“They could not live without petting.”
About 900 years ago, more or less, the king of Sicily – a fellow named Frederick II – decided he could conduct an experiment. We know that, among other darknesses, people with too much power lose a couple of important things: Empathy and Impulse Control. Fred was no exception.
He surmised that humans had a natural language that would appear on its own. So he took babies from their mothers, at birth, and isolated them. No one could talk with them or touch them, though their nutritional needs and such were taken care of. He never answered his language question for a simple reason. They all died. An Italian historian, Salimbene di Adam, suggested “They could not live without petting.”
As a recovering English teacher, I treasure words and their history. Integration comes from ‘to make whole.’ Let’s set politics, biases, religion, and such aside and consider this idea of disintegration as an essential and essentially devastating impact of our current situation. Have you ever had that dream of walking down the stairs and missing a step so that you wake up with your foot banging around? It’s like that, but right now the missing step is everything.
I have always been independent and uncomfortable in large groups. Yet I am no more immune to the dangers of ‘without petting’ – as a metaphor as well as in the true senses of things like hugs and handshakes – than anyone. So the question I want to ask each of you is “What are you doing to acknowledge this disintegration, candidly and honestly?” Further, what are we all doing about other peoples’ need for embrace? Think about that for just a moment. When we meet others’ needs for connection, we must meet our own at the same time. Cool, right? We give nothing away but only gain when we reach out. What we gain is love, the antidote to creatures like Frederick II.
Medium Well Done
We are blessed and cursed by our connectivity. Though I may be in lockdown, my computer is still internet-infected. Posting pictures of our dog, a video from the beach, and Twitter feeds, are pretty pain-free. They are also like memes compared to conversations and microwaves to cooking. John Ciardi, a wonderful poet, and writer, talked about “the pleasure of taking pains”, i.e. being painstaking. Merely posting keeps others from getting too close, like a permanent first date.
When all we put into our connections and community are hits-and-runs (social media posts), we are too close to the babies in Frederick’s experiment.
In our geographic distance, we do not have to be distant, and the current of our connections needs effort and attention.
From this habit, my new circle of friends – and we have never met within physical space – are close like neighbors. Like functional families. We spend time together. We don’t share only images, we share feelings. Living together, no matter the miles and hours apart. We can drop the shield of separation to be better for, and with, each other.
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I read this at my wedding to Anne:
Most Like an Arch This Marriage
BY JOHN CIARDI
Most like an arch—an entrance which upholds
and shores the stone-crush up the air like lace.
Mass made idea, and idea held in place.
A lock in time. Inside half-heaven unfolds.
Most like an arch—two weaknesses that lean
into a strength. Two fallings become firm.
Two joined abeyances become a term
naming the fact that teaches fact to mean.
Not quite that? Not much less. World as it is,
what’s strong and separate falters. All I do
at piling stone on stone apart from you
is roofless around nothing. Till we kiss
I am no more than upright and unset.
It is by falling in and in we make
the all-bearing point, for one another’s sake,
in faultless failing, raised by our own weight.
You, sir, are one of my favorite thinkers. And you are most definitely a friend.
I love this poem greatly. When I was teaching high school English at W.T. Woodson HS in the 70s, I got to teach some poetry courses. John Ciardi’s “How Does a Poem Mean” is just as good as good gets.
Friend back to you.
I have stumbled, in this strange and wonderful time, on the idea that our best needs, e.g. to give love, to accept love, to look around us childlike rather than childish, will always push themselves forward. It’s like a blade of grass, which will even split concrete over time. So we can all nurture that reality, leave ample space for it in our minds, our hearts and our spirit, and never doubt its efficacy.
You make some great points, thank you.
You and I have never met, yet I count you as a true friend. My approach, as I have got to understand it, is to welcome those I am speaking to over the internet into my home, a three metre circle around me, so that it really does feel as though you are here with me. So intention is the first.
The second is for me to be as quiet, still, calm centred and grounded as I can be such that I can filly see and hear the person in front of me. Calm enough so that I don’t react to everything they say, rather quietly listening to them. It enables me to notice subtle shifts in their energy and for me to respond accordingly and appropriately.
Finally, to know that the person in front of me is the most important person in the world for me at this moment.
You make my day, brother.
In more modern times, Frederick’s observation about babies needs for touch was found in Romanian orphanages. To the purely sensoric new born, touch signals it matters, and “if it didn’t matter that I was brought into this world, I am going to take my leave again, thank you.”
Your comment about physical distance allowing us to drop our shields is such an interesting observation, Mac, and one I can relate to.
When facilitators form t-groups (communication training groups), normally they put friends and spouses in different groups. This happens for two reasons: First, friends and spouses have old history together that may influence how they behave in the group. Second, other group members may not feel as safe if they believe, rightly of wrongly, that some members will discuss between them what happened in the group “behind their back”.
The result is that people in these groups generally are without other relationships with each other and hence none of the power dynamic from outside – except what resides between their ears and makes us react from the mirror we experience.
That doesn’t mean that fondness for each other can’t grow out of the encounters, on the contrary, and when done in person, hugs frequently happens – as greetings and in support.
While we have no way to abate the sensoric deprivation, the very real skin hunger people can experience from lack of being touched, we can be more warm and generous in our expressions than we might otherwise be, making words replace that squeeze on the arm or pad on the back – or full embrace that says “I am here for you to lean on.”
The lovely side effect from this experiment of communicating with more love towards “perfect strangers” could be that at some point we grow bold enough to be more affectionate towards the people we see in 3D as well. Perhaps they need expressions of affection just as much as the faces on the screen?