Homeless Series- What the Hell Number Am I On?
Sydney, New South Wales
I just sat on a crate and conducted a 2-hour interview with Tim- a homeless man on the streets of Sydney and have so much to process and write about with regards to his back-story and the experience of it all. For now, I am most interested in capturing the curious waypoint where this experience has left me- positioned not at all where I expected to be. My experience with Tim has combined with other familiarities and helped me put words on observations I long ago made but never could frame or positively bring into view.
Sorry to be a bore, but I need to start again with my man Abe.For those who were sleeping during this previous post-In the early 1940′s, Abraham Maslow devised a theory that the human condition has a pre-defined set of needs, and that humans go about satisfying these needs in a hierarchical order-from the bottom up. Maslow suggested that humans must satisfy one set of needs before they can address the next set, creating a foundation upon which more psychologically complex needs reveal themselves.In his model, humans have a primal instinct to first satisfy certain physiological requirements, like food and water, before worrying about much else. Once their physiological needs are met, people become more concerned with safety and security issues- issues that are, in turn, more urgent than the next hierarchy of needs: love & belonging. This need is followed by a need to be respected and appreciated and layered upon that is the need for self-actualization- the knowledge that one has achieved their full potential as a human being.
The theory is a powerful one and describes the behavior of a good portion of the population.However, there are some that have a quite different needs structure.I have become keenly aware that I have had some reasonable exposure to and as a result perhaps some skill in their identification.One such individual sits on a street corner in Sydney and I refer to him as Tim.In just a couple of flybys while observing the larger population of homeless I picked him right.For lack of a better word I will refer to the group of people with the familiar pattern of traits I identified in Tim as nablas- you will see why later.As for the patterned traits, these nablas are people that are powerfully driven to live in a way that is both meaningful and interesting to them that often transcends traditional base level pyramid needs. They are likely to be creative and often in careers like composers, writers, professors, scientists, photographers….and maybe even some more untraditional manifestations.These people have need structures that appear to totally invalidate Maslow's theory. Or do they?Perhaps, they just invert it.
Nabla.nabla (plural nablas).(Hebrew) A Hebrew stringed instrument.(vector algebra) The symbol ∇, used to denote the gradient operator.An upside down triangle.Is it all starting to make sense?Maslow's theory that one must satisfy a lower-level need before addressing an upper-level need actually applies fully to nablas in an upside down kind of way.Self-actualization is their fundamental, most basic need.The rest of the pyramid follows suit from there.They enjoy sharing their achievement with others and the resulting esteem only after there has been something accomplished in their esoteric base.They long for intimate relationships, but while their desire is not limited in this dimension their ability or willingness to put time and energy into making them work sometimes is. Finally, their most recognizable trait to many, they not only deem it the least need on their list, they at times seem to view their own safety, security and physiological needs with a sort of disdain.It's as if the act of dealing with these that are the priority of the larger population are so pedestrian, trivial and trite that the fulfillment of such almost feels like selling out.Perhaps this selling out for them is fueled by the fact that the traditional triangle base is where housing and clothing reside- often times traps for unending shallow status-driven pursuits.Whatever their perspective on this, it seems that only the rarest nablas ever achieve the top of their own inverted Maslow Pyramid where the smart clothes, stylish hair and other external togetherness exists.When they do, perhaps they do because of an extreme amount of resource and handling (think personal assistant or spouse who cajoles and attends to these needs).
The upside down-ness of the nablas triangle does not only explain their behavior, it also explains their vulnerabilities.Any mathematician will attest to an upside down triangle resting on a single point is not as secure as one constructed on the opposing much wider base. Because of this, inherent in an inverted triangle paradigm is that if the needs stacked upon the pointy self-actualization are not met with the utmost care and balance, the whole pyramid will tip over on its side….and perhaps our nablas will end up on the street and have someone fictitiously name them Tim.So why are these sometimes unstable, sometimes smelly, almost always disheveled people loveable treasures to those of us who can see past the externals?The traits that lie under the figurative and literal crust are absolutely endearing.Read for yourself the traits Maslow observed in those he characterized as self-actualized:
- Enjoys autonomy, a relative independence from physical and social needs.
