Can Needs Be Harmful?

Please join me in a visualization. Take a minute to imagine that you are a baby panda bear.  You live in a zoo within an enclosure designed to resemble the panda bear’s natural habitat in the wild. Bamboo, the mainstay of your diet, is flown in regularly for you and your panda relatives to eat. You are a few days old and every care is being given to ensure that you are thriving. You are not aware of the fact, and neither are your parents, that your species is endangered. You are not aware of the many who have been following your mother’s pregnancy with enthusiastic interest .. nor that the news of your birth has spread around the world. In fact you’re on YouTube. You’re famous and you don’t know it. 

I have a question for you baby panda bear: as good as things appear to be around you and as much as you may appear to be thriving, how much do you think you will ever be able to live your life as an authentic panda bear? How much do you think you will ever know of what it means to live naturally?

photo by Elena Loshina

photo by Elena Loshina

This question might seem irrelevant to the subject at hand but I ask it because it leads to another question: how do WE know that we are living as authentic humans? How much do WE know of what it means to live naturally?

I present this panda bear scenario because when we speak about our needs in the context of the Nonviolent Communication process, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we can only really speak of needs from of our subjective lens of understanding, a lens which typically doesn’t open an aperture beyond that understanding. 

Because Marshall Rosenberg was so committed to social change (which was why I was drawn to him 20 years ago), and because he so regularly spoke about the importance of questioning the social structures in which our lives are lived, I find it important to begin any exploration of needs, mine or those belonging to others, with the understanding that I am probably not so different from that panda bear. In fact most of my thoughts and actions occur within the confines of thought and understanding generated by the dominant culture in which I live. This cultural and environmental template is the springboard for everything I do. It has been deeply imprinted on me and is foundational to my thinking whether or not I have understood or agreed to its ideologies and strategies. I have been taught to perceive the world in a certain way, which in large part dictates what I see and how I respond to what I see. 

How do WE know that we are living as authentic humans? How much do WE know of what it means to live naturally?

In other words I want to acknowledge that the dominant western culture in which I live has had its way with me. As a consequence, it is important that I cultivate, to the extent that I can, a disciplined awareness and discernment (both of which have been compromised by virtue of my immersion in the culture) in order to increase the likelihood that I can understand and relate to needs in a way that is ultimately life-serving. I need to entertain the very real possibility that the indoctrination I have been subjected to might be so profound, so thorough, and so persuasive that I don’t have a solid grasp of the landscape of needs beyond the relentless propaganda of western thought, orientation, and imagination. 

photo by rawpixel

photo by rawpixel

I wonder .. can I effectively develop the capacity to connect to needs in their vast breadth and reach? Do I understand needs beyond the human-centric orientation that is so commonly sold to me without instruction and without any warnings with respect to the implications of that orientation? Am I able to subvert the dominating pervasive human-centric orientation of all that enters the various newsfeeds competing for my attention so that my thinking and actions might have a greater chance at genuinely serving and supporting life rather than aligning with the current regime? It’s useful to note at this point, that Panda bears bred and born in captivity need to be taught, often by humans, how to live in the wild. Without that guidance, they are likely to perish. 

Rather than seeing this line of questioning as a condemnation of myself or of western culture and then getting defensive about it, I find it more fruitful to examine my reactivity and imagine a different way of responding. I don’t deny that it’s threatening and costly to become curious about my culturally derived understanding of things given that so much rests on the narrative that I have embraced for so much of my life. Without doubt, to question my understanding is to subject myself to the necessity of rethinking pretty much everything I have come to know and believe. It’s not comfortable. 

I’m not sure however that our species has the luxury of any other way of responding to the many crises that continue to present themselves and press for our attention.

We would do well to heed the words of the English-American poet W. H. Auden who wrote in The Age of Anxiety: 

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

At this point I am willing to be changed. I am willing to climb the cross of the moment and let my illusions die. 

I am willing to ask the question what does life need and to then trust that the answer to that question will be one that also includes my well-being. I am also willing to consider the strong likelihood that what I mean when I speak of my well-being is far different than what our living planet can sustainably deliver in order to remain healthy. I am learning that the level of comfort to which I have become accustomed, typically framed by dominant culture values as “rights”, exceeds the capacity of the living planet to bestow upon its 7.7 billion human inhabitants.  

