By: Josiah Mohr
Humans are incredibly needy people. Even in our highly individualized and self-sufficient culture, there seems to be no shortage of the expression of personal need. We all have an insatiable degree of irritable, impatient, and entitled needs that we feel must be shared with everyone. We overuse the word “need,” declaring our need for more time, sleep, money, and stuff, many times substituting it for our more appropriately labeled “wants.” But what if we considered this unsettling negative trend of excessive acknowledgement of personal “need” from a different perspective?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is perhaps the most popular representation of the varying levels and interpretations of need. His analysis proposed what could linearly define the true needs of humans. As we achieve the provision of one need, we will continue to ascend the hierarchy in an attempt to fulfill the next need until ultimate contentment is met and all needs are, theoretically, provided for. At the base is provision for physiological health, which includes food and water, and is closely followed by the physical need for shelter and safety. Ascension upward looks toward mental and emotional states, requiring a sense of collective belonging and individual self-esteem. The theory’s model peaks with self-actualization, a state of being in which we completely achieve our greatest individual potential and personal understanding. This suggests that the pinnacle of human existence is exceptionally independent and indifferent to the state of the community. Such a suggestion reflects an excessive focus on personal need.
However, unbeknownst to many who are aware of Maslow’s theory, the famous psychologist came to a further conclusion, revising his own hierarchy of needs late in his career. He first proposed the popular hierarchy in 1943, but as time was his teacher, Maslow revised the concept 26 years later to encompass an even higher motivational state of existence – the need for self-transcendence. This is not an elitist concept that places those who have “transcended” on some higher plane of existence. In fact, the reality of a “transcended” existence is far more grounded than a reality that is only “actualized.”
Self-actualization does well with its ability to affirm and reinforce the value of our individual identities, giving us the highest level of respect for our own existence. But what it does not do well is permit an awareness of perspectives outside of ourselves, remaining solely focused on fulfilling our own needs and wants. Self-transcendence doesn’t abandon such elevated self-esteem; rather, it develops that affirmation to also encompass those on the periphery of our of own existence and to become aware of the perspectives and needs that are present in the whole of the community. Ultimately, by becoming aware in this way, the role of the community becomes integral rather than simply peripheral to existence, motivating service for instead of service from the community.
All of this psychology is good and well-intended, but leaving self-transcendence as only a matter of cognitive discussion is quite redundant and socially hypocritical. If having a better understanding of such psychology is only to bolster our own self-image and establish a good theoretical morale without motivating us to a new state of activity, then we have yet to even reach the state of self-actualization.
This question addresses two key factors in the pursuit of self-transcendence. The first is the empowerment of the needy. The modern cultural flaw of excessive acknowledgment of need often further develops into the excessive focus on receiving credit for meeting someone’s need. Recognition should be encouraged when it is well deserved, but too often our “need” for recognition causes us to fulfill another’s need in a way that at best is temporary and at worst creates a sense of dependency. In psychological comparison to self-actualization, this is at best one step down as an issue of self-esteem and at worst yet another step down as a need for collective belonging.
A more appropriate approach to the pursuit of self-transcendence is empowering the community members to meet their own needs, which also includes an awareness of the context of the community. Each of our investments may look completely foreign to another. The old adage that is often used to explain this concept is along the lines of “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he will never hunger again.” This is quite good in theory, but it makes a few assumptions from which we could learn how to better invest. If the community in which we are investing doesn’t have a source of fish, teaching him to fish still doesn’t help. The need can also be perpetuated if the community doesn’t have easy access to fishing poles or other tools of the trade. Self-transcendence is much more than simply passing on general knowledge, even if it is with a kind heart. Self-transcendence is becoming even more fully aware of the resources that are available to a specific community or even person.
So far we have discussed the transcendent side of self-transcendence. But this is, after all, the hierarchy of our own individual needs and there is an element of self involved. A transcendent perspective of self is not one that is selfish but it is, however, a self-caring one, that is aware personal boundaries. This is an all-too-common observable problem among many aspiring transcendentalists. Serving others with complete abandon may sound like a wonderfully noble cause, but such sacrifice can quickly lead to either premature burnout or martyrdom, doing no benefit to ourselves or our communities. We must be humble enough to admit that we ourselves also have needs and must dedicate time to meet those needs.
Humanity’s greatest need is not the selfish fulfillment our own desires, nor is it to selfishly fix the world’s problems. The greatest human need is for selfless service to the communities in which we are invested. This is self-transcendence: having the awareness to serve another while simultaneously having the humility to admit our own needs.