- A resistance to enculturation, that is, not susceptible to social pressure to be "well adjusted" or to "fit in"- a confident nonconformist.
- An unhostile sense of humor- preferring to joke at own expense, or at the human condition, to directing their humor at others.
- A quality of acceptance of self and others, able to take people as they are versus trying to change them into what they think you should be.
- The ability to apply the same acceptance to self- if a quality is not harmful, let it be, enjoy it as a personal quirk.They are, however, strongly motivated to change negative self qualities that can be changed.
- Spontaneity and simplicity:Prefer to be themselves rather than being pretentious or artificial.
- A sense of humility and respect towards others- something Maslow called democratic values- meaning they are open to ethnic and individual variety, even treasuring it.A quality Maslow called human kinship or Gemeinschaftsgefühl- social interest, compassion, humanity accompanied by a strong ethics, spiritual but seldom conventionally religious in nature.
- A freshness of appreciation, an ability to see things, even ordinary things, with wonder.Along with this comes their ability to be creative, inventive, and original.
- A tendency to have more peak experiences than the average person.A peak experience is one that takes you out of yourself that makes you feel very tiny, or very large, to some extent one with life or nature or God.It gives you a feeling of being a part of the infinite and the eternal.These experiences tend to leave their mark on a person, change them for the better, and many people actively seek them out.They are also called mystical experiences, and are an important part of many religious and philosophical traditions.Perhaps for some they include the experience of sleeping on the street.
Maslow went so far to boil down the driving needs that help them accomplish the above.While they can live without a shower, they do need the below for happiness:
- Truth, rather than dishonesty.
- Goodness, rather than evil.
- Unity, wholeness, and transcendence of opposites, not arbitrariness or forced choices.
- Aliveness, not deadness or the mechanization of life.
- Uniqueness, not bland uniformity.
- Perfection and necessity, not sloppiness, inconsistency, or accident.
- Justice and order, not injustice and lawlessness.
- Simplicity, not unnecessary complexity.
- Richness, not environmental impoverishment.
- Effortlessness, not strain.
- Playfulness, not grim, humorless, drudgery.
- Self-sufficiency, not dependency.
- Meaningfulness, rather than senselessness.
People end up on the street or in some nontraditional-looking life that many pity or don't understand for many reasons.The vast majority of these street people have traditional Maslow pyramid need structures and significant deficits in their ability to secure their base due to addiction, family breakdown and mental illness.Their life is indeed a constant struggling at the base.But there are those who appear to have what many see as base struggles, but perhaps their life is rich in ways a quick glance of the eye does not reveal.Perhaps they have achieved this richness from struggle and learned from it that by flipping their triangle they could live a meaningful life in spite of the hand they had been dealt? Victor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and the founder of logotherapy certainly is exemplary of this. We need to be prepared to be surprised every once in a while and open to the fact that those we pity, even scorn, for not living a life that appears as good to us, may in reality be well above sea level to us and actually struggling not at the bottom, but at the top of their hierarchy.
Seems like I am not the only one who has looked at Maslow's triangle while hanging over the bed with my head dangling upside down. For a moment I thought I was really unique but research revealed these guys have noticed the same. I read their positions and relied on their observations as well as my own to craft this essay.
Gregory Simpson at http://www.ultrasomething.com/photography/2012/11/the-inverted-maslow/
Martin Borjesson 2006 http://www.futuramb.se/blog/2006-10/maslow-turned-upside-down/
I must acknowledge Abraham Maslow, for without his humanistic psychological theories I would have no structure to help shape my endless observations.
Some of Maslow's many works
Toward a Psychology of Being (1968)
Motivation and Personality (first edition, 1954, and second edition, 1970)
The Further Reaches of Human Nature (1971)
God bless you Victor Frankl for what you did with what you endured
Man's Search for Meaning
Best for last, I acknowledge and dedicate this essay to "Tim" and his willingness to let me in. I see the fruits of your life even if they aren't packaged in traditional ways. Thanks for sharing them, and your street corner wisdom and humor, with me. I consider these my greatest gifts from Sydney.
PS. An inverted triangle apparently is a highly sought after and easy to dress body type. Maybe one day there will be synchronicity.