As far as I can tell, there are five critical human needs: air, water, food, shelter, and love.
No one ever disputes the first four of these, for obvious reasons. Without air, you can only survive about three minutes. Without water, you’re barely breathing for three days. Without food, you’ll starve in three weeks. And without shelter, well, it depend on where you live, but the elements will take you down soon enough.
Love is a bit of a different story. Some people claim it isn’t a real need at all. And it’s not clear how long any of us can go without it. Having spent the better part of a lifetime paying close attention to human beings, however, I say this with complete confidence: You may be able to survive a while by meeting the other four needs, but you need love to be fully alive.
This is by no means an original insight. Poets, preachers, and parents alike have been pointing out love’s importance since time immemorial. And at some deep level, I suspect we all know that love is how we go from merely surviving to actually thriving—that it’s the center of gravity around which all the other stuff (beyond air, water, food, and shelter) circles.
Yet we forget this simple truth repeatedly, and at our peril. We look for happiness in excess and luxury. We search for meaning in money and power. We try to fill our aching souls with new bright and shiny objects, only to find ourselves aching and hungry, unhappy and disconnected, again and again and again.
Meanwhile we neglect the people who matter most, the relationships that actually nourish and sustain us. We invest our time and attention in the trivial and the transient rather than in the ties the bind us together and make us whole. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, and I’ve long wondered why we do it.
Part of the blame surely lies with a culture so hellbent on making us continuous consumers that it teaches us to neglect everything else. But I suspect another part of the blame lies with a flaw within us all, a weakness that consumerism itself exploits. Let’s call it existential selfishness: the belief that I could be me without the we that I am part of, the delusion that I could even conceivably be wholly alone and still be whole.
Americans like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals and free spirits. We celebrate self-reliance, uniqueness, and even “lone-wolf” behavior. But existential selfishness is nonetheless nonsense. Our mothers carry us for nine months before our births, but we’re all born utterly incomplete and incompetent anyway. We can’t feed ourselves, clean ourselves, or even hold our own heads up. We have to be cared for, coddled, and carried for longer than basically any other species.
Without the love of others, we would have died out long ago, both individually and as a species. Come to think of it, without love, we never would have developed at all, either individually or as a species. To the extent that we ever really become self-reliant, we do so only by standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us who loved much more than themselves.
The existential debt we thereby incur is straightforward: Having been helped up by others, our job is to help others up. Failure to recognize this basic fact is not an indicator of rugged individualism, it’s a sign of serious moral immaturity.
Being able to rely upon yourself is good. Becoming the sort of self others can rely upon is better. Loving others and being loved in return is best—and makes it easier both for you to be reliable and for others to return the favor.
With due respect to John Lennon, then, love isn’t really “all you need.” But it isn’t a mere “nice to have,” either. It ranks right up there with air, water, food, and shelter. We need all five to be fully alive. And if we see another person lacking any of these needs, we should seek to help—in full recognition that, by doing so, we also meet one of our own needs. By showing love to others we become more whole. We step away from existential selfishness and toward a larger, more encompassing truth. Instead of just standing on the shoulders of giants, we start to grow giant ourselves.
Be giant, girls.
I love you,