Ever wonder what makes people do the things they do? I do. Especially when their behavior doesn’t appear to make any logical sense or is counter to their personal well-being. Throughout my 30-year career in law enforcement, I’ve seen some really strange things and some rather ordinary things done in ways that simply didn’t make any sense. Why, for instance, does a woman suffer repeated serious beatings by a husband or a lover only to return to the arms of the abuser at the first possible opportunity? Why does a young kid become infatuated with membership in a gang that has terrorized his neighborhood, and his own family, for years? Why do some people gravitate toward cults, even the satanic versions, often resulting in pain, suffering and death?

Seriously, what is with people?

I’d like to share my thoughts on perhaps why these things happen. Now, I readily admit that I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Neither am I much of a theologian. But I’ve read about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Glasser’s Choice Theory, as well as books by Thomas Merton, Benedict Groeschel, Brennan Manning, and others. I even stayed at a Howard Johnson’s once. I also admittedly loathe people who go about spouting expertise when all they’ve done is read a book or two…mostly to our detriment. Such experts are a dime a dozen nowadays and they always seem to find their way onto the TV screen during the aftermath of a catastrophe. Ever wonder where these people were before things went to hell? Truly, these people support the notion that we could define “expert” by breaking it down into it’s syllables; “ex,” as in has-been and “spurt” as in a drip under pressure! The world is full of people who claim to be gifted in one way or another. It makes me think of what a Franciscan priest once told me; “There are a lot of gifted people in the world…and most of them should keep it wrapped up.” So let me offer up my musings, not as statements of fact, but as observations from a layperson who has been around a bit and paid attention as he tromped through a world of tattered lives and assorted nutty stuff.

First, people have physical needs that must be met for their survival. I think most would agree that food, water and shelter cover the basics. Of course, we would like to live in the big house, sip from the purest fountains and maintain a diet that makes us supermen (or women, or…whatever). But, we have seen that in a pinch people will eat garbage, drink from mud holes and burrow into trash heaps to keep warm. If we don’t have access to healthy forms of food, water and shelter we will make do with what is available…because, it’s either that or die.

Secondly, it would appear that people have social needs that must also be met for the sake of ultimate survival. For the sake of discussion, let’s call them love, recognition and belonging. The importance of meeting those needs can be seen in the extremes. An infant that is not comforted, swaddled and cuddled can…and sadly often does…die, even though its physical needs are clinically met. How many times have we heard stories of old couples that outlive friends and family who die within days of one another. When one passes, the other soon follows despite being in generally good health. Again, we find that if people are nurtured in a healthy environment where they are loved (or at least liked), maintain self worth, and find companionship in an organized group they flourish. It would appear that we are committed social animals. Likewise, if we fail to fill those needs from healthy sources, we will turn to a “social trashcan” for sustenance…a street gang, an abusive partner, and such…and will cling to those relationships literally “for dear life.”

But I think human survival also seeks out a third set of needs…spiritual needs. Again, for the sake of discussion, let me identify them as enlightenment, worship and conversion. The more I think about this, the more it makes sense and helps to explain some things if used as an overlay upon behaviors I find otherwise hard to understand. Let’s keep it simple for a moment and consider enlightenment in the context of the Judean/Christian realization that God exists. If we accept that God exists, then it would be natural that we would seek a way of relating to him—worship. And, if we believe God exists and we make even a casual effort to worship him, doesn’t it make sense that such an experience would lead us to conforming our lives to his will—conversion? Like the other forms of human needs, if they are satisfied via a healthy source we do pretty well. If those healthy sources are not available or shunned, we turn to the “spiritual trash cans” around us.

Now, of course, these needs can comingle and more than one can be satisfied at the same time by the same source or activity. Attending a church can satisfy spiritual and social needs at once. Even some physical needs can be met if coffee and donuts are served after Sunday service. But the true test is when these needs are left wanting. A misfit is found in the middle of a terrorist plot, because he found a home amongst a group of fanatics. An abused kid turns to a gang as an adopted family. Neither of these people can justify the horrid violence associated with these activities, but their participation fills a vital void. The abused woman is tired of having her nose broken, but lashes out at the police officer who arrests the one doing the beating, because her one source of love, recognition and belonging…as bad as it may be…is being threatened.

I think it also helps to explain the volatile anger expressed by some atheists towards others who have faith. After all, if I run into someone who tells me their god is Cinderella and they pray at the alters of the seven dwarfs, I may laugh and roll my eyes…but, anger would not be my first emotional response. So where does it come from? I submit it comes from a deep inner frustration resulting from an internal conflict between the person’s innate spiritual needs and their denial that such a need exists…let alone a deity they cannot see or otherwise experience. Coupled with resentment of not having social needs met by those who repudiate their atheism and perhaps go so far as threaten them with the probability of eternal damnation…yeah, that could help explain the anger. Enough, perhaps, to motivate them into a frenzied and very public protest against Christmas trees in the local mall or airport.

Furthermore, it could help explain why people who fail to embrace and fulfill their spiritual needs try to find solace in physical and/or social pleasures. If I have a driving force in me to find God, enjoy his company and avoid sin, but the door to such gratification is shut to me (for whatever reason), I could easily see how I would try to make up for that by lustfully amplifying the significance of my social and physical needs. And the same digression would be true if my social needs were not met. How many broken hearts have been soothed by a gallon of ice cream…or a bottle of whiskey? How many people who turn to drugs and/or alcohol are just looking for a little slice of heaven before they fall into that pit of despair?

Certainly, it is foolish to ignore our physical and social needs. The evidence of the negative consequences are abundant…what is seen on the news is a small sample of what the average cop sees on a daily basis. Isn’t the neglect of our spiritual needs just as perilous? I submit to you that those needs are just as critical as the others and just as innate, especially if we acknowledge a Creator.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
-2 Peter 1:3

Photo by Chris Yarzab via Flickr