So my teenage daughter comes in the other day and, I guess, doesn't like the way hubby is looking at her so she asks “what do you want?” in a kind of snotty way.
Quick as a flash, he replies - “ooh – I'll have a cappuccino – extra hot - and one of those tasty little muffins, thanks for asking!!”
OK, I know that isn't what she meant and I also know that his chances of getting anything except an eye roll and a head shake were about zero,
but isn't that the million dollar question hovering underneath – well - everything? What do I want? In any given moment what am I spending my precious time, attention and resources on? And why? What motivates me? Where am I going, and why? What matters most? And how do I even know?
I think it's a pretty urgent and relevant question.
Of course sometimes it's obvious – if I'm grabbing my toddler's hand to stop him from running onto the road, or if I'm working to support my family, it's not rocket science to identify a why behind the what. But taking a step back, it turns out we don't have to guess any more about the deeper things that seem to cause us to do the things we do. Understanding what we need to feel safe and alive allows us to de-clutter our lives. To take more control and be intentional about the things that really do matter.
Don't worry - I'm not here to try to advise you about the Meaning of Life or your own spiritual path. That journey is yours and I'm walking my own. But evidence has come to light over the last 50 years that identifies some more of the basics that we humans actually all need, regardless of our philosophy on life or our spiritual beliefs. Or race. Or gender. Or...
We know we need things like food, water, shelter and physical safety, but it wasn't until fairly recently that science uncovered a neurological basis for the necessity of a felt sense of connection with other human beings as well. We humans are not biologically equipped to face life alone. Our brains need to know that we have a safety net in place for when we need it before we can relax and enjoy the here and now. Secure emotional bonds are our insurance that someone will be there for us – someone has our back when we're not strong or we can't do it all.
Whether we're facing a physical threat or worried about being abandoned by someone important when we really need them, the same part of our brain lights up and sends the same 'danger' signal. When we get that danger signal, our emergency response system takes over until we get the 'all clear'. It's a biological survival mechanism.
Ground-breaking research in the 1950's discovered this need for emotional connection in children. Until then it was a mystery why so many died in post WW2 orphanages in Europe despite having all of their physical needs provided for. Or in 17th century orphanages. Or why children in longer term care in hospitals until the mid 20th century consistently fell into a clinical depression during their stay.
Studies even showed that monkeys (not to lump children and monkeys in the same category....) would consistently choose a softer, cuddlier cloth monkey 'mother' offering nothing more before choosing a mother made of hard, cold wire that was also bearing food.
But the thing that many folks are very understandably skeptical about, is that this need does not go away when we become adults. We show it in different ways, but the need for deep human to human connection is a biologically wired-in primary motivating force in our lives from the cradle to the grave. We don't get a choice about it.
Whether we're noticing that:
- We naturally gravitate towards each other - whether in couples, good friendships, communities, families, or all of the above.
- So much of our history, our art, songs, movies, literature is focused on LOVE. People have died for it. Wars have been started over it. Love really IS everywhere.
- An ever-growing body of research is at our fingertips to back up some pretty surprising and - for some - kinda hard to swallow facts about things like the presence of secure relationship reducing our risk of stroke, high blood pressure, heart attack, auto-immune diseases. Or depression, anxiety – even PTSD. Heck – it can even reduce our experience of pain. I am not making this up!
- The very worst punishment our justice system can come up with is solitary confinement.
It is now identifiable, researchable and measurable that we all share this common feeling.
Our fear of isolation and loss is a part of being human – a need that trumps almost all others. A need to feel safely attached to a few important others is a primary motivating force that must be met before we can truly enjoy all of the other good things about being human.
So what do we want? We want to know that we'll be OK. That someone will be there for us when we really need them. That if we let our guard down someone has our back. That we can count on that someone to be capable and to care. That they can have our back and that they would have our back.
And our close relationships are the vehicle for that assurance. We want the kind of relationship that's a safe haven when the storms of life are raging. Our internal compass has locked that in as our true north and we will move towards that like a metal is drawn to a magnet.
And we also need it to be a secure base to launch from and be our own independent person when the sun is shining, but that's a story for another day...