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​​​​​Human Needs and Meaning of Life

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, the priorities in human needs can be visualized in a pyramid. At its base are the physiological needs, such as food and water, followed by the safety needs, such as physical protection and a 'decent' level of survival resources. In the third and fourth levels are, respectively, the need of belonging to groups, such as family and friends, and the need of esteem, which aims at self-respect and the desire to be valued by others.

At the top of the pyramid are the needs associated with the meaning of life. The fifth level is self-actualization, the realization of personal fulfillment and the individual potential. And, at the very top, it appears self-transcendence, that is, the fulfillment of goals associated with altruism and spirituality. Are self-actualization and self-transcendence intrinsic requirements of human nature that generate meaning to our lives? There is no consensus on the answer.

Philosophers, religious folks, novelists, poets, psychologists and biologists, alike and from ever, have sought for the meaning of existence. The very question could contain part of the answer. Because the prodigy of consciousness, that open room to introspection, is the exclusive quality of us, humans. We are the only known creature that wonders about the purpose of being alive.

Other organisms​ cannot scrutinize existential issues. Neither can the smart machines. The portentous software programs that know everything or that learn by themselves any video game, or that are defeating the champions in every intellectual skill competition (chess, the 'go' oriental game, the Jeopardy! TV show of questions-and-answers) lack any level of introspective skill. It is our consciousness that allows us self-observation, not intelligence, what sets us apart from supercomputers. In its mystery we could perhaps find the meaning of existence.

Many biologists have already made up their minds: We are here, like all living beings, to ensure the permanence of the species and, I add, not necessarily through reproduction. Many people choose not to leave offspring but we all, fertile and infertile, need to protect the conditions to make life to keep on, whether human, animal or plant.

 The need of belonging, of being part of small groups (partner, family, friends...) or large associations (clubs, churches, political parties) originated in what this columnist calls 'grego', the genetic herding instinct. Animals generally have zero ego and high grego.

Let us go down two levels on Maslow's needs and talk about self-esteem and belonging that, in some way, are related to our "vital mission". Self-esteem, the need for achievement, this is excelling in some way and receiving recognition, comes from our ego, the sense of self, encoded in our brains, by the conditionings that  society sowed in us: "The others have got money, power, knowledge, distinctions, fame... Then I should also have some of that". The need of belonging, of being part of small groups (partner, family, friends...) or large associations (clubs, churches, political parties) originated in what this columnist calls 'grego', the genetic herding instinct. Animals generally have zero ego and high grego.

The dualism between self-esteem/belonging is interesting because of the paradox it implies. The ego (I'm different) and the grego (I'm alike) create us different needs that are at cross purposes; we all suffer the tension generated by such dualism. Says​ anthropologist Ernest Becker: "Individuation (the ego) means that the human creature has to oppose itself to the rest of nature (the grego). It creates precisely the isolation that one can’t stand—and yet it needs in order to develop distinctively”.

Is there a purpose for existing? And, if so, what is my purpose? According to Krishnamurti, highly philosophical and barely scientific, when people insist seeking purpose to life it is because they find their own existence empty. The Indian sage asks: "Has life a purpose? Is it not living by itself a clear goal?  Why do we want more?"

Twenty-five centuries ago the Buddha would have responded to Krishnamurti that what we aspire in our passing through this world is not having more of an unlimited something--more wealth, more fame, more power--but having less of something different, also abundant, that is afflicting us--less suffering, less anxiety, less stress. And also less need for self-esteem, self-actualization or self-transcendence.

Absent the loose wheels of suffering, anxiety and stress, we spontaneously reach inner harmony and balance with our surroundings. Unintentionally and without chasing it, we end up doing just what we need to do in our lives. Similarly, it also leads to the disappearance of the distressing concern for the meaning of existence: For those seeking nothing, whatever they find is right.

Gustavo Estrada
Atlanta, April 1, 2016