Bent-Kneed, Kneading Need

Whether our immensely tiny personal worlds were in upheaval or in some semblance of peace, whether we want or need them or no, new years force an end, and a beginning. We envision the connection severed—severely—between what was, who we were last year, where and how we failed or suffered then, and who we will be when the new year improbably washes us clean and rewards us with the fruits of all the labors we promise ourselves will go right in the year ahead.

There are the resolutions that actually aim to make us better: This year I’m going to show up on time. This year I promise to call my mom back within 24 hours of missing a call. This year I’ll stop smoking. This year I’ll be more thoughtful of other drivers when I”m on the road. And there are the resolutions that are really just wants (a definition too often unfortunately misapplied to our use of the word need): This year I’ll get promoted. This year I’ll lose weight or get fit. This year I’ll get engaged. Both can be valuable tools; we should all be better individuals, to ourselves and to others. Setting goals helps us improve and new year’s resolutions are a small way to contribute to that betterment.

But what if we were also to take on some societal resolutions? If our vision for the new year were expanded past what we see for our own lives and those immediately next to us, to reach the lives of the people a few degrees of separation away?

I made my first loaf of bread this Christmas. On the same day we celebrate a person whose very existence has come to represent all that is goodness and gracious by participating in a consumer-driven ritual that represents our kindness and generosity toward those we love, but which can so easily tip to excess, I took a break from exchanging gifts with my family to measure water temperature, soak yeast, knead dough. And  I found myself thinking about what I needed, and what I needed to do in the coming year. In spite of student loan debt, a certain current lack of professional “fit” with regard to my personal motivations, as yet unfulfilled desires for family, and other individual wants, as a young(ish) person fortunate enough to have so many needs readily and regularly satisfied, in nearly all scenarios, the answer was: nothing. There are things I want, yes, but what do I really need?

Maslow’s hierarchy establishes one satisfyingly organized approach to our individual needs: five little organized compartments, opened like a chocolate Advent calendar: one at a time, and only after the previous has been opened and consumed: first comes food, then comes shelter, then comes the family and the spiritual encounter.  From a literal standpoint, after the physiological, none of these are absolute. Absolute need is what remains when all other layers are stripped away to reveal what we cannot, actually, survive without.

But as Maslow rightly defined, such a limited definition would ignore what we need to exist in our optimal human state. If we’re fortunate enough to climb his pyramid, the connection—with others, with nature, with a spiritual belief—that’s found at the top is absolutely needed in order to feel most human, to feel most alive. What Maslow got wrong, though, is that there is a need for that connection at all levels. It’s not something people wait for, or are ignorant of, even as they grow intimate with hunger, pain, fear, loss, uncertainty. Much more like a web than a pyramid, even in war zones and refugee camps where so many base needs are limited or unmet, people will prioritize connection, interpersonal understanding, love, beyond base needs time and again. It is this social element of our makeup that renders us so uniquely human—more than simply the survival benefits of existing in groups, the conscious awareness of groups outside our own and the ability to identify them as similar to ourselves.

And I find myself repeatedly circling back lately to how this plays out in the development of a culture. If what once were deemed primitive societies could prioritize care of their neighbor when they didn’t have the technology to build a ship to sail off their own island, what does it say for an allegedly developed society whose populace venomously debates the notion of skimming the crème de notre crème to provide services and courtesies to those that truly need the support?

Even if we were to accept the premise that certain things—health care, a living minimum wage, higher education— are not human rights, is it so impossible that in a country where so many have so much, we nevertheless were to proclaim a simple unwillingness to allow others to have to live without them? To affirm that want and need are not synonymous and to broaden our concepts of both to encircle our connection to the humans around us, especially those that don’t sit on the same silk thread of the social web as we do? To buy into a new social contract where we declare, as a nation, that a shared quality of life is more important than physical accretion of more? To redefine the “more” we seek as individuals, in this society, as not strictly monetary, but altruistic, voire humanitarian?

That’s a need worth kneading, letting rise, and consuming with gusto.

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