The remarkable story earlier this week of the young stowaway aboard a Hawaiian Airlines jet underscores the significance and power of the basic psychological needs. The wheel-well passenger, a fifteen year old boy from Somalia, climbed a security fence at the San Jose Airport, hoisted himself into a wheel-well of the closest parked jet, waited for seven hours as the plane readied for departure, tucked himself into the tiniest of spaces when the wheels lifted back into the fuselage, and then endured a five hour flight that included altitudes of over 36,000 feet and temperatures that approached 60 degrees below zero. After arriving in Maui, Hawaii, an airport camera filmed legs dangling from the plane’s wheel well, which is almost 10 feet off of the pavement, and then witnessed the boy jump to the tarmac.
In the days following the young man’s miraculous flight across the Pacific there has been much written about the implications of his stunt on airport security and about the science of surviving in a sustained environment with so little oxygen and such bitterly cold temperatures. Fewer people, though, are talking about, what for me is, the more important question – that being – What would lead a teenage boy to seriously break the law (climbing over the perimeter fence of an international airport) and then risk his life flying in the wheel well of a passenger jet? Why did he do it?
Understanding choice theory and the concept of the basic needs, along with a few more details about our young traveler, will help us answer the important Why question. The young man immigrated from Somalia four years ago. He lived in the San Diego area for awhile, but more recently relocated to the San Jose area. He struggled in school, as he had not attended school at all before coming to the U.S., especially in Math and Science, and he apparently did not get along with his father and stepmother that well, as an argument between him and them was one of the reasons he climbed over that security fence at 1:00 am in the morning. He missed Somalia and his grandparents, who lived there. And he wanted to visit with his mother, who he had not seen since he was two years old.
As you listen to the details of this harrowing misadventure, a picture of the basic needs* of this teenage boy begin to emerge.
His need for love and belonging exerted a strong urge on him. He yearned to be with relatives that he felt loved him and cared about him, especially his mother, who he was separated from at a very young age. He did not feel, apparently, a strong sense of belonging here and he was motivated to find the human connection he needed.
His need for power was also unmet and also urged him to make a change. He didn’t know English very well and he wasn’t very successful in school. The feedback he may have gotten from his father and stepmother may have contributed to his lack of worth and accomplishment.
So powerful were these unmet psychological needs that it led him to risk his physical safety and overrule his basic need for survival.
That he did survive made for a compelling news story this week, and gives us a human drama from which to consider choice theory. We just need to remember that, while their stories may not make news headlines, we may be surrounded by young people struggling to meet their basic needs. Somehow we need the x-ray emotional vision that my friend, Tom Amato, talks about, that ability to see a situation through another person’s eyes.
Most people, upon hearing that a teenage boy climbed into the wheel well of a passenger jet and rode across the Pacific Ocean, would proclaim that the kid is nuts, a psych job. But when you consider the details through a choice theory lens you begin to see that his behavior was rational, thought out, risky, yes, and even ill planned, but his choice takes on meaning.
May we see the potential stowaway in our own children, and in our students, and focus on creating a need-satisfying environment that will prevent such stunts. May our children and students especially know that they are loved.
Those of you in the PUC area, we are having a Choice Theory Study Group this Sabbath afternoon, April 26, at 3:00 pm. Please note the later 3:00 pm start time.
* I have added the need for purpose as one of the basic psychological needs. Glasser didn’t feel that it was a basic need, but he didn’t get worked up that I felt it was.