Since the 1940s, people have been quoting Abraham Maslow and his “Hierarchy of Needs” as a template for human development. Maslow’s premise is that until our basic human needs for food, shelter, and safety are met we cannot work on our higher needs of self-actualization. This theory makes sense, sounds reasonable, and is commonly accepted. Until, you live in relationship with people whose physiological needs have not been met and yet they aspire to self-fulfillment.
This last weekend Chris’s house was set on fire for a second time this year. He has lived without running water. Yet, he is a graduate of our Neighborhood Leadership Academy, volunteer at the Barrack Recreation Center, and voice of the community. His basic needs for housing, water, and safety have not been yet, and yet he works so others can reach their full potential.
A woman named Brittany often feeds homeless people from her front door, tends to overdosed drug addicts, and would rather give someone else money than have money herself. By common society standards she has very little, and yet she provides for other people.
Yesterday, I was feeling a bit down and then a woman named Geralyn handed me a piece of art from the Free Store, because she recognized I had two works from the same artist in my office. She looked at me and simply said “when you are struggling let him take the oars.” Geralyn herself has struggled to find a safe, decent place to live and yet she recognized my mood, was aware enough to notice the art on my wall, and went out of her way to lift me up.
When I ask people in poverty why they are so giving, they commonly respond that they would rather do for other people and that it makes them feel good to help. One person shared that they can help despite having little. I wonder if the opposite is true, that it is because they have little, and have not built an attachment to possessions, that they are able to put themselves in the place of others and reach a self-actualization that turns Maslow on his head.
This argument is not to romanticize poverty. People living without basic needs not only have less comfort than I, but often live in systems of violence, abuse, racism, limited education, and lack of opportunity that I have never experienced.
Yet, despite these barriers, my experience has been that people who physically have the least often rely on relationships the most. People who can’t trust in bureaucratic systems develop a reliance on God greater than my own. People who have literally gone without food and water know that true fulfillment doesn’t come from their stomachs. It is sometimes those whose physiological needs who have not been met that reach self-actualization.