Do you have a favorite food? What makes it your favorite? When you choose it over other foods, are you simply satisfying your body’s need for nourishment, or are you feeding something else inside you? Any edible substance can keep us from starving to death, but our favorite foods also feed our needs for comfort, for variety, and for pleasure.
We humans have all kinds of needs (hungers) and just as many different ways of meeting those needs (feeding those hungers). There was a 20th century psychologist named Abraham Maslow who specialized in studying human needs. He developed a very famous, pyramid-shaped chart called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. On this chart, Maslow outlined the different kinds of needs that people have to get met in order to be healthy human beings.
On the first, lowest level, are our Physiological needs. These are our basic needs for things like food, water, air, and sleep. Without these things, we physically die, so it’s easy to see how they are genuine needs.
The same is true for the next level, which has to do with our need for Safety. Without shelter from the elements, protection from threats, and reliable access to resources, our physical well-being will likewise be threatened, just as much as if we were deprived of water or air.
After that, we start to get into a little more abstract territory because the next three levels have to do with our emotional needs. Our biological existence is not likely to be threatened if we don’t get these needs met, but they are still needs. And it’s fair to say that something inside of us suffers and dies when these emotional needs aren’t met.
The first of these emotional needs is our need for Belonging. Human beings need love, intimacy, friendship, and family. We are social creatures who have evolved to be connected to one another. We meet this need most often through group-identification: membership in a family, church, club, or movement. When this need goes unmet, loneliness begins to set in. We begin to feel unloved and unlovable. Over time, a person’s social skills begin to break down (or never develop): their ability to relate to others becomes diminished. This is the saddest part of all because this is where the disease of loneliness becomes a vicious cycle: loneliness impairs one’s ability to relate to others, which causes more loneliness, etc. What is needed at this point is for some person(s) to reach out and break the cycle of loneliness, but they have to be willing to work with those whose social skills are impaired. It takes no less than an act of grace.
North Church’s primary outreach ministry, the Togetherness Group, was designed specifically around this need for Belonging. There are plenty of places in Kalamazoo where people with mental illness can go to obtain food, shelter, or medicine, but so very few places like the Togetherness Group, where we can come to just be together and have fun.
Our next emotional need on Maslow’s list is the need for Esteem. People need to feel valuable, that they’re good at something. We need to have respect in the eyes of others. Nobody likes to feel like a charity case; everyone has a gift to give.
Finally is our need for Self-Actualization. As the old Army commercial says, we need to “be all that we can be.” Humans need to feel like they are fulfilling their potential in some way: as an athlete, inventor, parent, etc. We need to accomplish something significant in some way.
So, that’s the Hierarchy of Needs, as Maslow first wrote about it. It seems comprehensive enough. It accurately describes the various kinds of needs (hungers) that human beings try to meet (feed) in various ways. It’s been a trusted guide for therapists and social workers for decades.
But if Maslow was right, and this guide is comprehensive of human need, then how do we explain the kind of major public meltdowns that so many accomplished celebrities seem to go through? I’m thinking particularly of Tiger Woods, although I’m not trying to pick on him. Tiger is one of the most accomplished golfers in the history of the sport. He achieved unprecedented levels of success very early in his career.
It’s easy to see where Tiger falls in Maslow’s hierarchy: he obviously lacked for nothing Physiologically. He could buy whatever necessities or luxuries his heart desired. As for Safety, his “shelter from the elements” cost $39 million and was located on an exclusive, upscale island in Florida. I have little doubt that his body guards did their duty in protecting him from other dangers.
What about his emotional needs? When it comes to Belonging, Tiger was married to a supermodel and they had a family together. As for Esteem, he was known and admired all over the world. And for Self-Actualization, he had achieved greatness as a record-breaking golfer. By Maslow’s standards, Tiger Woods had it made.
But then, in 2009, it all seemed to come crashing down for him overnight. Rumors broke about extramarital affairs. That same week, Tiger left his house at 2:30 in the morning and tried (unsuccessfully) to drive down his street, crashing his SUV into a fire hydrant, a tree, and multiple hedgerows before he gave up and his wife helped him out of the car. A short time later, Tiger admitted to the infidelity, went on an indefinite hiatus from professional golf, and was soon divorced from his wife. Sports companies pulled their sponsorships and stopped asking for his endorsement. It took years for his career to recover.
What happened? This is what Tiger himself had to say: “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to… I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.”
It seems that Maslow must have overlooked something. In spite of all his needs being met, there was still something missing in Tiger, some inner hunger that wasn’t being fed by anything on Maslow’s chart.
Well, before we leave Maslow, I want to give him credit for one last thing: At the end of his career, he realized that something was missing. He tried to add it to his famous chart, but the old one was already too well-established and in-use by psychologists. That unaccounted-for need, according to Maslow, is the need for Self-Transcendence: the need to be part of something larger than oneself, something meaningful, something that gives life itself a purpose. That’s what Tiger was lacking.
The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal called it “the God-shaped hole” inside every human being. It is the deep hunger we carry within us. Nothing we own or accomplish for ourselves can ever fill it. Our consumerist culture doesn’t know what to do with that. It’s got products or programs to fill every other need we can imagine. Whatever you need… “There’s an app for that!” But for this “God-shaped hole”, there is no product you can buy, no program you can get with, no club you can join, and no diploma you can earn.
This need for Self-Transcendence, this God-shaped hole, this deep hunger for that which gives life ultimate meaning is the hunger Jesus is referring to in today’s gospel reading when he speaks of himself as “the bread of life.” For almost two thousand years and counting, Christians have found in this person Jesus the answer to the question, “What is the purpose of my life?” The answer we find is: “To follow this person and do as he does: to love the world, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to set the captive free, to forgive the sinner, to welcome the outcast, and to give one’s life for the sake of the world.”
We discover the meaning of life and satisfy our need for Self-Transcendence when we discover that life is no longer just about us and our needs. And Jesus shows us the way.
In the Eucharist, this truth is brought home to us in the most direct and visceral way. It is a ritual meal where our most basic hunger for physical sustenance is fed by bread and wine. But Jesus invites us to look past the surface and see with the eyes of our hearts that this is the “true food” that satisfies our deepest hunger with the eternal, loving life-energy of Christ’s own self.
“This is my body,” Christ says, “Eat your fill and never be hungry again.”
“This is my blood,” Christ says, “Drink deeply and never be thirsty again.”
When we say “Yes” to the invitation to participate in this meal and come to the table of Christ, we are saying:
“Yes, Jesus. I am hungry. I am starving with a hunger that this world’s products and programs cannot satisfy. Help me satisfy my deepest need by realizing that life is not about getting my needs met. Feed me with your Bread of Life. Fill me. Let my body be your body. Let your blood flow in my veins. Make me like you and send me back out to feed a hungry world in your name. Amen.”