People are social animals; our lives begin in dependency and remain that way until the end of childhood. For lucky ones among us, childhood is filled with love and nurturing, secure emotional attachments are formed and a sense of safety builds. Although each of us must eventually individuate, our ability to form and maintain loving relationships in adult life is undoubtedly formed during infancy and early childhood.
That said, anyone who’s enjoyed a batch of newborn puppies quickly learns that each individual comes into our world with particular predispositions and personalities; how we are raised – the nurture vs. nature debate – is only part of what makes each of us who we are, but it is a defining part. Deprivation of love and a sense of safety early in life often leaves emotional wounds an entire lifetime cannot heal.
The unfortunate truth is many of us are unlucky, exposed to abuse, neglect, hunger and deprivation almost from birth. Parenting is largely learned and often reflects of our own upbringing; it’s not an inborn, instinctive talent such as we observe in other animals like birds. Mothers, of course, are affected by natural substances such as oxytocin – the mothering hormone – helping them form emotional bonds with their children through an urge to nurse and nurture. Fathers experience feelings of protection, but whether love, sweetness and affection develop for an infant is less predictable. There are wide variations in parenting, of course, and no generalization always applies.
We are emotional beings; desire to share emotional intimacy is inborn, and despite its elusiveness in adulthood, remains active. Our social selves demand contact with others – not just casual or perfunctory contact – but contact that stimulates an intimate response. The range of human emotions is large but can be summarized into four basic categories: mad, glad, sad and scared. These four, and their myriad subtle and diverse combinations, color our interactions and relationships with others – our families, friends, strangers and enemies. When we are deprived of the comfort of love, it is not the end of intimacy, but the beginning of its displacement into other emotions.
As infants, our needs are often immediate, as are our responses. When hungry we cry out; when held and fed, we feel comfort; when tired, we sleep. These same needs travel with us into adulthood layered with increasingly complex rationalizations and justifications we employ to explain behavior, while still incorporating the basic emotions experienced in infancy and as toddlers. This speaks to the myth of adulthood; at an emotional level, adults are simply very large children, and like any children, the desire to share emotional intimacy is powerful. If we can’t find positive ways, we’ll find negative ones, like toddlers throwing tantrums for attention.
Unfortunately, when grown-ups throw tantrums, it often manifests in verbal abuse and physical violence. Group violence provides the emotional intimacy of comraderie; like football players revel in the togetherness of their collective physical power, so too do individuals within groups of rioters. The armed crowds of angry Proud Boys are acting out, desperate for a shared emotional intimacy increasingly lost in our atomized society. It’s not coincidental depression and loneliness are primary psychological ailments of our age; the loss of shared intimacy is a psychological trauma.
Jesus taught “love your enemies.” It’s difficult to do, but he understood that love alone can heal the trauma of shared intimacy lost.