Here be fish bones

We all know the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  It is omnipresent in our education system.  I can remember studying it in nursing. So intuitive, so obvious.  Perhaps that little pinnacle of “Self-actualization” gave me a pause for thought once, I don’t know.  I think I  just swallowed.

As I’m sure, did most of my classmates. We assimilated Maslow’s theory into our thought processes, memorized the pyramid, and built  nursing care plans around it; just as would-be-teachers applied it to students , and incipient business managers to the needs of employees.

Last night I listened to a lecture that made me take a wake-up look at the pyramid I had so naively swallowed whole.

“Maslow taught that humans are essentially good,” said the lecturer, illustrating this with an appropriate quote.

Today I went on the internet to refresh my memory:

“The basis of Maslow’s motivation theory is that human beings are motivated by unsatisfied needs, and that certain lower factors need to be satisfied before higher needs can be satisfied. According to Maslow, there are general types of needs (physiological, survival, safety, love, and esteem) that must be satisfied before a person can act unselfishly. He called these needs “deficiency needs.” As long as we are motivated to satisfy these cravings, we are moving towards growth, toward self-actualization. Satisfying needs is healthy, while preventing gratification makes us sick or act evilly.”

I suspect nobody waved  the underpinning philosophy of the innate goodness of man at us in so many words in nursing, or  it might have activated my automatic response, “But- man’s heart is evil and desperately wicked unless redeemed.” The underlying assumption was just assumed.

Last night my misgivings were well triggered. Perhaps this pyramid, so deliciously geared to self-gratification has some flaws.

This morning, chewing over Maslow and his pyramid, I thought about two things.

I thought about the little girl from Dafur who said,

“It is very kind to send us food, but this is Africa and we are used to being hungry. What I ask is that you please take the guns away from the people who are killing us.”

And most particularly I thought  of Christ’s classic encounter with his arch-enemy.

After forty days of fasting he was challenged by Satan to make stones into bread- and satisfy his physiological needs.  He responded, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God.”

In one brief sentence he redefined priorities.

The same article I quoted above also says,

“Though Maslow’s hierarchy makes sense intuitively, little evidence supports its strict hierarchy. Actually, recent research challenges the order that the needs are imposed by Maslow’s pyramid. As an example, in some cultures, social needs are placed more fundamentally than any others. Further, Maslow’s hierarchy fails to explain the “starving artist” scenario, in which the aesthetic neglects their physical needs to pursuit of aesthetic or spiritual goals. Additionally, little evidence suggests that people satisfy exclusively one motivating need at a time, other than situations where needs conflict.”

Chew before swallowing, and then with care. Here be fish bones.



  1. Lila said

    Funny I should read this the same day I listened to TheGodJourney where the guys were talking about The Tyranny of Our Wants []

    The older fellow was quoting Peterson’s version of 1 Peter 4:1-2 and they picked up on the phrase “being tyrannized by what you want.” I guess in Maslow’s world, we are “dead men walking” because we follow a different drummer.

  2. scott said

    Dallas Willard makes a thoughtful observation that when Christ went into the desert to fast, he was not seeking out a place of weakness but a place of strength.

    The effect of fasting was not to make him vulnerable, but to strengthen him towards invulnerability. He could not have been appreciably hungrier on the 40th day than on the days immediately before, which he had successfully endured.

    Thus, when he said, “Man does not live on bread alone.” he was speaking from real experience.

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