Stuck in Survival


Have you taken a psychology class? If so you may remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The Hierarchy is illustrated with a pyramid divided into levels. Each level represents a category of needs. At the base of the pyramid are the physiologic needs- water, food, and air. As you move up the pyramid you progress from needs to wants and desires.

When I learned this twenty five years ago in college it seemed a concept I needed to grasp only temporarily, just to pass psych 101, not something I would ponder years later. But working in Haiti I have found this concept to be so useful. Teams of young people that travel to Haiti need this information. They need to evaluate where they are in the pyramid compared to others their own age in Haiti. Have they every struggled with a certain level of the pyramid? Ever been stuck somewhere for years?

At the base of the pyramid are needs- in order to live you must have water, food, air and rest. Sadly, many of my friends in Haiti remain at this level of the pyramid. This is survival. Safety is a luxury… a home with a locking door – a place where your wife and daughters are not at risk of assault – this is a step beyond survival. Security of employment, resources, health- again, not required for survival yet necessary for living. As we move up the pyramid we see Love & Belonging- we have moved beyond needs to wants. Many of our friends in Haiti, and in many other countries around the world, never see this level. They fight to survive, to live. All waking hours are devoted to the needs- water, food, shelter, clothing.

At the top are Esteem and Self-Actualization. Esteem includes achievement, self-esteem, confidence, respect of others, and respect by others. All good things for us to strive for in this life. Self- Actualization includes creativity, problem solving, acceptance of facts and morality.

To me the take-away here is the top of the pyramid- creativity and problem solving- these are luxuries that come AFTER all of the other levels have been achieved. I think this is vital when working with the materially poor. Materially poor people who are struggling to find water and food do not have the luxury of creative problem solving or attending a ‘think-tank’. These are first-world solutions to first-world problems.

I am not suggesting that my friends in Haiti are not creative or resourceful. They are incredible in both regards. But, it is important for us to realize that our podcasts and self-help books, our life-coaches and TED talks are not the way of life in most of the world. We are living in a time of luxurious amounts of information and we have the time to soak it in, to relish in it, to let it ruminate and affect our lives. But I look at the pyramid and recognize that I have never been stuck at the bottom, struggling for food and water. This is the empathy piece- where you truly step into another’s shoes and imagine what it would feel like. How would it feel to have your biggest problem be the safety and security of your family versus a lack of confidence or self-esteem?

I also believe that just as focusing on the needs at the bottom can affect the middle- Relationships- so can focusing too heavily on the top. I find it fascinating that Relationships are at the center. If we pass over the value of relationships to get to the top they will suffer.

Many times our American teams will express concern with the Haitian parenting styles they see. Relationships are different, young children fend for themselves and spend a significant part of the day away from their parents. They start school as young as three years old and often spend time in the community with neighbors rather than just at home with mom. Haitian moms often must be focused on survival.

My youngest is nine and by Haitian standards- and some American- he is pampered. He doesn’t go hungry, he has multiple outfits to wear without a worry. New clothes are purchased when he grows out of things. Education is a given. But more than that he has love. Every morning and every night he sits on my lap. As he gets older the time is shorter, but for many years we spent a good twenty minutes together, morning and night- just he and I- talking and giving hugs and kisses. When he comes downstairs in the morning I drop everything and he sits down with me. It is the foundation of our relationship- I have time for him. I value him.

That time is a luxury that a mother in Haiti would not have. Therefore, her love looks different, her relationship with her son looks different. One is not better, but recognizing the difference is the key to understanding another culture, another’s struggle.


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