My youngest son lived in an orphanage overseas until he was three years old. From what I understand, his first year of life was pretty rough. Missionaries who served in his facility were not allowed to touch the infants because officials didn’t want them getting used to snuggling. Once a baby knows what it’s like to be held, he will cry to be held more. Human contact was kept to a minimum to nip that in the bud.
Before our adoption I had never given too much thought to the developmental importance of holding a baby. When my birth children came into the world, I held them because they were cute, warm, and cuddly. I “oohed” and “aahed” over their perfect little feet, I breathed in the vanilla tops of their heads, I tickled their fat, poochy bellies, I kissed them eight million thousand times in the sweet rolls of their necks, and I rocked them to sleep. I did those things (as most mothers do) because love for them came natural to me. I didn’t realize that physiological connections were being grown in my babies as a result of contact with me. I have learned since that when a parent touches her infant, she is helping him realize how his body connects to his mind.
Because our youngest son wasn’t held much in his first year, that mind/body connection was damaged. When he first came to us, it was common for him to spin around and around in circles, to jump off of high places so he could feel the crash of the floor, and to wiggle continually. Even in his sleep, he was in motion. Too many nights I would hear a thump indicating that he had found a new way to fall around the bed rails. When I took him to an occupational therapist for advice, she explained that the orphanage had left sensory processing issues. The banging, the crashing, the wiggling were my son’s attempts to compensate for touch he never received. Because he wasn’t held enough, he had lost his body during those early years. Now his subconscious was trying to figure out where he was in the world.
Then she taught me how to help him. She showed me how to do gentle joint compressions all over his body while saying, “Here is your wrist. Here is your knee. Here is your neck.” She taught me how to run a light brush over his arms and legs so that he find his own skin. As I began to work through these exercises, my son would giggle, then grow intensely calm. Sometimes huge tears of relief would well up in his eyes. He looked at me with such deep gratitude, as if I understood a need that he didn’t quite. I would watch him reconnect with himself, and that was as moving an experience as seeing a child born for the first time.
The therapist also urged us to wrestle, to jump, to find safe methods of impact that would retrain my son’s brain. I began to knock into the world with him, and while banging around, I began to understand a little more about what he had lost. What could have been given so gently to a little baby required more extreme measures in boyhood. We had to take some risks together. We had to fall down sometimes. We had to steer ourselves through restlessness, through awkwardness, through an undefined ache that didn’t always have a clear cut answer. We were always a team, though, roughing about. As we figured out what needed to happen next, we cut each other a lot of slack and loved each other fiercely.
My son is not alone in this need, you know. Most of us did not begin life as orphans, but we have experienced a similar disconnect between ourselves and the world. There are many days where I’m not sure where “I” end and begin, or how I fit in the world, or how to exist in community without running into everything and ruining it. Sometimes I have needs rise up inside me that I don’t understand, and when they show up, I can be weird to be around. Sometimes I find myself pushing into people, asking for something I can’t even explain.
An article published in early November in the Business Insider magazine describes two traits necessary for long-lasting relationships. The research supporting this study goes back to the 1970s, but the conclusion is so obvious that you will shake your head that it took so long for humanity to get the clue. The bottom line in that study is this: how we respond to the attempts others make to connect with us matters. In fact, couples who stay together long term tend to affirm attempts their partner makes at connection about 87% of the time. Couples who don’t last only affirm 33% of the time.
When my brother and I were little kids, we had a knock language that we used on the wall between our bedrooms. Four knocks was, “Goodnight.” Three knocks meant, “Are you there?” One knock was, “Yes.” Two knocks was, “No.” I hated lying alone there in the dark, and it was beautiful to send out, “Knock, knock, knock?” and receive a single “Knock.” Yes. All was well. I was not alone after all.
This is what we do still. “Are you there? Do you hear me? Are we OK?”
Please, someone hear me. Please, someone say yes.
Over the past decade, I’ve read a lot of criticism about the world of social media. So many disparage “likes” and “favorites,” as if human beings should be above needing the affirmation of strangers. I get that. Nobody should need half a million people to affirm her fish pout.
However, I also wonder if we are uncomfortable with the new normal because it’s a revelation of a need that embarrasses us. By social media, our pre-existing insecurities have only been brought into the daylight. For as long as I can remember (and I do remember life before the internet) people have never been OK as they’ve made their way through the floatsam and jestam of society; it’s just that the “attagirl” men and women sought in smoky bars in 1970 is sought now thrown out on Instagram. The moms who sought praise for their brilliant children during church Bunko games are now making Facebook albums of awards nights. The neighbors who showed slides of their trip to Hawaii now have a Vine. The venues have changed, but the want is the same. Why? Because it feels good to be seen. It feels good to be recognized and named.
Most of us haven’t had the stability or the nurturing that we wanted. Life hurts, and many have lived feeling orphaned in one way or another. We’ve lost ourselves in years of neglect, and that loss is disorienting. Having someone put a hand on our head and say, “Hey, this is good!” works just like the joint compressions I give to my son. Human contact helps us feel more grounded.
Of course, we can argue that God’s opinion of us matters more than the opinions of any human being, and that would be accurate. However, when Adam was in the garden alone, we heard the first Divine “it is not good.” Over and over again, God had praised what had been made: the light, the planets, the animals. Yet when He looked at the state of a man living with only God’s company, he said for the first time, “It is not good for man to be alone.” What an interesting word to choose. Alone in the company of God? It’s possible that I misunderstand this passage, but it seems to me that God recognized that we needed one another as well as Him. I think this was our commission to tend one another.
It’s not difficult to argue that thrusting our vulnerability into the public sphere of social media is dangerous. However, that complaint is not the most important matter at hand. Quite simply, social media is part of the relational architecture of our time, and we must make the best of it. What we can do is recognize that those around us feel disoriented, that they are crashing into things looking for themselves, and that life is sometimes going to be ugly or awkward as a result. What then?
When my youngest son came home to live, there were some days of exhaustion. His need was so great, the transition was bumpy sometimes. However, I always knew that he was worth the work it took to soothe him. It didn’t matter that we weren’t perfect, because we’d both been through a lot, and there was no shame in needing time to heal. I learned to just pull that wiggly kid into my lap and begin to calmly massage him, speaking over him, “Here is your leg. Here is your neck. Here are you! I’m so glad you are here. I love being your mom.” I think that is what we need to do with one another as well.
Just about every week, I get tired of the chaos and risk of the internet. It hurts to live there; it makes me tired, and sad, and dizzy sometimes. There are a lot of weeks when I run and hide from it all. But I keep coming back, because I know that in all of human history, no other generation has ever been given such an opportunity. Every time I look at this screen I see need, need, need, need, need. And even though the grown children of the internet have been neglected, some of them are still crying out to be held.
How can I be a mother here? How can I gently take the orphaned under my wing and find ways to engage? Can I hold those hands, and can we jump roughly to the earth together to combat our disorientation? How can I be a holy fool who tumbles, and wrestles, and knocks into walls with the lost? How can I put my hand tenderly on a nervous soul and say, “Here you are! I found you!” How can I comment, like, retweet, reorient, bless, comfort, name in such a way that the orphaned are redeemed? It’s not likely to be tidy work, but what a beautiful pursuit, moving into so much need, offering the stability of a human touch.
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.