Blessed Are the Needy
Some fragmented thoughts on feelings and needs, the human longing to matter, and the persistent scarcity models of this world
Thursday, December 7
Grand Rapids, Mich.
One of the most transformative seminary classes I took was called Compassionate Communication. My professor, Deborah Hunsinger, had a gentle delivery that belied the power of her words and ideas. After nearly a quarter-century in the classroom, she was retiring after this last class, and often, I could feel an urgency in her lectures, each word chosen carefully, her soft voice summoning us to listen more closely.
Professor Hunsinger reframed how we understood feelings and needs. She compelled us to recognize our God-given agency, reminded us of our belovedness, grew our self-awareness, and bolstered our capacity for relationship. “We are motivated to act, speak, keep silent, and move toward or away from someone on the basis of our needs. Virtually everything we do (or choose not to do) is an attempt to meet a need,” she and her co-author, Theresa Latini, write in their book Transforming Church Conflict. Building on a secular template called nonviolent communication, which was developed by the mediator and psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, Hunsinger and Latini sought to apply these teachings to the Christian life. “What are we fundamentally desiring, wanting, working toward, hoping for, or valuing at any particular moment in time?”
Before I stepped into Professor Hunsinger’s classroom, I had a less-than-charitable understanding of the word “need.” Beyond the basics—food, water, shelter—I saw “need” as a negative. Needs were to be hidden or overcome, not to be met or shared. To be needy was to be weak.
From the very first day, Professor Hunsinger rebuked that view, arguing that needs are simply aspects of our humanity. We all need not just food and water and shelter but also support and respect and meaning. That wasn’t all: “Needs are invitations,” she insisted. They invite us to recognize that we aren’t self-sufficient beings, to acknowledge our interdependence, and to open ourselves to love.
In her framework, feelings are signposts that help us identify needs. If, say, I’m feeling lonely, perhaps my unmet need in that moment is connection or belonging. Or if I’m feeling heavy, my unmet need might be for ease or solidarity. But if I’m feeling secure, it’s likely that my need for safety has been satisfied. (You can find needs and feelings inventories, as well as more on nonviolent communication, here.)
I’ve thought lots about Professor Hunsinger’s teachings in recent weeks as I’ve watched the horrors unleashed by Hamas in Israel, the Israeli government’s devastating response in Gaza, and the heartbreaking discourse that has unfolded online. At every instance, I’ve tried to remind myself that each action, each reaction, even the most gruesome and inhumane, is an ultimately flawed expression of some sort of longing. Beneath, there’s some deeply human need: the need for safety, the need for freedom, the need for support, the need for home.
To be clear, this is neither rationalization nor excuse. It’s simply a picture of the painful reality: Sometimes, when we try to meet our very legitimate needs, we attempt strategies that harm others and we make choices that are destructive. Sometimes, when we seek to name and address our heartfelt, even laudable desires, we hurt others. Sometimes, when we pursue our own healing, we inflict grievous wounds on our neighbors.
Needs can be layered, one atop another. If they go unmet, it’s not without consequence. They can become like strata of sediment, settling and settling and even hardening into rock, until the weight feels unbearable. And at the base, beneath virtually every other need, there is the universal human need to matter.
In my own relational fossil layers, the unmet need to matter has been the source of so many conflicts and so much pain. Self-consciousness arose from my unmet need to be known—but beneath that, I really wanted to know that I matter. Bitterness grew from my unmet need to be heard—but beneath that, I really wanted to know that I matter. Disappointment and loneliness sprang from my unmet needs for inclusion and for respect—but beneath that, I really wanted to know that I matter.
Though I’ve spent some time in the Middle East, both as a journalist and as a traveler, I’m no expert and I’m not so foolish as to propose political solutions. That is largely beyond us. What’s not beyond us is how we talk about what’s happening and how we engage one another in person and on social media. We do have some control over the tensions that are rippling through our own communities. We can more helpfully consider how we are showing up or not—and that’s why I’ve been thinking so much about our strong feelings and our underlying needs.
In the past few days, two New York Times stories have lodged in my heart. One was about Paterson, N.J., which has one of the largest Palestinian-American populations in the country. The headline: “In a Place Called Little Palestine, People Feel Afraid. And Forgotten.” The other was a portrayal of the painful divisions in some Jewish-American families since October 7. Among them: the Kornblatts. Marc and Judith Kornblatt reared their children in Wisconsin, but then moved to Israel. “We felt like, for the first time, we weren’t going to be the other,” Marc Kornblatt said. Then he noticed a growing gulf between him and some American friends—and even one of his own children: “All of a sudden I was a Jew and colonialist and apartheid lover.”
Contemplating both stories, I’ve felt a tug at a common thread: We want to know that we and those we love, our hearts and our lives, matter.
