My granddaughter had not yet woken up from her morning nap. Her mother wanted to go for a run but needed to wait for the baby to finish her nap first.
“Why don’t you wake her up?” I asked.
“Because she will be crabby,” she replied.
“Take the phone into her room and let her hear my voice. She won’t be crabby.”
Sure enough, as soon as Miss M. heard me speak she popped up out of that crib like a jack-in-the-box and reached out for me. Miss M. and I have this bond. The kind I am sure most of you have with your own grands. She doesn’t yet say my name but she knows that I am someone who loves her and she loves me back.
Our relationship is almost all non-verbal. Miss M. is the least talkative of all my grands. That may change, but right now she seems completely at ease just observing others.
Researchers say that the human species is the most pro-social of all species, and a large part of this is contributed to our ability to communicate and cooperate with each other. That might be hard to believe given this season’s political climate, but nonetheless, it is true: We, above all other species, know how to cooperate with each other.
It is difficult to imagine that it is our language skills and our ability to cooperate which sets us apart from the apes and many other creatures, isn’t it? If you’ve ever been to a family reunion, you might think we’d all be better off if we all had to rely on non-verbal means of communication instead of talking.
Miss M. doesn’t engage language to tell me how much she wants to be a part of my circle. She simply puts out her arms and reaches for me. And she will leave them out, stretching them as far as she is able until I respond by reaching back for her. She does not need for me to hang on to her. She only needs the comfort of that exchange – her reaching, me responding. That brings a smile to her face every time, and mine.
Unfortunately, during this time of a pandemic, we don’t have the luxury of relying on non-verbal communication as much as we might prefer. So we have to turn to language to communicate our needs, our hopes, our longings. We also use it to express our fears, our frustrations and our frenzy.
Lately, much of our (or at least my) daily language revolves more around the latter than the former.
Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith devoted much of his life to understanding the nature of man. Author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith believed that while humans primarily act out of selfish reasons, there is within most humans an abiding concern for the welfare of others: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
In other words, even during years of deep rhetorical divisiveness, most of us care about each other.
It’s not our hearts, or our natures failing us right now, but our language. We simply fail to know how to communicate to those across the rhetorical divide: You matter to me. I need you.
The very thing Miss M. communicates to me non-verbally everyday.
Nationally, we seem to be at an impasse of communicating that we care about one another.
The narrative often pushed by those employing rhetorical tools for political gain is the world is falling apart and we should be live in terror of one another. The narrative tells us that when Doomsday comes – which it surely will – our neighbors will be out to hurt us and our families. As a result of such scare-tactics, guns are sold by the hundreds of thousands. Survival gear companies make millions through the fear-mongering narrative that we all need to prepare to protect ourselves and our families.
But a look back shows us something quite different than this false narrative. History reveals that when disaster strikes, humanity more often than not pulls together. We put aside our religious and political differences and we reach out to one another – the way Miss M. reaches for me.
Take any disaster you can think of (for me it is the Tsunami in Thailand or Katrina or the Haiti earthquake), what was the response to those disasters?
People around the world rose up. Humans sent money. Humans got on planes and traveled to the epicenter. Humans spent weeks searching for other humans. Humans cleaned through debris. Humans wept with complete strangers. Humans hugged. Humans fed other humans. Humans loved.
Time after time after time, the thing we feared – that masses of people would turn on each other in the midst of some doomsday scenario – did not happen. In every single disaster I can recall in my lifetime, people rose up to help each other.
Nobody asked: Who did you vote for?
Nobody asked: What church do you belong to?
But they did ask: How can I help you?
There are forces at work seeking to make us a fearful people. There are forces at work seeking to make us disdain one another. There are forces at work seeking to make money off of our fears and our frustrations and our frenzy.
Years ago I sat on a porch in my home and I prayed about the fears overwhelming me. I told God that as I saw it people could live one of two ways – afraid or not afraid. I asked God to help me overcome my fears and expand my world.
Fear is the serial rapist who is never satiated. Its main goal is to dominate our lives, making our world smaller and smaller, scarier and scarier.
When we think of the world as an evil place full of evil people doing evil things, we begin to give up ownership of our lives over to those who claim that they alone can protect us.
But when we see the world as a place to explore, inhabited with good people who want to share the adventure with us, we can’t help but greet each day with a sense of excitement and wonderment: What joy will we encounter today? What joy will we impart?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend (Mercer University Press).