When our eldest daughter was born and we brought her home from the hospital, I was struck by how vulnerable she was. She was way too tiny even for the infant car seat we’d bought. I had to prop her up with blankets and pillows, and I was afraid her head would droop too far down and hurt her neck.
On the way home from the hospital, I literally drove twenty-five miles per hour in the slow lane on the expressway with my hazard lights flashing. Meanwhile, Nancy periodically held a mirror under Laura’s nose to make sure she was breathing.
When a baby cries, a parent soothes. This is the way of human life. Vulnerability drives us to intimacy.
Parents will instinctively reassure a baby who cries. Nancy always used one of two phrases: “Honey, honey” or “I know, I know.” Mothers always say, “I know,” even when they don’t.
This is how children begin to learn that they have worth. Someone bigger, stronger, and wiser says, “I notice you. I recognize your discomfort, your pain, or your hunger, and I care. I will make things better.”
Parents make this connection reflexively. When a baby cries, the mother doesn’t immediately smile in response. First she will make a sad face—mirroring the emotion of the child. This is a huge part of intimacy. It says to the baby, “You are known.” Not only that, but, “You are worthy of being known. Though you are tiny and vulnerable—and even scrawny—you have value such that the effort involved to comprehend your experience and serve your well-being is a small price to pay.”
When Laura first came home, I often went into her room at night just to look at her and watch her sleeping in her crib. She was born with a little strip of red hair that ran down the middle of her head (it filled out into a lovely profusion of copper-colored hair just in time for college graduation), and if she was lonely or whimpering, I would gently rub her little Mohawk with two fingers and say to her, “I’ll stroke your little head.” Eventually, my back would start to ache, and I would try to sneak away. But if she was still awake she would object, and I would be right back at it.
“Stroke your little head? Stroke your little head?”
Sometimes, when she woke up in the morning, at around the age of one, if no one went to pick her up immediately, she would become distressed. But instead of crying regular cries, she would sob to herself the words she’d heard us say: “Honey, honey, honey … I know, I know … stroke your little head.”
Hearing this, Nancy and I would lie in bed and laugh.
Looking back thirty years later, I now regret this.
I wish we had gotten up and videoed it.
But this is exactly what attachment looks like. In our vulnerability, we are driven to someone who cares for us—who, in turn, engages in soothing behavior and promises that things will be okay.
When the little baby takes in these soothing words, the brain rewires itself. Fear diminishes. A sense of safety deepens. The world becomes a safer place.
Honey, honey, honey … I know, I know.
In fact, the way a child’s brain develops is a staggeringly beautiful reflection of God at work in creation.
In Genesis 1, we’re told that in the beginning there was a formless void. Neal Plantinga notes,
Everything in the universe is all jumbled together. So God begins to do some creative separating: he separates light from darkness, day from night, water from land, the sea creatures from the land cruisers. God orders things into place by sorting and separating them.
At the same time God binds things together: he binds humans to the rest of creation as stewards and caretakers of it, to himself as bearers of his image, and to each other as perfect complements—a matched pair of male and female persons who fit together and whose fitting harmony itself images God.
God uses separating and joining to create what Plantinga calls “the building of shalom, the re-webbing of God, humanity, and all creation in justice, harmony, fulfillment, and delight.”
The Bible word for “separate” is kadosh. It’s often translated as “holy.” Over time, “holy” came to be associated with “holier-than-thou,” a mind-set of distance and standoffishness. But in the beginning, it was not so. God separated so that he could join together in ever-more-complex systems of thriving and delight. To be holy is to become useful.
The human brain consists of about 86 billion neurons. Lined up, they would stretch more than two million miles. It is the most complex structure—natural or artificial—on earth.
Researcher Daniel Siegel writes that the way the mind becomes ordered begins with differentiation (through which parts of the brain become specialized and separated from others) and linkage (which facilitates the flow of energy and information). Every experience joins certain neural pathways (“cells that fire together wire together”) and separates other ones. This separation and linkage make possible what neurologists call integration—the individual brain’s version of shalom. “In day-to-day terms,” Siegel writes, “vitality and harmony emerge from integration. . . . This is the essence of health.”
See the connection? It’s almost as if God re-creates the universe again with every child. But wait—there’s more. Siegel also writes, “The experience of expressing one’s emotional state and having others perceive and respond to those signals appears to be of vital importance in the development of the brain.” The brain and mind of a little child are literally formed through the power of the word. Such is the awesome influence of attachment.
What’s great is that we don’t have to be perfect at it. In fact, we can’t be. Many moments will invariably get missed. Your baby may want to connect, but then the phone rings, or you’re tired, or you’re reading a book about connecting, or you misread your child’s emotion. One study showed that mothers misread their babies’ distressed cues about 70 percent of the time! For instance, you might think the baby is hungry, but she’s really just tired. Or you may think the baby wants to be bounced on your lap, when he really just needs to be burped. You could do better flipping a coin.
Not surprisingly, the same phenomenon occurs between adults. Like infants, we don’t always communicate clearly. And we misread each other’s cues. You may think your wife is just tired when she’s actually upset and giving you the cold shoulder. Or you may think your husband’s not listening to you, but he’s actually just trying to think of the right thing to say. Nobody gets it right 100 percent of the time. The key is to stick with it. Over time, two people will learn to read each other’s cues better. They just have to keep trying.
When we get it right, though, we know they love us. In our vulnerability, we run to them, and while we receive the joy of being comforted, they receive the joy of giving comfort. We “feel felt.” Their strength is wired into us. Their voices quite literally get inside our heads.
We are able to say to ourselves, “Honey, honey … I know, I know.” We can go back into the world to explore, and when we get hurt or hungry or frightened and return for comfort, we know we will hear, “Fear not, for I am with you.” And we will be comforted. And so on, and so on—a thousand times over.
Vulnerability. Attachment. Courage. Risk. Fear. Repeat.
We can’t survive without intimacy.
Taken from I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me: Getting Real About Getting Close by John Ortberg, released Oct. 3, 2017 from Tyndale Momentum. Copyright © 2017. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
John Ortberg is the senior pastor at Menlo Church in Northern California, an author and a speaker. His teaching centers around our everyday life with God and how God cares more about who we are becoming than what we do. He has written several books on spiritual formation, including The Life You’ve Always Wanted, Faith and Doubt, Who is This Man? and Soul Keeping.