The Two Basic Human Needs: Bios and Zoë
As previously mentioned, Merryn and I have been immersed in a much-needed house renovation. Six months and six house moves later, we moved back into our unfinished home when alternative accommodation ran out, squeezing ourselves into a bedroom full of storage boxes and turning our spare room into a makeshift kitchen—with a microwave perched on a dishwasher stashed in the corner, a kettle on a dining chair, and a bin for a table!
Ever since, finding something as simple as a pair of scissors has become a major athletic endeavour as we climb over furniture to reach some half-crushed box wedged under bags of shoes and an ironing board. Doing laundry without a washing machine and going weeks without a fridge has required daily problem solving (and more microwave meals than should be medically allowed), while trying to work from a laptop on the bed while Rupert barks at the builders all day has been a particular joy… It’s been exhausting, and left me quite antisocial! With basic daily tasks taking so much effort, I’ve had little energy for friends.
All this has made me reflect on what us humans need to live well.
In his famous Hierarchy of Needs, psychologist Abraham Maslow said we need to have basic needs like food and shelter met before we can turn to higher needs like relationships—which makes sense of my social inertia. When you’re focussed on the basics there isn’t much left for other things. What empathy this should build in us, then, for those who must really focus on food, shelter and safety like the homeless and those seeking asylum .
Maslow’s hierarchy has been well critiqued since first published in 1943. Some have tried updating it to controversial effect. Maslow himself saw problems in his model early on, recognising that some higher needs could be met without the lower being fulfilled first. But even if he didn’t have it all right, he was scratching something. One interesting change he made was to his highest category.
Originally believing our highest need was to self-actualise—fulfil our individual potential—Maslow later revised this, saying we have spiritual longings like the need for transcendence that need meeting too. And this turn to the spiritual turns my mind to two hidden words in the New Testament.
Physical and Spiritual
The New Testament was originally written in ancient Greek, a richly descriptive language. While we have one word for ‘love’, Greek has four. And while we have one word for ‘life’, Greek has two—bios, meaning natural biological life, and zoë, meaning eternal, spiritual life. The distinction between the two is important. We can have bios without zoë. We can be biologically alive but spiritually dead.
And the really interesting thing for me is that when the New Testament writers speak about Jesus bringing ‘life’ into the world (John 1:4) or being the way, truth and ‘life’ (John 14:6), it’s zoë they’re talking about.
Food, shelter, friendship, purpose—we need these things and more. But maybe all these needs fold into just two—bios and zoë, physical life and spiritual life. And as our renovation inches towards its end and my social inertia starts to lift, some words of Jesus are taking on fresh meaning for me now: “I have come that you may have zoë and have it to the full.”
First aired in shortened form on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show