Was Maslow Wrong?

While living in my old apartment I befriended a few people beyond the usual superficial hellos that you would expect during regular lobby and elevator encounters. The first one was my immediate neighbor.  A nice enough guy who’s sister and cousin shared the place. Then he got arrested, the hydro was cut off, a Sheriff’s notice posted on the door indicating eviction from the premises and I haven’t heard from any of them since.

My new next-door neighbor was also a nice guy. He previously lived in another area of the building. I was invited to hang out once for dinner and ate some tasty chicken and rice. Then a few weeks later he asked me for cash because he was short on rent.  My mind recalled the 36” LCD TV, laptop, high speed internet, stereo, posh-looking sofas and bed he had. And there’s me with the netbook hooked up to 24” LED TV, low speed internet tethered via my Wind mobile account and a series of hand me down furniture from the Flintstones era. My place reflects my desire to live below my means, utilitarian and minimalist, saving money for my rainy day fund.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, shouldn’t you focus on paying for food and rent before buying the big screen TV. I guess some people just skip the first two steps, go right for the bling bling and then rely on their friends, food banks  or other support groups to make up the difference. I’ve encountered one person complaining about having to pay forty-five dollars for a required educational course, subsidized by the taxpayer, while he was wearing his two hundred dollar Dr. Dre headphones.

I reluctantly lent my neighbor forty dollars. Not out of sincerity or kindness, but out of obligation, awkwardness and being manipulated.  A couple weeks later he paid the money back.

Six months had passed since that moment. I had forgotten all about it. One day that same neighbour met me in the hallway and said he was going to buy me a bottle of red wine, just because.  Err, thanks.  Then four days later I arrived home to discover a post-it note on my door asking me to call him right away.  He didn’t have my cell number, so instead of calling him I knocked on his door as I was instinctively cautious of having future requests in text or voice message format instead of post-it notes. When he opened the door I was warmly greeted, then he asked for some cash to buy food and that he will be pay me back in a week. I quickly glanced around his apartment again looking at his niceties.  I told him “sorry, no” as I was saving up money for a trip I was planning to take.

That night I reflected on what had happened while drinking some delicious red wine.  No, it was another bottle I had.  I woke up the next day and slipped twenty bucks under his door. A part of me was angry.

My neighbor had chosen to take care of his safety and basic biological need as listed in Maslow’s hierarchy through the community around him. He doesn’t need to be self-reliant, to downgrade his internet, phone service or get a lower-end TV to save money when he can call on any bunch of supporters to fulfill his needs.  If some or all of his needs are being met externally, does that make him self-actualized? I wonder if he’s surrounded himself with niceties as a level of distraction in order to feel good, to overcompensate in one area because there’s a deficiency in another.

There are over 5,000 homeless people in this city who would love to change places with him, with me and with you.

So what is stopping me from going to a food bank and never having to buy groceries again?  My basic needs will be met which will help me focus on other areas. Who’s going to know? Do I care if others know?   Think of how much money I could save.  I can eat out more, buying more sushi and expensive lattes. I can even buy a car or save up to buy a house.  Do I really need to go through the first few levels of Maslow?

The model needs another look. A parent gives their infant child food, shelter and safety through family and belonging.  A person can achieve more health and property through creativity and problem solving. Most starving artists aim to express and inspire themselves and others through their art first, then buy food and pay rent second.  Times have changed, it’s no longer a hierarchy of needs.  One is not a prerequisite to the other. It’s all connected, interdependent and balanced on how much you have of one verses any of the others.

A week later my neighbour paid me back the money I lent him.


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