Touch is Good

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I just listened to an NPR Hidden Brain podcast on the importance of touch.  Er… Specifically with respect to healthy human psychological development.  No surprise – touch, nurture, hugs, and cuddles are essential to growing up a well-rounded, loving, person capable of healthy relationships.  Conversely, isolation, deprivation of touch can lead to horrible psychological dysfunction and even psychosis such that (even in adulthood) children of unloving / untouching parents continue to search for and try to compensate for the lack of nurture.

Again, no surprise.  What’s surprising is that this wasn’t always the case.  In the 1950s mothers were urged not to hold their kids too much.  Not to coddle or cuddle kids because it would make them soft, weak, and unable to fit in and grow secure, able, and self-sustaining.  This was the advice of trained psychologists and behaviorists.

Now, this seems ridiculous.  Being shown love is precisely what enables us to be strong, secure, stand on our own, and be able to provide love and care for others.  A lack of love makes us insecure, anxious, and afraid.

As I listened to the podcast my mind turned to some conversations I’ve had with conservative American friends who lament social programs, welfare, health care, and other safety net provisions for the poor and disenfranchised… or as they call them; “entitlements.”

It might not be a “conservative” doctrine but it seems to be a “Fox News conservative” doctrine that exemptions for and investments in the poor (unemployment insurance, living wage, health care, education subsidies, social insurance, etc.) take away incentive, make people lazy, and leads to a sense of entitlement (the ungrateful assumption that it is the god-given right of the poor to be cared for by the rich through taxes and gov’t).

On the one hand, this simply isn’t true.  But to make that case strongly would involve digging up statistics and alternative models to prove that, given a chance, most people want to be productive members of society who will build and create if they are empowered and given a chance to do so.  But I don’t have time to dig up such evidence today.  But on the other hand, can’t the same point be made philosophically?  Maybe there is an analogy with the NPR podcast on human development.

Why would we think that a society investing in their poor and needy would make them less likely to work, create, and contribute to society?  Isn’t that a little bit like not holding your baby too much in order that they don’t get weak?  Isn’t it obvious that showing care is what enables but also inspires people to care themselves?  I know there are exceptions to everything but for my money, being denied privilege, worth, dignity is what twists people to be “takers” who don’t care.

I think there is something fundamentally gospelish about all this.  I think one of the most compelling and beautiful pieces of the Christian story is the idea of grace as unmerited favor.  What we need to do to earn God’s favor?  Nothing, it is already ours, given freely.  And if God’s favor is as full and complete and unmerited as we claim it is in Christ, then there is nothing we can do to lose it or lessen it.

The fear of religious people, then, is “Wait a second, you can’t tell a person there is nothing they could do to disqualify themselves from God’s love, because then they’ll think they can do anything they want!”

But that misses the point.  Receiving God’s love doesn’t make people into jerks, it makes them people who want to live in love and give love away.  We don’t do good works to earn grace, but having been given grace, we do good works as a response.

The radical Christian claim is to call broken, stupid humans sons and daughters of God who are seated in the heavenlies with Christ.  And giving that identity first is what allows that identity to become lived and experienced reality.

Babies, the poor, and just about everybody need to be given love in order to have love to give.  And that’s good news if you hear the gospel that God’s love always makes the first move.