As I’ve read and as I’ve spent time on social media, I’ve heard echoes: Why aren’t people saying more about the Israeli families still waiting for their captive relatives to be freed as well as very real rise in antisemitism on this side of the ocean? Why isn’t there more attention given to the sexual violence of October 7? Why aren’t people saying more about Gazans’ suffering as well as the very real rise in anti-Arab sentiment on this side of the ocean? Why isn’t there more attention given to the long history of discrimination against Palestinians?
Again and again, whether the voices have come from Israel and Gaza or beyond, whether the arguments emphasize one side or the other or somewhere in between, I’ve felt that same tug: We want to matter—and we want those we care about to matter.
I exchanged messages with a friend recently—a thoughtful, progressive Jewish American with loved ones in Israel. She has felt largely ignored and abandoned by many people whom she had thought like-minded, whom she’d counted as friends. She had absorbed their cries for solidarity with Palestinians and even as she agreed with many, even most, of the points made about history and the Israeli government, she also felt a sting from some things they’d said as well as deep hurt from what they’d not: no acknowledgment of antisemitism, no wondering about the effects on her and her family, no multidimensional empathy.
One more time, I felt that tug: We want to matter.
Amidst the overwhelming attention to this one part of the world, I’ve also heard from folks who are afraid to say anything about what’s going on in their own lives, whether wonderful or tragic. A professional achievement, a well-deserved vacation, a quotidian delight: “I don’t want to be perceived as insensitive, or happy when others are sad.” A cancer diagnosis, a mental-health struggle, financial worries: “But there are other things going on in the world that are worse.”
Even here, there’s that implicit question: Does my life matter?
Over and over, I want to shout: Yes, you matter. Your highs and your lows, your successes and your sorrows—they matter. You are loved—so profoundly loved, and in that love, there is room for all of it.
Yet, once again, I fear, the scarcity models of this life and this world as well as the false hierarchies of ranked grief are prevailing. I lament this so deeply. If God’s eye is on the sparrow, that doesn’t mean the eagle or the ostrich goes unseen. If we are to consider the lilies of the field, that doesn’t render the thistle or the rose any less worthy of our respect or care.
It is reality, of course, that each one of us has only so much attention and only so much bandwidth. The philosopher Simone Weil writes about this and about the core needs of every person, body and soul, in her “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligation”: “Certain people personally attract our attention, either through the hazard of circumstances or some chance affinity. For the lack of such circumstance or affinity other people remain unidentified. They escape our attention or, at the most, it only sees them as items of a collectivity. If our attention is entirely confined to this world it is entirely subject to the effect of these inequalities, which it is all the less able to resist because it is unaware of it.”
Weil insists, though, that there is a force beyond us and this world. To pay heed to this power is to enable us—us, not me, not you, but us, together—to make up for the failures of our individual attention. She believes that transformation can only come through the collective recognition of “the unique source of all the good that can exist in this world,” she writes, “that is to say, all beauty, all truth, all justice.”
Each of us is obliged to do our part, but no human can make everything that’s broken whole again.
Each of us must be humble—honest with ourselves as well as tender with others: When am I shouting, and why? When am I silent, and why? When am I claiming the moral high ground, but stepping on someone else in the scramble? When am I rushing toward what I call safety, when what I’m feeling isn’t really danger—it’s discomfort? When am I cloaking myself in comfort, when what I really could use is a dose of courage? What am I feeling, what do I need, and how can I find a healthy way to meet those needs? What might those other folks be feeling, what latent needs might they be expressing, and do I have the capacity to meet them where they are in a gracious and helpful way?
Each of us is invited to remind one another of our mattering, but no single voice can be the full chorus of healing that we need.
Love is our most precious renewable resource, but it must be cultivated. Empathy is as infinite as our imaginations allow it to be. Grace abounds, but, on the human level, only so much as we allow it to.
Blessed are the needy, for they are painfully, beautifully human—and they will be met, somehow, some way, by the divine.
I think I’ve said enough for this week. What are your thoughts and reactions? When I write to you each week, I hope you think of these more as hypotheses and conversation starters than theories and conclusions. What resonates with you, and what doesn’t sit so well?
Programming note: I’m preaching at Crosspointe Church in North Carolina this week. Join us at 10 a.m. Eastern, in Cary in person or online. We’ll look at Isaiah 40 (“Comfort, comfort, O my people....”)—yes, the whole thing. I am one of those weirdos who always takes on a little too much, and on Sunday afternoon, I’ll probably regret all the things I couldn’t say in 20 minutes, but I just can’t help myself. #depravity
I’d love to know what’s on your hearts and your spirits, and what I can be remembering in prayer.
As always, I’m so glad we can stumble through all this together—the only way through is together—and I’ll try to write again soon.
In hope and with gratitude,
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