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Moms have a special connection with the children they bear.  Typically, as soon as the little one emerges and the cord is cut, baby is embraced on mom’s upper chest, skin-to-skin, and she begins the softly-exaggerated endearments and gentle kisses that extend the contact by touch and sound that started in the womb.


Science says that skin to skin and spoken-heard contact help calm babies, and even help their brain development.  The effects are actually measurable.  Babies deprived of this contact in orphanages have much higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower levels of the hormones linked to social bonding, even after three years in a family home.  Studies also show that the skin area on the chests of mothers who have just given birth is a degree or two higher than the rest of their body, creating a natural warming place for their newborn.  Mothers keep this contact comfortable by “thermoregulating” for their baby—if the baby’s temperature drops, the mother’s rises, and vice-versa.[i]

Dads connect, too.  Dads have their own versions of baby talk and touch that help them form their life-world with their children.

In these patterns, researchers claim, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  This is a fancy way of saying that the individual baby’s development (ontogeny) expresses all the intermediate developmental steps that his or her ancestors experienced throughout evolution (phylogeny).  In other words, talk and touch have played these roles since human life began.  We truly are social animals.  None of us is an island. We become who we are in our contact with others.


 Christian spiritual life echoes this scientific analysis.   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks clarifies the theological importance of contact by talk when he explains that what made the three Abrahamic monotheisms different is not that they

         believed that God reveals himself but rather than he does so in words.  They believe that [spoken] language is holy. . . .  [Spoken] language is the unique possession of [hu]mankind  What makes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam different from other faiths is that they conceive of God as personal, and themark of the personal is that God speaks.[ii]

 In paganism, the gods are in the sun, moon, sky, wind, and sea.   In the Abrahamic faiths, God is present, not as a natural force, a concept, or a big “It,” but when God speaks and humans hear.   Not writes, but speaks.   As our creation narrative puts it, “And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. . . and God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. . . .  And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. . .”   And so on—you know how it goes.

God spoke the Commandments to Moses; the prophets heard Him, and then, in God’s greatest contact-events of all, he told Mary she would bear a child who was wholly God and wholly human, and then became present in the world in the form of a man whose ontogeny also recapitulated phylogeny.  This man interacted with family and friends, inhabited his culture, and built a world with others.  Uniquely, this man’s touch cast out demons, healed blindness, and even raised the dead, and his listening and speaking made present the Divine wherever he went.  True God from true God walked in the world, touching and talking.

So science and religion both describe life becoming human being through touch and talk.

It Matters

Technology helps us forget these truths.  “We turn away from each other and toward our phones,” Sherry Turkle writes.  “We are forever elsewhere.”[iii]  A conversation partner abruptly breaks contact to read a text.  Team members scurry out of meetings to take a call.  Even the presence of a cell phone during an intimate conversation reduces empathy and trust.[iv]   In many ways we forget that connecting by talk and touch are the most human—and humanizing—things we do.

 Truisms can make the problem worse.  “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”  “I’m waiting for them to stop talking and start to do something.”  “She talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk.”  “There’s a big difference between the rhetoric and the reality.”  These common sayings encourage us to forget the scientific and religious truths.  

So it’s important to reaffirm:  Talk that attacks is abusive action.   Speech meant to hurt delivers blows.   Lies twist actualities.  Bullying brutalizes.  The rhetoric helps construct the reality.

 Even conflict is an opportunity for contact.  Fear and anger happen.  People are passionate about ideas.  Principles and values diverge.  And disputes don’t need to destroy.  We can disagree without ridicule or abuse.  Find common interests underlying conflicting positions.  Maintain both integrity and civility.  Direct the energy toward engagement.  We just need to un-forget the truths about talk and touch.

 We can’t recall our actual lives as infants, but we can sense again the most important formational times:  My name, spoken gently with a smile.  Close, soft words of endearment and encouragement, lips brushing ears.  Long and loving eyes on mine. 

And then as youth and adult:  Caring talk over focused time.  The feeling of being felt.  Contact skin to skin. Intimate disclosure matching mine.  Wholly attentive silence while I worry along my worn way.  Presence.  Thoughtful words triggered by what I just said. Sharp challenge touching me uniquely, and clearly love-meant.  Collaboration.  Entwined engagement.  Contact.  Not just connectivity, but contact.  Each instance enhancing.  Moments that matter.



[ii] J. Sacks, “Turning Enemies Into Friends,” After Terror:  Promoting Dialogue Among Civilizations.  New York:  Polity Press, 2005, pp. 113/114. 

[iii] S. Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.  New York: Penguin, 2014, flyleaf.


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