If our Mother Earth took a look at our list of NVC needs, I imagine there are a few she would question, such as EASE and COMFORT as well as a few she might add. There are two that immediately come to mind: REVERENCE and AWARENESS OF ENOUGH.

photo by Ian MacKenzie

photo by Ian MacKenzie

Even in scenarios where the conversation revolves around vital needs such as love, trust or honesty .. needs where it would appear that there could not possibly be any negative consequences to the rest of the world when we focus on those needs, is it possible that the focus itself has become problematic? When we narrow our gaze to our internalized subjective realities and attempt to validate them within the complex mapping of other people's realities, could it be that the mere act of doing carries negative consequence? Could it be that we place too much psychologized attention on our respective internal landscapes to the detriment of the outer landscape to which we belong? Could it be that the growing emphasis on our personal truths, which we defend as irrefutable, blinds us to the living world around us that concretely binds us to life? What if a good many of our depressions, anxieties, neuroses and alienating behaviours are largely symptomatic of an increasingly self-centric view of life? What if that self-centric view is in fact a tragic attempt to establish some semblance of sound, balanced and meaningful community life within the wasteland that the malignant overgrowth of civilization has become? This is not to say that turning one’s gaze to one’s internal landscape is without merit or benefit but rather that there ought to be a healthy balance of attention placed on the world around us, especially in these times on the non human world which sustains us.

Let’s return to the panda bears. If a panda bear has been removed from its natural environment and consequently has its “panda-ness” compromised, then it stands to reason that a human removed from its natural environment also has its “human-ness” compromised. In his book Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg writes on page 1 that he was preoccupied most of his life with two questions: What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances? 

Asking hard questions is never easy. It’s not meant to be. Here is what I have noticed when making challenging questions central to any workshop or private coaching session. I’ve noticed that doing so almost instantly changes the tone and urgency of the grievances that have prompted people to seek me out in the first place. It softens the edges of certainty about how the world is and how things “should” work. Asking hard questions increases one’s humility and grants a proper place at the table for grief and bewilderment. 

Before trying to solve our personal or collective problems we might be well served to ask: How has my enculturation compromised my understanding of needs? How has my enculturation compromised my understanding of what it means to serve and enrich life?

Only after asking and living inside these questions can we begin to acknowledge the unnatural and often chaotic conditions in which we live and conduct our lives, can we more effectively and compassionately address challenges related to how we engage with others: How can I better relate to my spouse, lover, friend, parent, child, colleague, etc? 

How has my enculturation compromised my understanding of needs? How has my enculturation compromised my understanding of what it means to serve and enrich life?

All too often we use the term “life-serving” and “life-enriching” to describe desires and outcomes that would work for us personally. Our lens is pretty self-centric. And when it extends to others, we perceive it as an improvement but it still remains human-centric. I think it’s important for us to ask ourselves how is this thing that I’m wanting ultimately life-enriching? If my answer goes only as far as satisfying my own needs or the needs of my fellow humans without considering what life needs in order to keep our human enterprise afloat, then I’m deluded into believing that my own personal well-being both determines and supports the well-being of what sustains me, when in fact it is the health of the earth and the health of human culture that sustain me.  

Some time ago, I developed a social change questionnaire with the objective of stimulating reflection on how tangled interdependence actually is. The final question is: Think of a time today or in the last several days when your needs were satisfied. Consider the costs associated with satisfying those needs and how their fulfilment has quite possibly generated needs or deficits elsewhere in your community or in the world that you may not immediately be aware of and that will not accrue directly to you. What does it do to you to know this?

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Can needs be harmful? Well yes and no. If our framework for understanding needs is primarily human-centric, then yes, harm is inevitable as already testified by the devastation wrought upon our planet resulting from our exploitive consumption oriented lifestyles and corresponding needs generated wants. A human-centric orientation places humans in the centre where they don’t rightfully belong. Life is what belongs in the centre. And when needs are understood through a life-centric lens, our decisions are more likely to be weighted in the direction of what constitutes enough so that life can go on. With a life-centric orientation, limitations are not viewed as an impediment to freedom but rather as a guiding necessity. 

Consider the fact that the self-help industry thrives as people enroll for instruction in how to: master living their lives to the fullest, land their dream job, find their dream partner and purchase their dream home. It’s incredibly seductive, heavily promoted and yet rarely examined in the light of associated costs to the planet. Rarely does our obligation to deep citizenship and kinship with life and with each other enter into the equation. Both the marketing and curriculum for wanting and having more have only become more appealing and sophisticated. Chasing our dreams is hard on the planet and equally hard on our souls and relationships. And for most people, the results are in fact disappointing. Life is still hard no matter how many programs a person completes and no matter how successfully. 

Leonard Cohen summed it up well when he said, “What is the appropriate behaviour for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What’s the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?” Our relationships do not unfold in isolation of the socio-cultural and environmental landscapes to which we belong. They are deeply informed by them and they are either nurtured or starved by them. It’s important to know this as we attempt to address our personal or social woes when connecting to needs. And it’s equally important to remember we humans are not at the centre; life is at the centre.

Can needs be harmful? It’s a good thing to wonder. 

Rachelle Lamb’s lifelong interest in human development, relationship dynamics and the roles that culture and ecology play in people's lives, along with her ability to skillfully pave the way for transformational dialogue between people consistently produces powerful learning experiences for individuals and audiences.