Four Pillars of the Human Person

In some posts, I refer to one or more of the four major pillars of the human person, so this is an article dedicated to explaining them. They are also referred to as aspects/dimensions/components of wellness or basic human needs.

“There are four major aspects of the human person: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.”—Matthew Kelly, Rediscover Catholicism

  • Emotional. The state of our mind; how we feel about our current experiences.
  • Intellectual. The contents of our mind; what we know based on our past experiences.
  • Physical. The state of our body; our health and wellbeing affected by input (food, drink, rest, air/environment) and output (movement, exercise).
  • Spiritual. The state of our soul; our unprovable connection to the immaterial and divine through faith

I like to think of the human person as an enfleshed soul. Our body (physical) lets our soul (spiritual) interact with the material world around us. We learn from experiences (intellectual), and we feel certain ways about those experiences (emotional). As we go through life, we have thoughts, words, and actions—or inactions—and with each of these experiences we either grow in holiness or decay into wickedness. At the end of our life I believe our heart will be unraveled and fairly judged.

The Human Body — Complex Yet Delicate

The human body is amazingly complex and capable. It is also very delicate. We live comfortably in an insanely narrow blip of just the right physical conditions: temperature, atmospheric pressure, air composition, gravity, food, water, etc.

Even with a life where all of these needs are satisfied, I find it so interesting that we still only live for a relatively fractional amount of time, when you take into account the age of the ~13.8 billion-year-old universe. Our physical body is built to last for a very finite period of time, some for only days or months, others for over 100 years. As we go through this brief life, we must persevere and resist evil. Evil tries to wear out our soul through attrition over time as the demon Screwtape alludes to here:

Spiritual Advisory - Screwtape Content

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.

Apparently He wants some—but only a very few—of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years.”—Screwtape, The Screwtape Letters

Which Pillar Takes Priority?

Imagine a structure held up by four pillars. If one pillar is completely neglected and crumbles down, that puts a ton of stress on the other three pillars, and the whole structure could fall. In other words, it would seem better that all four are at 75% than to have three at 100% and one at 0%.

All four pillars of the human person are important. In a beautiful design, they seem to mutually support and balance each other to hold up the human person in a delicate tension.

This also means we have to be honest with ourselves and evaluate how each of our pillars is doing. If one of them is in rough shape, being in denial about it may feel like the easier route short term but it will only hurt us more in the long term. If we have been ignoring God for years, our spiritual pillar will need some TLC. If we’ve been skipping sleep, eating junk food, and avoiding exercise, our physical pillar will be hurting.

It’s up to you to decide what is most critical for you to take care of today, in your own unique life.

As a general answer, the theme in scripture is that spirituality takes the cake in terms of importance. Building an interior castle is what is most transformative in our life. My lack of spirituality was why I had an unexplainable, empty feeling despite being in good, physical health with an active social life and a stable job.

So if any of the pillars deserve an upgrade, it is the pillar of spirituality. Rather than an adjacent pillar, however, it can serve as a rock, a foundation, upon which the others stand. In my years away from God, I felt like a house that was well-built (thanks to him) but had a glaring omission (thanks to me) in that it was not built on a foundation. Things seemed OK on the surface, but I was lonely and broken inside, and I quietly suffered.

“Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”—Matthew 7:24-27, RSVCE

Metered Needs

Keeping our four needs in good shape reminds me of the life simulation game The Sims, which has meters for human needs.

The Sims "Needs Meters"

The Sims “Needs Meters”.

While The Sims meters predominantly cover the physical (e.g., hunger, comfort, bladder, energy, hygiene) and emotional (e.g., fun, social, environment), we could look at our own lives at any given point and we would be at a particular amount for each pillar:

Sims - Four Pillar Meters

The four pillars of the human person as Sims “need meters.”

Our status changes everyday, and hopefully in the right direction. In our life, we are challenged with the task of keeping all our pillars healthy. The Sims—at least the original version I played—oversimplified this.

The Narrow Gate of Sustenance

In reality, we don’t just fill meters. We are called to pass through a narrow gate, one that exists at the junction of two impassible walls—two opposing extremes.

For example, if your Hunger meter was low in The Sims, you simply ate and your meter filled back up. Real life is more complicated than this. Maybe we struggle with knowing when the “meter” is full and therefore we find ourselves regularly overeating (gluttony). Or perhaps we chronically ignore when it’s empty to the point that it’s damaging to our health. If we have the means, we ought not to regularly deprive ourselves of food to a point of personal danger, nor should we chronically overeat.

At least in Catholicism, there are times in the liturgical year when we are called to fast and other times when we are invited to feast, depending on the occasion. At a high frequency or extreme duration, however, these become eating disorders and should be avoided.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”

And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”—Matthew 9:14-15

While there is a seasonal ebb and flow to this, it still exists as a narrow gate that is separate from and yet between the confines of two unhealthy extremes.

The Narrow Gate of Humility

As a spiritual example, we are called to be humble, which is a gate that exists narrowly between despair and pride. If we think we are worthless, we creep into despair, but if we think too highly of our physical or intellectual abilities and think them our own (and not gifts from God), we creep the other way, into pride. Humility is the healthy spiritual state that narrowly exists between the extremes of pride and despair.

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”—Matthew 7:13-14