Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that, in order for an individual to be motivated to achieve higher needs, their lower needs must be met first. That is to say that if a person does not have their most basic needs being met (food, water, air, sleep), they are not going to be concerning themselves much with higher needs, such as friends or status. It is hard to argue with the truth of this premise — after all if you were having trouble breathing, an idea such as being popular would become remarkably trivial.
The next level above these physiological needs is safety, such as employment, health, resources and property. After that is love and belonging, then esteem, followed lastly by self-actualization.
Carl Jung similarly suggests that during our young adult lives our minds are consumed by survival as we establish ourselves in our careers, build homes for ourselves and raise our children. It isn’t until later in life that our minds become free from preoccupation with survival and we are able to shift to higher levels of thinking. Depending upon a person’s individual circumstances this will be more or less true, but the idea remains the same that higher thinking must always come after survival.
Our survival instincts are remarkably strong. When our survival is threatened, all other things cease to be important. (Take adrenaline for instance — when your adrenaline kicks in, it literally begins to alter your body’s functioning, redistributing blood, modifying the metabolism, and changing your vision.) A parent will understand how this instinct extends to protecting our offspring, bringing out the “mama bear” if our children’s well-being or safety is threatened.
In the United States, one of the richest countries in the world with relatively low unemployment rates, we don’t give too much thought to the idea of “survival.” When we think of those struggling to survive, we tend to think beyond our borders to third-world countries that lack clean water and proper medical care. However, I believe that this hyperbolic view of survival prevents us from seeing the valid struggles of those at home, and therefore prevents us from properly understanding the perspective of some of our own.
The struggles for many Americans are real. Last year fatherly.com put together this map of household incomes needed to buy an “average” home in each state. You need to pull in a whopping $100,200 per year in Colorado, where the median household income that same year was $65,458. In New York you need to make $91,720, while the median income lags behind at $62,765. Montana requires $75,520, where the median income is $50,801, and Florida requires $70,360 where the average income is $50,883.
This is a similar map showing monthly income requirements for rent, where Coloradans fall short by $742 per month, New Yorkers a painful $1,993, and Floridians $1,003.
When you’re struggling to meet the basic physiological needs of your family (providing them with food and shelter in a safe environment), this struggle takes precedence over all else. A single mother working full-time, caring for three children by herself, and struggling to pay the bills is going to give precious little thought to the social issues going on in another corner of the country as she falls, exhausted and stressed, into bed. A family with two working parents, perhaps one or both of them working more than one job but still barely able to make ends meet, will lie awake at night wondering how they will manage to afford some type of childcare over the summer, not thinking about the injustices faced by people they’ve never even met.
This article on vox.com explains how, by-and-large, people’s ideals do not necessarily match their political preferences. (In other words, many people who are Republican are not conservative, and many Democrats aren’t liberal.) It is really only in the upper echelon that we see this type of ideological/political matchup, and the further we get from the elite, the more skewed things get. Is this because the elite class is so much better, so much less hypocritical?
I don’t think so. I believe it is because the elite class has the luxury of time and mental energy to curate their beliefs. When you aren’t struggling to survive, when you aren’t using up your physical and mental energy on it, you can dedicate that energy to higher thinking, such as what you believe and why. When you’re making it, when you have excess beyond just “making it,” you have space in your life and your mind for empathy and ideals, for thinking beyond simply taking care of yourself and your family. You can dedicate your time to following politics, geopolitics, and to fact-checking. You can think deeply when you aren’t preoccupied with thoughts of how you’re going to pay for groceries or car repairs with no money in the bank.
When you’re on a budget, you look for quantity over quality, for the best deal rather than the best thing. You might be a very big-hearted and conscientious person, but you don’t blow your whole budget on fair-trade organic bananas that won’t get your family through the week, banana farmers be damned. You also don’t carefully hand select each item when you can get a killer package deal — buy these five items for half the cost of buying any five items separately will always win when you’re strapped.
This “buy in bulk” philosophy not only translates to politics, it is politics. A candidate or a party looks like a good deal (for whatever reason), and so you buy in. But you can’t fuss over each issue a la carte, it’s a package deal.
We make extremely harsh judgements against those whose politics and beliefs we disagree with, going as far as to wish them dead. What we’re missing when we make these judgements is that their politics and religious views may very well tell us nothing at all about what kind of people they are. A person whose politics we find deplorable may, in their personal life, embody many of the values we hold so dear.
It just may be that some people are too busy working, taking care of their families, and even helping others in their community, to have time to cultivate cohesive, well-considered beliefs. They may just have to swipe something off the shelf and get back to the daily grind. Should we disparage them for this? When we do, it may be time to stop sitting around formulating so many ideals and start looking at what it looks like to live them.