Years ago, my work required that I drive through Yellowstone National Park occasionally. One time I had seven of my colleagues with me in my Suburban. We stopped to enjoy the scenery, which included a lone male bison. One of my companions said, "It always makes me sad to see a lone bison, because they are herd animals." I said, "So are we."
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My faith tradition affirms that we, male and female, are made in the image of God. The most frequent attribute of God in what many of us often call the Old Testament usually translates to "steadfast love." There is even in the New Testament the bold statement that "God is love." Love, by its very nature, is relational. I therefore understand us to be created relational creatures. In other words, we are made for relationship.
One way that we affirm our being relational creatures is that a common form of severe punishment is solitary confinement. We sometimes use a mild form of solitary confinement is the words "go to your room." A practice in a residential children's therapeutic agency I was related to recognized our being made for relationship in that a child having a tough day and acting out was not sent to her or his room but was invited (told) to come and sit with a therapist or counselor. That agency made two promises to the children: We will keep you safe, and we will not let you hurt anyone else. The staff would explain to a child that they couldn't keep those promises if a child having a bad day was not near them. I have seen as many as three staff members with their arms around a child acting out his or her rage at the horrendous violence that had been done before coming to that safe place. Sometimes the holding was restricting the child from hurting herself or himself or someone else, but it was warm, human contact, gentle but strong enough to keep the child safe.
Human contact isn't the only form of relationship that heals. In many nursing homes where residents are often nearly starved for physical touch, animals sometimes provide that relational element that we need. I have seen dull and lifeless eyes shine with excitement when a puppy reaches up to lick a face. My faith tradition in that Old Testament I referred to earlier teaches that, though animals are good for us, they aren't truly adequate as companions. We need something more.
When my children were little, I would take them with me to visit in local nursing homes. The residents hugged them so longingly and tenaciously it was hard to get them free to leave. Starving persons can be focused on what nurtures and feeds them.
Relationship requires give and take. In a lecture I heard recently the speaker said that research showed that some persons who had not been financial givers did give to tsunami or Katrina relief and continued to give. The speaker's understanding was that they had discovered that it felt good to give. It feels good to give because at our deepest we are relational creatures, and even giving to help some unknown person half way around the world affirms our relational character.
I was probably being a bit crass in saying that we are herd animals, although my scripture does liken us to sheep. Some of the allusions to our being like sheep are not complimentary, but the implication of describing Jesus as a good shepherd is that there is a collectivity, a flock-like character to human existence. We are made for relationship, and our souls are restless outside of relationship. Our need is so deep that we are especially vulnerable to the damage that destructive relationships can inflict. We need exposure to and modeling of health producing relationships because we really can't live without them.
Dan Wanders is pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
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