation from which the initial levels of the hierarchy are secured.
We–our profession, our society, our organizations–do ourselves and those we serve (none of whom, including myself, I’d really consider at Maslow’s ‘self-actualization’ level!) a great disservice when we assume that the best that we can collectively accomplish (empowerment and respect and purpose and community) is, quite visually, ‘beyond’ those to whom structures have denied the basics of life.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that food and shelter and clothing aren’t important. Or that we can pretend as such when we’re getting folks engaged in collective action. That’s a mistake, and it’s alienating and harmful and offensive.
But life doesn’t happen in neat stages. And we could do with quite a bit less hierarchy, I think.