Hierarchy of Fears

by Peter Wallace, © 2007

There was a famous psychologist named Abraham Maslow who had a theory about human motivation that defines a “hierarchy of needs” pyramid structure. In it, he contends that physical safety and survival needs must be met before people care to pursue the fulfillment of social or intellectual needs.

In other words, survive first, love later.

It makes good sense, and most people agree that it is a sound theory. It has been used in other ways, to define the behavior of organizations, communities, etc.

The other day I was watching the news, and I wondered about a backwards approach to Abe’s work. I wondered what would happen if you turned his famous pyramid upside down.

What if it turned out that the more safe and comfortable we are as a society, the more willing we are to open ourselves up to fears?

Here’s an example: The economy is going great. Unemployment is very low. And, while the top 20% of wager earners are making 50% more than they did ten years ago, the bottom 20% of wage earners are making 83% more over the same period. So, the rich get richer and the poor get… richer.

And yet, people talk amongst themselves about how bad the economy is, and how sure they are that everything is going to crash. They’re doing okay, but they assume other people aren’t.

Another example: longevity is higher than at any time in recorded history. People now die of diseases that used to be uncommon, because they come at such a late stage of life. Our lives are so easy and food so plentiful that now we’re dying of being fat and lazy.

And yet, some people are certain that BGH in milk and pesticides and fertilizers in other foods are killing us. I’m not a big advocate for unneeded chemicals, but if most people eat pesticide-grown foods and drink BGH milk, wouldn’t the average age of death be going down, and not up?

There are certainly some valid things to worry about, but if our country were in real trouble, we wouldn’t have the time or energy to wonder about whether the government is covering up Area 51 and the space alien remains, or if our bottled water actually came from a faucet.

I’m sure people have always worried, and always will. I think it would be good, now and then, to put worries aside, and just sit and enjoy how good things are. In the song, “Anticipation,” Carley Simon sings about how waiting for something is hard, but the last line is interesting, as she observes that “these are the good old days.” Why not enjoy then now as well as when we look back on them?


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