Happy Thanksgiving, Maslow Said
By the time you read this, you will most likely have done all the shopping and planning you need to do to celebrate Thanksgiving. Comes now the assembling of family and friends around a table to share the holiday meal. Today is a day we come together to give thanks.
For what?, you ask, in this most bruising of electoral seasons.
All votes have yet to be counted nationwide, but this much seems obvious: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote; Donald Trump won the electoral vote. Next month, electors will assemble to cast their ballot. Donald Trump is all but certain to become the next president of the United States.
His ascension is, depending on your vote, either a welcome sign or a portent of the apocalypse. Many a holiday meal will grow tense as family members rehearse political arguments.
A word to the losers: Don’t whine.
For the first time in a long time, join hands in simple acts of thanks and, as corny as it sounds, be grateful for the relative peace and harmony we share.
Come January, there will be a peaceful transition from one administration to another. Our institutions are strong. And while economic inequality grips the land, there is still abundance enough to make us the envy of most of the world.
I’ve been scratching my head over this year’s election. What accounts for the popularity of outsiders, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump? How is it that woman with a resume tailor-made for the job was not elected president?
Discontent is in the wind. We’ve lost the ability to speak to one another.
How to address this whirling cacophony?
Perhaps Abraham Maslow can teach a thing or two. You may recall hearing of his hierarchy of needs, a pyramid that ranks human need from most basic to most sublime. It takes the form of a pyramid.
Maslow was one of the 20th century’s most influential psychologists. In 1943, he published a paper that has come to be one of the most famous scholarly publications of all time. It portrayed his hierarchy of human needs.
The most basic need, and therefore the need at the base of the pyramid, is what we share with other animals: the needs for food, water, sleep, protection from nature’s most severe privations. Satisfy these, and a person can aspire for more.
Safety is the next tier in the pyramid. By safety Maslow meant security for one’s family, employment, health and property. Stay alive first, and then worry about quality of life.
A person enjoying satisfaction of physiological and safety needs is then free to seek the consolations of love and belonging. Once freed from the tyranny of necessity, we can chose friends, cherish family, and nurture bonds of intimacy.
There’s more, Maslow says, a fourth level of higher order needs, as in the need for esteem or respect from others, and from one self. We are such stuff as our associations with others make us, all of us mirrors, reflecting what we see back upon ourselves and on to others.
At the apex of Maslow’s hierarchy is what he called self-actualization. I suspect he meant more than what advertisers market. Maslow was no vulgarian seeking to have each live lives of self-satisfaction, regardless of what satisfies. He sought healthy people, people capable of setting realistic goals, of engaging in purposeful conduct, of living together in communities of mutual self-respect.
I’m not sure the lines separating the five tiers of this pyramid are all that firmly drawn. It is difficult to distinguish the need for esteem from that of self-actualization.
But Maslow’s point is simple enough. No matter how the lines in his pyramid are parsed, some needs are more basic than others. It makes no sense to tell a starving man his life will be more complete if he learns to appreciate operatic performances.
What has this to do with Thanksgiving in this contentious year?
Maslow just might solve the paradox of this year’s election results. From where I sit, the two campaigns pitched their messages to different levels on Maslow’s hierarchy.
Clinton and Democrats aimed high: Under the umbrella that is America, all are entitled to esteem, self-actualization. We’re a republic of differences, and by respecting the goals of all, each of us is enriched.
That works in a community of affluence, where more basic needs are met. Affluent communities can afford to be cosmopolitan.
Trump and the Republicans focused lower on the hierarchy. Their message was pitched to a working class that feels that affluence has passed them by. By tapping this resentment and fear, Trump shocked the world.
The results shocked only those living in a bubble of privilege.
Need a concrete example? Politicizing whether folks can use the restroom of their choice is an appeal to self-realization; building roads and securing employment is a far more basic need. Don’t tell a struggling working class it needs to welcome strangers into the land because it is part of our heritage. Eat first; self-actualize later.
Abundance yields visions of inclusion; scarcity breeds a politics of fear.
So how do we move forward from here?
The Roman orator Cicero offers guidance. A republic, he taught, is not just any collection of people. No, a republic is a group of people bound together by common conceptions of right and common interests. Let’s consider our common interests.
An experiment in community building: Locate yourself on one of the five tiers. Give thanks for what you have accomplished. Then, rather that looking up to the next tier, asking yourself how to get there, look one step below you, to a person less affluent.
Offer one person at a time a helping hand.
Odds are we’re all seeking more or less the same thing — we have common interests. Some of us are just more fortunate than others.
Let’s give thanks for what we have, but not forget those who have less. We’re all pilgrims in need of grace.
Have a grace-filled holiday, everyone.