Mark Twain said “a man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

Our behavior can be beneficial or detrimental in ways we don’t expect.

However, our behavior is always an attempt to fulfill a need…

or a result of having a need fulfilled…

which is usually about being able to fulfill our needs in the future.

Maslow developed a “hierarchy of needs”.  The most basic needs we have relate to keeping our bodies alive.  Until we have met those needs, it is difficult or impossible to look beyond those needs.  A man who is starving may not reflect deeply on the possibility that taking a cat by the tail is unsafe.  Which is the next level of need according to Maslow.  It isn’t that a man who is starving cannot think about his need for safety as he considers how he may eat the cat; it’s just that he may be more willing to risk his safety in order to obtain the cat.  If his options are narrowed to two choices, he asks himself what good it is to remain safe and die of starvation?

If, while the man sucks the recently cooked and still warm marrow from the bones of the first cat, a second appears… he may take the time to reflect on ways to entrap the second cat that don’t include grabbing it by the tail.  If our most basic needs are met for the moment, it allows us to think more objectively about needs that are less basic.  Maslow’s hierarchy starts with physiological needs as the most basic and proceeds up the scale through safety, love/belonging, esteem, and finally self-actualization.

One might disagree with Maslow’s list or with how he arranged it, but one thing is sure…

All behaviors stem from attempts to meet, or have met, these needs.  We use all kinds of strategies to meet these needs.

As is implied by Maslow, human needs are universal.  A child living in a garbage dump in Juarez may not be aware of her need for self actualization.  However, if you remove her from the dump and place her in a safe and well appointed home with loving and enriching community… she will eventually attempt to gain esteem and become all she can be.  Her needs for esteem and self actualization are no different from the needs of someone born into this context; however, she hasn’t been able to recognize or address them until now.

Some people become trapped in their attempts to fulfill needs lower in the hierarchy, perhaps even unnecessarily so… but if the needs of lower levels are fully met, the attention usually turns to meeting needs “further up.”

Maslow’s hierarchy isn’t the only way to think about needs or their relative importance… but I like it.

My needs matter no more and no less than yours or anyone else’s.  All human needs are equal, which is another way of saying that all humans are equal.  In a country whose most important document states as much, you’d think we’d actually believe it.  Most, if not all, human suffering and conflict arise from the belief that my needs are more important than yours.  For example; I can, and might, place my need for safety above your need for sustenance.  If, because of malnourishment and weakness, you are unable to take the cat by the tail… being well fed, I may not be willing to risk doing so for you or, being hungry, I may not be willing to share it if I can catch it.  However, if I am hungry and you have a cat that you will not share, I may find myself contemplating ways I might obtain said cat against your will… risking our safety attempting to meet a more basic need.

If I believe your need to eat is equal to my own need to eat, and that the need to eat outweighs the need to be safe, I may be willing to risk hunger in the future in order to fulfill your need for food now.  I believe this is what is referred to as compassion.

There seems to be a lack of it in the world.

If I see the child in the Juarez city dump has a need for food, and it’s equal to my own need for food, does it change the way I think about behaving?  Seeing, I can change the channel and reflect on how presumptuous Sally Struthers is… or I can help the child get food.

Changing the channel meets my need for security or safety, my need for security outweighs my need for food, but it doesn’t outweigh the girl’s need for security or safety…

which she cannot attend to until she is fed.

If I understand her need is equal to my own, I can enhance her ability to meet her need for security by helping her meet her need to eat.

Or I can wait until she crosses the border…

as she attempts to meet her need…

and label her

meeting my need for something else…

’cause that’s working out so well



One thought on “need

  1. I think anyone who reads your thoughts will be challenged th think about mutual need and where they want to fall when it comes to needs in context of humanity/community. I resonate with the thought about compassion.

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