“WILL YOU SNUGGLE with me mommy?” my six-year-old daughter calls from her top bunk.
“Me first!” says my four-year-old son from the bottom. My daughter always wants me to linger so I crawl into bed with my son. “Whaddya wanna talk about? Dinosaurs?” he asks, his small, strong arms wrapped around my neck. “You go first.”
After debating the relative merits of herbivores versus carnivores, I give him kisses all over his face and one last big hug before ascending the treacherous ladder to my daughter’s bunk.
“When is the next day we don’t have to do anything and Dad doesn’t have work?” she asks.
“I don’t know. Why?” I reply.
“‘Cause I want to go on a date. We haven’t done anything just you and me for a long time.”
She touches my face as she talks, and any movement I make that might be perceived as leaving results in her arms tightening around me. Meekly, she asks me to rub her feet. Meekly because I’m usually too tired and say no, but she’s brave and asks anyway and tonight I hold out my hands and she puts her tiny feet in them and I massage them for a minute or two.
We’ve been together all day but these children still want me. Their need to connect is insatiable. Does that change as we grow up? Or do we just get really good at hiding our need? At practicing coolness to stave off the pain of rejection? Mary Kay Ash, of Mary Kay Cosmetics, once said we should treat everyone we meet as if they have a sign around their necks reading, ‘Make me feel important.’ If only we did this how different the world would be.
I heard the phrase ‘All poverty is relational’ several years ago, and it has greatly affected me. When I’ve been in crisis, financially destitute, or made a poor choice, I’ve always had friends and family to catch me and help me back to my feet. But what about those who, for whatever reason, don’t have a safety net, a support system, a soft place to land when life is hard?
Very little rivals the pain of loneliness and broken relationships. The research of neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman, author of Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships, reveals that human beings are hardwired for connection with others (I could have told you that, but look! SCIENCE!), and that the areas of the brain that light up when we experience social pain—isolation, loneliness, rejection, exclusion—are the same areas that light up when we are in physical pain.
Anyone who has seen Tom Hanks’ movie Castaway remembers his delusional and tragic relationship with Wilson. The dearth of social contact available on the deserted island where Hanks’ character was shipwrecked led him to invent someone to talk to. And it was not just dramatic license on the part of the screenwriter.
“Shipwrecked mariners marooned on islands have been known to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, in some cases creating a cabal of imaginary companions with whom to share the solitude,” wrote Michael Bond in his BBC article, How extreme isolation warps the mind. “It sounds like madness but is likely a foil against it.”
Without someone to talk to, we would very likely go mad. People in solitary confinement and those who volunteered for experiments involving total isolation reported experiencing hallucinations and lost track of time because of the lack of stimulation and connection with another human.
As an introvert and someone who has experienced the pain of exclusion, rejection, and broken relationships, the idea of going off and living in the woods by myself has had its appeal. And yet, my life has followed a trajectory toward meaningful connection, albeit one whose arc is as steep as the proverbial learning curve. Each failure has propelled me toward deeper understanding of myself and others.
Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
My husband and I practice this in our marriage and I’ve somehow managed to find a few brave souls to be my friends, the open-door-policy, make-yourself-at-home, rummage-through-the-fridge, bring-your-laundry kind of friendship I’ve always longed for with people who know and love me well.
As for my kids, I pray the way I love them gives them sustenance and strength for as long as possible and that they pursue meaningful connection long after conversations about dinosaurs and bedtime foot rubs are over.
Rachel Womelsduff Gough and her family ditched the city for a patch of earth in the Snoqualmie Valley. Cheered on by her husband and two blonde babes, Rachel learns by getting her hands dirty, whether it’s gardening, chicken farming, canning, neighboring, or adventuring with soulmates in wild places. She reads constantly, and can’t live without coffee, flowers, and classic mystery stories.