Abraham Mazlo was a smart dude (who spent a lot of time around books and libraries growing up). He posited the idea that we have a hierarchy of needs, with physiological needs—breathing, food, water, sex—coming before security needs like physical safety, job security and consistency in morality, family and property rules. After those came the needs associated with love and belonging: sexual intimacy, friendship and family. Then come the needs fulfilled by esteem—of and by others, of self. Confidence goes on this tier as well.
At the top of his hierarchy are the self-actualization needs: problem-solving, creativity, individual morality, and lack of prejudice, among others. Maybe this is the arrangement of needs best suited to individuals whose priority is perpetuating their genes rather than their ideas, or maybe Mazlo didn’t study too many of the kind of people I meet. In my legal work, I come across people who are so fixed on the need for sexual intimacy or approval, or some other “higher order” craving, that they jeopardize their very lives.
Unless and until they get their emotional needs met, they can’t fashion a life where physiological needs are met. Some of these people are attorneys whom we would call “successful” in the traditional sense, some are convicted felons, and some are the victims of those felons.
In my literary travels, I came across a book called, “Kabluna.” This is a work of nonfiction written by a European who was sojourning among First Nations peoples of the Canadian far north between the World Wars. They referred to him as “kabluna.” The author of this tome met up with a missionary serving in the Artic north, a man who lived more or less in an ice cave eating little besides raw fish. On a calories in/calories out basis, the fellow should not have been able to sustain life, much like many distance runners. The author posited that the missionary was so beloved by the locals, so thoroughly sustained by the meaningfulness of the role he fulfilled in the community, that earthly nutrition was secondary to the spiritual banquet he consumed daily.
I am not now nor have I ever aspired to be any kind of missionary, but I am a writer. My hierarchy of needs dictates that even when food, water, and sex (for God’s sake, Mazlo was a smart guy, but still a guy) are in short supply, I have a need to notice my surroundings. I watch people, I watch animals, I watch myself. I watch the sky and the land, I watch traffic. I watch my thoughts. When my livelihood has been jeopardized or my health threatened, I’ve watched that too.
This is not a dissociative tendency, this is not denial, this is having the mind of a writer. I watch, and I ponder. When I’m driving to work, when I’m falling asleep, when I’m supposed to be dwelling on my gratitudes, my little brain goes off on one frolic and detour after another. This is not Attention Deficit Disorder, or lingering post traumatic stress symptoms. This is having the imagination of a writer. If somehow, somebody got into my mind and prohibited me from watching and pondering, my identity would be jeopardized.
When I’ve watched and pondered for a while, I must synthesize what I observe with my experience and beliefs, and I call that writing. Maybe these are just manifestations of something Mazlo had different names for. They are activities I must pursue to be who I am, and they go on whether I’m fed, loved, housed, befriended or not. And because I do them and others are apparently drawn to do them as well—observe, ponder, synthesize and express—we have what Mazlo placed under only individual morality in his hierarchy of needs: creativity.
I call it culture, somebody else might term it wisdom. Someday, I will reflect on why Mazlo’s pyramid seems to be the inverse of what some Asian philosophies say is the path to spiritual enlightenment, but it seems to me there’s more than one pyramid. So my pyramid might be upside down compared to old Abe’s. Perhaps yours is as well, or inside out, or both. The point is to understand what the levels are on your pyramid, and set about meeting those needs that define you. Maybe you’ll call that writing too.