It’s a script repeated daily by millions.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Fine, thank you.”
For many, the words, “I’m fine,” are just as often a sign of surrender, resignation, and withdrawal than an authentic reflection of what someone is truly feeling.
Perhaps we’ve surrendered our wishes, hopes, dreams and passions. Perhaps we’ve become resigned to the pain and sadness in our gut that once cried out for connection and possibilities. Perhaps we no longer have energy for uninvited advice and “guess what happened to so-and-so” stories repeated with the best of intentions by friends and family alike. Perhaps we’ve just given up.
In homes, neighborhoods, schools, offices, grocery stores, gas stations, shopping malls, highways, even in churches and synagogues, we see daily reminders that many of those closest to us are not fine; not because anything is broken or defective, but because they’re not getting needs met that are too often forgotten.
Sometimes we see the truth through the sadness in their eyes or a slump in their shoulders; often through reactions to others or the world at large. Some leak tears, confusion, and sadness; others may flood angry outbursts, sarcasm, and tantrums.
Whether the expressions are active or passive, they signal something fundamental may be missing. In western society, for those who have food, shelter, health and sustenance, most often it’s a cry for bonding.
“In the West, there is loneliness, which I call the leprosy of the West. In many ways it is worse than our poor in Calcutta. The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted. It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”
~ Mother Teresa
From the moment of his first breath just five weeks ago, our newborn son knew he had a need for bonding. Practically every awake moment since has included either an urging for nourishment or a plea for comforting human connection. As parents, my wife and I have become 24/7 detectives, studying the nuances of each sound, movement, and expression to interpret our baby’s communications and doing our best to meet his needs.
The needs he’s so comfortable expressing as a newborn will continue throughout his life, yet the reactions he experiences from others – especially his parents — during his earliest months and years will powerfully influence how he seeks to get those needs met and impact the very fabric of his life.
Consider for a moment:
What messages did you get from your earliest cries for connection? How did you interpret (and eventually internalize) the reactions of others about your own feelings and needs? What did your interpretations lead you to decide about yourself that may have had little, if anything, to do with you? What did you decide about getting your needs for bonding met?
Understanding the importance of bonding particularly — defined as the unique combination of emotional openness and physical closeness with another human being — has led to a paradigm shift that has powerfully influenced our understanding of human development and behavior. The results have included significant changes in birthing practices, physical and mental health treatments, recovery and wellness programs, care for seniors, parenting, fatherhood and marriage education, immigrant absorption, and even rehabilitation and re-entry of convicts. In fact, the more we understand about the human need for bonding and the symptoms of deprivation, the more we’re discovering about its connection to many of society’s most urgent challenges.
Too often, we become distracted by the symptoms of bonding deprivation that we miss the most important signs. Many interventions – from pharmaceuticals to counseling, therapy, psychology and psychiatry – have become multi-billion dollar industries with treatments that do little more than mask the symptoms of deprivation, leading countless millions to survive in lives of quiet desperation, knowing deep inside that something profound is missing, yet resigned to the habits, behaviors, and rituals we’ve mastered to disguise our ultimate surrender.
Thousands of times over, I’ve had a front row seat to the miracles and possibilities that unfold in relationships between couples, parents and their children, and entire families as participants in PAIRS classes realize the price they’ve paid in their lives for not getting their needs for bonding met and not meeting the bonding needs of those to whom they’re closest. For young couples beginning their lives together, understanding the centrality of bonding provides layers of protection, security and resiliency to their most treasured dreams and potential — far beyond the most well-intentioned advice, counsel, or treatment.
From the depth of that understanding emerges a road map to relationships that don’t merely survive, but lasting opportunities to thrive through the natural chapters, challenges, transitions, and obstacles masterfully built into every human experience.
As we pause to enter the second decade of a new millennium, contemplate what it would mean for your life – and for those most closely connected to your life – to know daily that your actions create an environment in which you and your loved ones can be emotionally open and physically close to one another. In the quiet of your mind, imagine how it looks and feels to be someone in whom others can confide, be vulnerable, and reveal the wonder and uniqueness of their individuality without judgment, criticism, or ears that listen, but a heart and mind that doesn’t hear. What does it look and feel like for you to have the strength and courage to confide in others, to be fully human, including embracing the parts of yourself that are learning, growing, works in progress? And what does it look like to be someone with whom those closest to you can be physically close — affectionate – where it’s safe and natural to embrace one another in love and comfort? What does it look and feel like for you to be someone who can reach out for the affection you need to thrive within your most cherished relationships?
It’s the answers to those questions that participants discover during their training in PAIRS classes — practical, usable skills for deepening communication; expanding empathy and compassion; understanding emotions in ourselves and others; reexamining decisions made as a result of past experiences, hurts and disappointments; and processes for addressing differences. Those tools, such as Daily Temperature Readings, Talking Tips, Caring Behaviors, Emptying the Emotional Jug, Fair Fight for Change, Powergram, Untangling Love Knots, and Transforming Emotional Allergies become their tools – often called a “treasure chest” — for nurturing, sustaining, and vitalizing love.
As the clock approaches midnight this Thursday, many will resolve to be better fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters in the new year. Again in the words of Mother Teresa, “Prayer without action is no prayer at all.”