Saturday, November 03, 2012

Sandy and Maslow's Hierarchy

For years I have known, studied, and taught about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as an intuitively true and useful description. For those of you not familiar with it, the traditional pyramid is on the left.

From Wikipedia:
Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation". Maslow subsequently extended the idea to include his observations of humans' innate curiosity. His theories parallel many other theories of human developmental psychology, some of which focus on describing the stages of growth in humans. Maslow used the terms Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, and Self-Actualization needs to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top.

The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called "deficiency needs" or "d-needs": esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these "deficiency needs" are not met - with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need - there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow's theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.
Well, a few evenings ago while watching the evening news I realized I was seeing Maslow's theory in action. It didn't take much to translate the visions on the TV into the falling apart of their hierarchy of needs. Here are some of my observations:

  1. The overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of such devastation can only lead to a falling apart of all sense of safety and security.For many the structures of western civilization which give us security- police, fire, seawalls- are not working. The protections we come to assume will be there are not. After two or three days, it gets scary.
  2. The loss of homes and cars, clothes and even family members will tear at the fabric of the most fundamental needs- our physiological needs- food, (drinkable) water, shelter. It doesn't take long for the sense of terror to eat away at how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.
  3. With these bottom two foundations shattered, or badly damaged, the social structure begins to crumble as well. Tempers rise, blame begins to be put on others or government or whoever is handy. This helps mitigate that sense of powerlessness. We can't be at the whim of natural forces. We would have been able to face it down- IF THEY had been more prepared.
  4. As this sense of loss becomes more real, grief sets in and the process of grieving continues to eat away at our sense of hope and direction. Anger, depression, bargaining interweave with the weakening hierarchy of needs. Denial had already been at work before Sandy as people had difficulty believing that it could really happen.
These aren't new observation, of course. They have been utilized in many an apocalyptic book or movie for years and years. How quickly civilization can fall apart is frightening. A little bit of additional stress on an over-stressed social system can bring it crumbling to the ground.

When these things are affecting millions of people at the same time, chaos can ensue. Symbolic actions do little to alleviate the situation, as Mayor Bloomberg found out in relation to the NYC Marathon. New York winning the World Series after 9/11 had a great deal of positive meaning. It helped New York and the nation get a sense of resolve. But that was 6 weeks after the event and people weren't running through the midst of Ground Zero.

Caution and hope must now go together. Caution to counteract the fear that must still be present in those facing more cold nights or emergency shelter days. Fear is a powerful emotion driven by the brain's survival mechanisms. Hope, in real and concrete ways, must be seen.

Fortunately there are many stories circulating of the ways that civilization is still intact in New York and New Jersey. These remind us that while we may be facing some insecurity and even great loss, the human side of civilization, the possibility of relationships, support, friendship - Maslow's "love and belonging" are still present. These have not been fatally wounded  by Sandy.

Perhaps the cautionary tale of all this is how fragile civilization can be and how at the mercy of events beyond our control we can be. To build our support systems- personal, interpersonal, societal- is not something to be overlooked or taken lightly. This is not the last time we will face such chaos and catastrophe.

As we come to the end of a very divisive and contentious election cycle, I hope that we learn from Sandy the need to work together may be far more important than ideological purity.

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