The Triangle of Life

Triangles – mathematical shapes, each with three sides and three points: same, yet different, whether defined by side – as equilateral, isosceles, scalene, or by angle – as right-angled, acute, obtuse. This fascinating basic shape has more relevance to living than we may realise. 

Have you ever wondered why rows of houses have Toblerone-shaped roofs – with triangular ends? Apparently, because of the even distribution of weight, the triangle is the strongest mathematical shape – almost indestructible, and more likely to withstand nature’s threats of storms. Imagine its 3D version – the tetrahedron, with four triangular faces, one as its base – strong, stable, and sturdy as a church steeple pointing to the sky, as the least likely 3D shape to be blown over. Could this recognition of strength also be why triangles are associated with life and well-being? 

Consider the power of three? Does the ‘threeness’ of triangles symbolise the strong, yet flexible, relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviours? Does it also symbolise man as a being capable of action, tension and aggression? Does this threesome, when applied to humanity help to explain why war is never far away? Are    not all conflicts, basically three-sided – with aggressors, victims, and the ‘reason or issue being fought over’ as its third? Examples: The Crusaders (from Middle Ages), Muslims and Christian religion? Hitler, the world, Nazi ideology? Putin’s Russia, Ukraine, land/power? White suprematists, black people, racism? Beware the dangerous power of three in human hands. 

On the positive side, the triangle can also represent communication. Can words carry as much weight as bombs or rifles? Can they inflame hearts and minds? Yes! Spark-filled messages from both speakers and writers that reach the minds of listeners or readers, remind us that this human power of three also has the capacity to create harmony, balance and stability across our world – if we let it. The right words can effectively link mind, body and spirit. Have not speeches by prominent leaders, often tipped the balance between war and peace? Should the triangle therefore be a symbol of peace and love – rather than of hate and war?

But consider also the ‘fire triangle’, that mix of oxygen, heat and fuel, creating a chemical reaction. Once sparked it has the power to destroy all in its path, whether from nature’s (climate) initiation – or man’s. And is it always ‘man’, as opposed to ‘woman’? If the world was ruled by women, would there be as much aggression, resulting in wars? An interesting question. Are women’s minds wired differently? Is the danger of the ‘fire triangle’, when applied to humans (and animals) more likely to stem from what resides in the hearts and minds of males, rather than females? Are men, once endowed with power, more likely to demonstrate Machiavellian characteristics? Evidence from history suggests -yes. 

Back to peace and love, and the three-cornered relationship of harmony, balance and stability. Maslow’s pyramid, presented as a triangle of life (Abraham Maslow, 1943 paper, entitled ‘A Theory of Motivation’), invites us to consider what all humans need to become ‘good’ and strong as we grow up and progress through adulthood. 

Imagine the triangle on its firm base, pointing upwards. At first base are the starting points of life – physiological needs, such as air, food, warmth, clothing, shelter, sleep: the things that enable us to function as healthy humans. One step up from this base, is safety. Surely a need for us all: which is why we lock our doors, or install burglar alarms, or why women often carry alarms or pepper sprays when venturing out alone. We need security. On the step above these two sits love and belonging. What are hearts for, if not to love? We all need that sense of belonging – as personal relationships, with other humans and/or with special pets. Next we have self-esteem – the need to feel good in our own skins – positivity that stems from self-worth: that we are ‘enough’. Self-esteem stems from respect received by others, leading to self-respect, and belief in what we can achieve. On the next step is self-actualisation: making the most of what we have, realising our personal potential in whichever way is right for us as individuals. A final need, that of transcendence, was later added to Maslow’s original five-tiered theory: related to mindfulness and being able to transcend beyond what others do to us – and survive intact.

Transcendence is to do with well-being – mind over matter – our responses to significant challenges. Did Nelson Mandela manage to ‘transcend’ his 27 years in prison, from 1962, convicted of trying to overthrow the state? As he walked from his Cape Town prison, in February 1990, with his wife, Winnie, did his release (at the time) symbolise the end of apartheid in South Africa? I think it did. 

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been much criticised over the years for its unscientific approach, but later amendments still reflect human motivation as a triangle of life: immediate physiological needs, self protection, affiliation, status and self-esteem, mate acquisition, mate retention, and our ability to become good parents. One key difference is that these motivations are seen to overlap, rather than replacing earlier ones. 

Sadly, our news is full of examples where human needs have not been met –  babies, children in schools, teenagers, adults, and older people in care homes. All professionals who work with, and/or pass judgement on, people need to absorb and thoroughly understand Maslow’s structure of needs: police, teachers, social workers, courts. The triangle of life revolves around what we know about psychology and its positive applications. If a child misbehaves in class, such behaviour sends a message – which needs are not being met? If a teenager carries a knife, which need is not met? If a shoplifter steals food from a store, what should this behaviour tell us? 

If more people in the world had their motivational needs met – at least in part, would our world be a fairer, more equal and happier place? Yes. So let’s start by applying harmony, balance and stability. Words – not war! How wonderful would it be if our human triangles of life could eventually tessellate into a mosaic of world-wide colour and lasting happiness?

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