Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 9, No. 2, February 2013
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Satisfaction of Basic Needs

Leonardo Boff
Catholic Liberation Theologian, Brasil

This article was originally published in Iglesia Descalza, 21 December 2012
under a Creative Commons License


At a time when most people devote all their time and energy to seek material comforts beyond what is reasonably necessary, this article offers an alternative vision: after basic needs are satisfied, integral human development comes from within as a free gift. This free gift is given to any person who forges ahead along the "straight and narrow path" of the inner journey, not in selfish isolation from others and from nature, but in communion with the entire community of creation.

Human beings are, by nature, beings of many needs. A great effort is required to meet them in order to live, not miserably, but a quality life. Behind every need, a fear and a desire are hidden: the desire to satisfy it in the most satisfying way possible and the fear of not getting it and then suffering. Whoever has something is afraid of losing it; whoever doesn't have anything, wants to have it. This is the dialectic of existence.

Teachers of the most varied traditions of humanity and the human sciences agree more or less on the following basic needs:

We have biological needs -- in a word, we need to eat, drink, clothe ourselves and be safe. We spend much of the time attending to such needs. The great majority of mankind satisfies them precariously, either for lack of work or because solidarity and compassion are scarce. The first petition of the Our Father is for daily bread, because hunger can not wait.

But we don't ask God to perform miracles every day and thus avoid producing bread. We ask that the climate and soil fertility be favorable and that there be cooperation in the production and distribution of food. Only then do we exorcise fear and attend to our basic want.

In addition, we need safety -- we can get sick and succumb to dangers that take away our life. They may come from nature, storms, lightening, prolonged droughts, landslides, from all kinds of accidents. They may come mainly from man himself, who has within him not only the life instinct but also the death instinct; he may lose self control and eliminate the other. All this makes us afraid. And we hope to get around it. The fact of having lived in caves and later in houses shows our search for safety.

The reality is that we never control all the factors. We can always be innocent victims or the ones to blame. And then we cry out to God, not to get us off the edge of the abyss, but to give us courage to avoid it and survive.

Thirdly, we have a need to belong -- we are social beings. We belong to a family, an ethnic group, to a certain place, a country, the planet Earth. What makes suffering painful is loneliness, not being able to count on a friendly shoulder and a welcoming hand. Because we are fruits of the caring of our mothers who carried us in their arms, we want to die holding the hand of someone near or someone who loves us.

In the depths of the existential abyss, we cry out for mother or for God. And we know He hears us because He is sensitive to the voice of His sons and daughters and feels the beating of our fearful hearts. To be reduced to solitude is to be condemned to existential hell and the absence of any communion. Therefore it's important to satisfy the sense of belonging. Otherwise we feel like abandoned dogs wandering through the world.

Fourth, we need self-esteem. Existing is not enough. We need our existence to be welcomed, that someone with their words and actions tell us "welcome into our midst, you count for us." Rejection makes us experience death, even while alive. So we need to be recognized as individuals, with our differences and peculiarities. Otherwise, we're like plants without nutrients that wither away until they die. How significant it is when someone calls us by our name and embraces us! It gives us back our denied humanity and we can go forward with hope and fearlessly.

Finally, we need self-fulfillment. This is the great longing and challenge of man: to fulfill himself and become human. What is human in the human being? We don't exactly know because even the inhuman belongs to the human. We are a mystery to ourselves. It's not that we don't know anything about what is human. On the contrary, the more we know, the more the size of what we don't know expands. We long for the stars from whence we came.

But we know enough to discover ourselves as creatures of openness -- to the other, the world and the All. We are beings of unlimited desire. However much we seek an object to quench our desire, we can't find it among the beings around us. We want the Essential Being and we only run into accidental entities. How, then, are we going to be able to fulfill ourselves if we perceive ourselves as an infinite project?

In this quest, it makes sense to speak of God as the Essential Being and the obscure object of our infinite desire. Only He satisfies the characteristics of the Infinite, suited to our infinite project. Self-realization, therefore, involves engaging ourselves with God. To engage with God is to awaken the spirituality within us, that ability to feel a powerful and loving Energy that goes through all reality. It's being able to see in the wave, the sea, and in the drop of water, the vastness of the Amazon. Spirituality is feeling hunger and thirst for a final refuge, a feeling safe in the arms of someone you trust where, in the end, all our needs will be met, where all fears die and where we will be able to rest.

As long as we don't develop this Center within us, we will always feel we are in the prehistory of ourselves, whole but unfinished beings and ultimately, frustrated.

When we enter into communion with the Essential Being through silent, unconditional surrender, through prayer and meditation, we open an incomparable and irreplaceable spring of energy. The effect is pure joy, the lightness of life, the blessing that is possible for pilgrims.


Leonardo Boff is former Professor of Systematic and Ecumenical Theology, Franciscan Theological Institute, Petrópolis, Brazil and former Professor of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology, State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a renowned liberation theologian and author of more than sixty books in theology, spirituality, philosophy, anthropology, and mysticism. His weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. For translations to English, see Iglesia Descalza. He presently lives in Jardim Araras, an ecological wilderness area on the municipality of Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro, and continues to work as a liberation theologian, writer, professor, conference speaker in Brazil and other countries, as well as an adviser of social movements such as the Landless Movement and the Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs). For more information visit the Leonardo Boff web site.

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