December 24, 2001
Homework That Heals - Affection
Humans are social animals. This isn't a matter of choice, it's a matter of natural design. We don't happen to "prefer" being social, as if we could choose one way of living over another, we must be social in order to function properly.
Science, in its usual rediscovery of the wheel, has recently shown that humans require close contact to regulate their chemistry and body rhythms. This happens most obviously in the autonomic and limbic brain systems rather than the upper cortex or "thinking" brain. These areas are more involved in feeling, sensing and vital functions.
As an example, the developing brain of a baby will set all of its myriad hormonal and neurochemical set-points and patterns according to the patterns of its mother - simply by being in close loving contact with her body. When a mother and child sleep together, the baby's heart rate and breathing patterns will fall into a rhythm aligned with the mother. Another example is that women who live together often develop a common menstruation cycle.
Without going into further detail, the truth that aboriginal people have always instinctively known is that we need each other to be healthy and happy - emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
We don't just need to be close, however, we need to be loving. That is, we need to touch each other regularly - with kindness, caring, respect, appreciation, acceptance, and non-judgment. To do otherwise is simply neglect or abuse. Unfortunately, almost all children of civilized parents have been dragged through neurotic childrearing practices that perpetrate this neglect or abuse.
This question is not open to choices based on cultural preference or style. It's a matter of physical reality. If children do not grow with regular loving affection, their brains become stunted and damaged. Brain cells actually wither and die. We speak of emotional pain as if it's something ethereal or non-physical. No. Emotional pain is the feeling of the body being damaged and hurting in ways we can't see. In children, this pain indicates that whole neurochemical and hormonal systems are being forced out of order. The similar rise in day-care attendance and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) is no coincidence. Millions of children are now dependent on drugs (Ritalin, etc.), when a very simple need - the regular affection of their mothers from birth onward - could have permanently balanced their systems for life.
Affection isn't just a nice thing. It's absolutely essential. It isn't dessert - it's the main course. Receive it as a child and we will feel confident, healthy, and at ease with ourselves and the world. Miss out, and we get the mess we're in.
At this time of the year, most cultures with a Christian history celebrate Christmas. It is traditionally a time to gather with family and loved ones. It is also a time in civilized history when families are most fragmented - by physical and emotional distance. With our biologic needs for affection and close personal connection, is it really such a surprise that it is also a time when suicide and depression rise dramatically? I don't think so. We may distract ourselves during the rest of the year with TV, entertainment, shopping, work, busyness, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, and prescriptions, but it's hard to hide from our isolated suffering when Christmas Day is staring us in the face.
I believe that much of our suffering comes from a lack of safe affection when we were growing. And, to tell you the truth, our medical and therapy bills would plummet if we could just find a way, even as adults, to be held safely. It's not that affection can turn back the clock and reverse all the damage, but affection in a safe environment will allow our natures to soak up the nurturing we need, and release the pain of our abuse and neglect. Consistently, over time, this will assist in regaining a significant degree of systemic balance.
Although many of us who are damaged need special assistance to complete our healing, affection - both given and received - can play a major part in the process. It is essential, however, that any affection must occur within a trusting situation. Ideally it must be regular, reliable, and gentle, given and received with kindness, caring, respect, appreciation, acceptance, and non-judgment. It cannot be predatory or in any way a violation of physical and emotional boundaries. Although there is nothing wrong with sex, healing affection is at the other end of the spectrum, and must be non-sexual in order to feel safe, and be effective. To open yourself to touch that is invasive may only create further damage and trauma. Be careful and don't trust too soon.
When we are isolated, it is hard to find safe relationships where affection can be shared. But knowing how important it is may influence you to seek it out more intently. Do what you can, and be gentle with yourself, if in this cold, scared world, it doesn't come easily.
If you have some relatively close relationships, check to see if the affection level can be adjusted to better suit your needs. There doesn't have to be talk or intense eye-to-eye contact. Just leaning on someone as you read a book will make a difference. Your cells and theirs will be communicating as they touch whether your thinking brain is involved or not!
Watch other wild, social animals. They are frequently in contact with each other - touching, rubbing, smelling, cleaning, leaning, playing, resting, and sleeping. As much as you can, follow their lead. In my own primal circle, we often lie around in a gang, which we call a "puppy pile." It's fun and it feels great.
Although I often feel sad for the way we separate young domesticated animals from their families, they have a place in our society. So don't underestimate the value of dogs, cats, and other domestic pets in their ability to give and receive affection in very pure and significant ways.
Contrary to the monkish ideal we so often follow, I firmly believe that we cannot fully heal in isolation. It's time to leave the cave and get a hug.
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Homework That Heals - Introduction