Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has traditionally been taught to school kids around the world. The purpose of life, the schema claims, is to achieve self-actualization, self-improvement, and then, perhaps, transcendence. But starting the hierarchy from the bottom actually produces impossible psychological hurdles. There is a better way to do life, namely by starting from the top.
Question everything. That’s what I taught myself, because I often felt academics were overvaluing peer-reviewed systems and theories. And high-school teachers were often favoring correctness over creativity. If you want to find the truth, assume everything you know is a lie. So, when I look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I find it pretty peculiar that I, as an individual, am supposed to find food, water, and shelter even before I join a community of friends and family? What if people could, you know, be born into a community that looked after them?
Indeed, human beings don’t normally start Maslow’s hierarchy at the bottom step. They start at the third step from the top — as a child of their parents and elders, as a member of some tribe, community, or society. This community of love and belonging will generally support its infants by providing them with food, water, and shelter (step 5 from the top), as well as safety needs (step 4 from the top).
In fact, that community of belonging generally even provides a child with basic self-esteem, respect, and recognition (step 2 from the top). Such self-esteem may be derived from the tribe’s history, its heroes, and simply from mom and dad being supportive of their child. If parents make their child feel psychologically visible, i.e., they treat the child as an actual human being deserving of being seen and heard, a child will already have plenty of self-esteem building up in its psyche.
In fact, I tend to believe children are born with high self-esteem. All it needs it nurture and recognition. People with low self-esteem somehow lost theirs to neglect or abuse. At least, I think so. At birth or shortly thereafter, all people then basically have gone through steps 2 to 5 (from the top). This is why I question Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s not really a hierarchy, is it? If you’re born into most of what you are going to need, then all that’s left for you to do is to participate and self-actualize.
In Maslow’s view, however, people are born utterly helpless. People who progress up the pyramid of needs from the bottom apparently do so as a consequence of becoming wealthier and growing older. I find this notion absurd since it implies one needs to be wealthy enough to earn one’s inclusion into a community. One needs to be experienced enough to earn self-esteem. This isn’t so, obviously. No one has to earn money or grow old in order to afford friendships or self-esteem or respect.
In my view, the whole concept of money and wealth isn’t related to the hierarchy of needs. And this got me thinking that perhaps Maslow has got everything wrong! What if one’s birth is already one’s self-actualization? What if it all starts from the top rather than from the bottom? What if you are, at birth ,self-actualized as a human being, full of self-esteem, and into a community of belonging that provides you your security needs and your physical needs?
Imagine it this way, then. Say, you were born, and that birth was your self-actualization. Rather than having to grow old, get rich, and earn self-esteem, you simply command the self-esteem already available to you from birth, hopefully now validated by the family you were born into. I mean to say people don’t need to develop self-esteem. They have it at birth. Your self-esteem may be suppressed by bad encounters with unfriendly people, but you don’t ever have to earn self-esteem. Your self-esteem, in fact, flows from your self-actualization as a human being.
At first, as a child, your security needs are provided to you by your elders, teachers, and parents, and perhaps siblings or peers to some extent. Now, you will begin your traditional education. In its simplest form, a traditional education means to rapidly acquire the skills you’re going to need to be able to provide your security needs to yourself so that you may become independent. You don’t need to grow very old to be able to do so, nor do you need to become very wealthy. You may have mastered all of your basic security needs by age 10, including, but not limited to, baking bread, fishing, reparing clothes, hunting, gathering, growing crops, healing wounds, and basic personaly hygiene.
Note that in modern society, the modern education system may actually be designed to slow down your traditional education. Rather than teaching you how to fish, you are taught how to research the economics of fishing. You may even receive a degree in economics without ever having learned how to fish. And that’s a problem in modern societies. So many people are ‘educated’ in things that don’t help them meet their security needs, whereas traditional education always will.
It is modernity, then, which thwarts our attempts to have our own security needs met, and again, it is modernity which now puts a price tag on our physiological needs. In today’s Lapland, for example, you may find unpolluted streams of water where you can stick your cup in and drink it. It’s free. If you need more for cooking and cleaning in your cabin, you can haul the water in with buckets. Point is, all fresh water used to be unpolluted and free. Every 3-year-old kid used to be able to fetch its own water. Today, you have to pay for it.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, then, appears to apply to modern times, but it certainly wasn’t always so. Modernity actually prevents you from acquiring your security needs and physiological needs. Our self-actualization becomes the carrot on the stick we chase as though we were still donkeys waiting to become human. In ancient times, people were already self-actualized at birth.
My point is that we shouldn’t have to earn our self-actualization. We shouldn’t have to jump through all sorts of hoops merely to have self-esteem. Jumping through hoops is not winning self-esteem. It’s a circus act.