I spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of human beings and what we need to be fully human. In that quest is an acknowledgment that humans don’t always live up to their potential – that, in fact, we frequently underachieve or leave unrealized what is in our nature to become.
Perhaps due to the ambivalent “gift” bestowed on us by God or evolution, referring to our ability as self-conscious choosers to determine our own destiny, ours might be the only species on this planet that routinely frustrates its natural design. There is in the apple seedling an impetus or inherent purpose that drives development towards becoming a mature fruit-bearing apple tree. Nature has provided us with something similar, but our self-actualization takes us far beyond physical maturity and reproductive fitness.
The analogy is still provocative, however: If apple seeds are intended to become apple trees, what is the analogous evolutionary ideal that is even now tugging at our genes, shaping our personalities, and luring us in the direction of human fulfillment? Almost two and a half millenniums ago, Aristotle named this internal impetus or inherent purpose the entelechy of a living thing, an inner aim that guides development to its natural completion. Apple trees just “go with the flow” and attain self-actualization practically every time, while human beings, with our self-conscious free will, end up getting in our own way and almost always make a mess of ourselves.
In this post I will present a theory of human needs, about what we need to be fully human. Instead of categorizing these needs according to where they fit among the “stacking” intelligences of our physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and spiritual aspects – exemplified most famously in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – I will consider the possibility that our needs as human beings are not so stackable and complementary, but are rather inherently in tension with each other.
To satisfy one need puts a strain on other needs; and to hold on to satisfaction – or to think that we can “get it” and be done – around any of our needs will tend to generate anxiety and ultimately depression, insofar as the latter is a state where we lose hope of ever finding what we really need. This inherent tension among our needs, along with our tendency to get hung up in anxiety or pulled down into depression, might make us wonder whether our species represents a failed experiment of nature. We got loaded with a set of needs that is impossible to satisfy as a whole. Maybe.
My diagram above lays out what I regard as our evolutionary needs as human beings. The “stair-step” design is an effort to avoid the limitations of the stacking model, which is too vertical and static, while retaining a developmental perspective. Needs to the left are both deeper and earlier than those to their right, just as needs to the right are higher and later than those more leftward. I don’t want to dispose entirely of the idea that our needs open up in some kind of sequence (thus the left-to-right progression up the stairs). But with each “step” a new element of tension is added to the mix, further complicating the prospect of self-actualization as we go along.
So let’s dig a little deeper into each of these five human needs, and try to get a feel for how impossibly human we really are.
I define security as the assurance an individual is encouraged to have by virtue of being grounded in a reality experienced as provident and supportive. By identifying it with an inner assurance I am deliberating separating security from the question of whether the individual’s reality is actually provident and supportive. In other words, security is an internal perception more than it is a description of external conditions.
Typically when our biological urgencies for air, nourishment, protection, and bonding are met, the “idle speed” of our nervous system gets set to an RPM that is relaxed, calm, and open to our surroundings. The organism-environment duality is perceived as auspicious and favorable to life – in Einstein’s words, the universe is friendly. We needed security – this assurance – when we were born (even before), and we haven’t stopped needing it ever since.
But soon we need more than just to feel secure – not just more secure, but something more than security alone. Our developing nature opened out to reality in quest of enjoyment: pleasure, amusement, happiness, and excitement. To enjoy something is to find joy in it, or to take joy from our experience of it. While security has to do with the mood or mode of being as calibrated in our nervous system (anxious or calm, recoiled or open to reality), enjoyment is about emotional engagement with what has our attention.
Because enjoyment requires an open engagement with reality, this need introduces “competition” with our need for security. While security is basically passive in seeking confirmation that reality is provident to the animal urgencies of our body, our need for enjoyment compels us to actively seek what will bring pleasure and excitement. Opening ourselves in this way to reality, however, exposes us to pain and harm as well. It seems we can’t have total security and real enjoyment at the same time.
Perhaps the first efforts at meaning-making in humans were inspired by a need of consciousness to ascend to a vantage-point on reality where the inevitable suffering of life can somehow be reconciled and included in a single worldview. We need to know that the pain, hardship, and bereavement that haunt our happiness are somehow worth it.
Beyond this therapeutic function of meaning, though, is the way it crisscrosses reality with threads of causality and purpose, value and significance, identity and reference that our minds can inhabit. This web of meaning gives us a way of connecting the dots of experience, imagining patterns across the complex features of existence and otherwise confusing events of our lives. We have only recently begun to appreciate to what extent meaning is in the eye of the beholder – not “out there” in reality but projected by our minds for the purpose of making sense of things.
Why can’t human beings just be content in our webs and worldviews? Why do we grow bored with the agreements and interpretations that once contained our experience so neatly? Why do we keep asking questions and challenging the answers? What is it that compels us to look over the wall, push the envelope, and try new things?
I think the answer is that we have a need for transcendence, to “go beyond” whatever boundaries and horizons define our current reality. (Let’s not forget that these boundaries and horizons are not actually in reality itself but projected onto it by our minds.) Perhaps something in us knows that meaning is a self-made illusion, and that genuine contact with reality requires a daring outreach into the unknown. Perhaps the fact that we are dynamically alive and continuously evolving beings makes it unavoidable that our comfortable castles in the air eventually become too small to contain our spirit.
I don’t want to confuse this need for transcendence with a metaphysical interest in the so-called Transcendent. This isn’t a “need for god” or for the supernatural in our lives. The compulsion to go beyond meaning is an implicit acknowledgment that humans need not simply more meaning, but something more than meaning. Since even our highest and most sacred meanings are still only qualifications on the present mystery of reality, we need to go beyond even these in our quest for authentic being.
I am using the term “fulfillment” here to get at the idea of self-actualization, where nature is perfected, as it were, in the mature and fully developed individual. It is common in the traditions to envision this ideal state as the liberated, exalted, and glorified personality, depicted in theism as a deity who actively expresses and models the virtues of our higher nature.
This is one of theism’s important contributions to our human adventure: What we might call “the moral character of god” (again, referring to the mythological deity) serves to attract and inspire our ethical formation in the direction of those qualities upon which human well-being and genuine community depend. With fulfillment, these virtues and attributes are gradually internalized by (or awakened in) the aspirant, opening out into new varieties of post-theism where the need for an external role-model is finally transcended.The question remains whether this destiny of human fulfillment is even possible, given the inherent tension among our developmental (and evolutionary) needs. Inevitably, it seems, tension produces conflict, and conflict – internal and interpersonal – gets us tangled in neurotic contradictions, chronic frustration, inter-tribal hostilities and more suffering. We grip down on the wrong things for security. Our craving for enjoyment becomes addiction. We surrender truth for meaning. We opt for self-improvement over transcendence. And in the end we sacrifice fulfillment on the altar of security, forfeiting our higher nature for the sake of a few petty ego conceits.
Perhaps we are impossibly human.