February 2019: Primal Needs
February is a funny month. The first half is focused on symbolic gestures (large and small) of romantic relationships. After Valentine’s Day, the Holly wood award season no longer has to share the spotlight; and social culture becomes hyper-aware of what awards celebrities win and what they wear to award shows. My focus is going to return to the former subject: love. In an odd coupling, it occurred to me that Saints serve a similar purpose to super-heroes and celebrities: those to admire and emulate. But Saint Valentine aside, I want to focus on the modern fascination with love and romance.
“Love is just a word until you meet someone who gives it meaning…” paraphrase from a line in the movie, “Book Club.”
Of all the subtle and not-so-subtle quips and quotes I’ve been handed over the years about love, this one rings the most true. I made some very misguided decisions based on the concept that love is a choice and takes work. In a nutshell: love = committment. [Something very doable for me.] But totally dismissing chemistry and connection. Not to mention mutual respect, consideration, and loving kindness. And now we know scientifically what it takes for a romantic partnership to last long-term: consistent, reciprocal affection and attention.
You don’t have to be in a romantic relationship for those primal needs of consistent attention and affection to be met. After all, our first introduction to those concepts came with infancy. We are hardwired from birth to know that the adults surrounding us are responsible for our well-being. In the world of psychology, it is fairly common knowledge about the post-war Romanian infants who died in orphanages—not for lack of food or shelter—but because the nuns couldn’t hold each infant while making loving eye contact (the distance of an infant’s vision). Tragic experiments were also conducted with monkeys to “prove” the hypothesis.
As adults, we still have these two primal needs for affection and attention. However, as we are no longer at risk of dying from these unmet needs, we experience other forms of un-wellness in the forms of physical and mental illness. In our Western culture, we have become almost exclusively dependent upon romantic partners to meet these primal needs. But I know people who are living proof you can thrive in social communities getting these needs met in platonic ways. Hugs and eye contact need not be in short supply.
We form communities of connections in all sorts of ways: work, friendships, book clubs, brother/sisterhood, therapists of all kinds, faith groups, sports leagues, hobby groups. Not to say these social circles automatically provide authentic connections, but they all have the capacity to provide healthy affection and attention. Sadly, however, we have all experienced the opposite effect from involvement in various systems, groups, or organizations. Hence, the opportunities abound—but, so too, the risks of being hurt. And emotional wounding is a significant mental health issue.
In my experience, my marriage was anything but attentive and affectionate. So I still had to look elsewhere for those primal needs to be met. Sometimes seeking it out specifically in a romantic relationship is what sets us up for failure. And sometimes seeking is the misguided first step. What if being open to it crossing our path is the first step? Not easy. Our primal needs drive us. We crave connection. That stable base from which we go out to explore the world, only to come back to replenish before going out again.
Sometimes we’ll do anything to find it, or at least fill the void. Not so easy to sit with our craving and open ourselves to the possibility of it being satisfied.
Hence why creating a loving world can only enhance our lives. The legends of Saint Valentine vary—as well as how his religious feast day became commercialized into Valentine’s Day. But maybe we can borrow a page from the story within the story. The basic idea is reminding people they are loved and cared for (whether the child of a jailor whose sight is restored or officiating secret marriage ceremonies) and to consider ways we can provide healthy affection and attention to those around us. None of us know the emotional wounding that is walking all around us. A greeting, touch of the hand, and eye contact may be all it takes to add loving kindness to someone’s day.
And the added bonus—at least two people always benefit from touch, eye contact, kinds words, and listening ears.