In 1943, Abraham Maslow wrote a paper titled "A Theory of Human Motivation." In it, Maslow described a pyramid-shaped figure, representing the most basic needs of humans and what needs take precedence over others.
As he stated, humans' most basic need is for physical survival, and "this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on." Thus, as needs are met, our motivations move upward toward the apex of the pyramid.
Maslow's original pyramid was later modified and expanded. It included, from the ground up, the following hierarchy of needs:
Maslow added that only 1 in 100 people eventually reach the top of the pyramid and become fully self-actualized because our society "rewards motivation primarily based on esteem, love and other social needs." Maslow theorized that "every person is capable and has the desire to move up the hierarchy toward a level of self-actualization. Unfortunately, progress is often disrupted by a failure to meet lower-level needs."
I would argue that one of the most basic human needs is to feel understood. As one reviews the pyramid theory, efforts to understand others and in turn feeling understood provide a healing balm, which allows people to progress to the next level on the pyramid.
On the hierarchy-of-needs pyramid, people do not progress from one level to the next in some orderly and predictable manner. Life throws curveballs. If you are one of the 3 million American citizens living in Puerto Rico today, it is likely you suddenly find yourself on the first floor of the pyramid of needs. If you or a loved one has a terminal illness, your hierarchy of needs is likely fluctuating like a pinball. And, if you are a person of color targeted by hateful graffiti painted on the wall of your home or prominently displayed in the middle of your normal travel route, no doubt your level of need on the pyramid may change within seconds.
The latter example was brought to light for me as I watched a group of about 30 university students file one by one into a public hearing at the University of Utah Presidential Search Committee, each carrying signs of protest about racial tensions. As they settled in on the top row of the auditorium, from afar they seemed indistinguishable from one another. Respectful and civil at this meeting, a few of them made their way to the microphone to express a common theme among the students: fear.
After the meeting, I followed a few of the students out of the auditorium in an effort to find out more. "Help me understand what makes you fearful and what would make you feel safe," I asked.
As the metaphorical door of inquiry opened, suddenly several of the students gathered around. Now, I could see their faces — all with brown eyes. All students of various ethnic backgrounds, all eager to share a story. One of their requests riveted me — they wanted a physical space for others to learn about their various cultures. They wanted to be understood.
The students recounted a spectrum of marginalizing acts they had experienced, from pure insensitivity to outright shameful behavior. Fear, they said, is grounded in hateful speech.
As one Hispanic student said, "There is a difference between free speech and hate speech." Indeed.
Hate speech is tolerated by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But just because hate speech is a right doesn't make it right. Toleration and validation are two different things.
If you adhere to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the protesters felt stuck at level two of the pyramid because of the senseless acts of others. Let us all seek to understand so we, too, can feel understood.