I’ve already shared with you that people are created in the image of a Trinitarian God and because of that we’re inherently created for relationships. Just as God is understood to be a communion of love so intense that the three persons of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) are one God, human beings are meant to live in relationships so connected to one another that we become one body (Romans 12:5). This inherent need for relationships is supported by psychological research. This research demonstrates people who become isolated from others struggle to survive while those who become part of a community flourish. Positive relationships are a key feature in studies on happiness. A longitudinal study completed by Fowler & Christakis (2008) found that people who have positive relationships with other happy people grow in happiness themselves. Related to our need to connect are the numerous studies demonstrating the negative effects of being isolated from other people. In psychology, being excluded from others is called “social exclusion.” Social exclusion impacts people in the same way physical pain impacts the body, in fact, your brain struggles to know the difference (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). When we feel like we’re being isolated from others, even when that experience is being simulated on a computer by playing a virtual ball toss game, our bodies exhibit the same response as if we were socially isolated by real people (Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000). We begin to degrade physically, emotionally, and mentally. In fact, loneliness is regarded by some researchers to be as harmful to your physical well being as cigarettes, alcohol, and being overweight (Holt-Lundstat, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). The reality is we need to connect with other people. Even Christian monks known as hermits maintain some connection to their communities. While they may live primarily on their own they return to the monastery periodically to get supplies and participate in communal prayer throughout different times of the year. While they are isolated more than other brothers of the community, they do maintain some social connection. People need people.
A key psychological theory regarding the need for human beings to connect with others is called attachment theory. This theory was proposed by John Bowlby and was further explored by Mary Ainsworth. The theory basically states when a human being is born they have an innate psychological need to emotionally attach to a caregiver. This attachment becomes the way in which the child survives because it’s believed to evoke nurturing behaviors from the caregiver. Mary Ainsworth did a number of experiments and found people develop three different types of attachments. A secure attachment, the healthiest of the three, basically forms a sense in the child that it’s safe to explore the world, try new things, and grow in independence because their caretaker isn’t far from them and able to provide them with the security and soothing they need if things go wrong. They are confident their emotional and physical needs will be met. The other two types of attachments are less healthy and reflect a poor relationship between the caregiver and the child. One might develop a very anxious attachment always wondering if they’re cared for by their parent or they may develop an ambivalent attachment in which they become numb to the presence and comfort of another. These attachments are important because they form the foundations for our ability to connect with other people. If we are created for relationships as research and good theology propose then having a secure attachment style is exceptionally important. We want to be able to connect with other human beings and if our emotional style prohibits that we find ourselves isolated and alone. Isolated and alone, as we have noted, is not healthy. Interestingly, recent studies on attachment indicate only about 60% of the people walking around have a secure attachment (Shaver & Hazen). That means 40% of the people in the world are struggling with relationships.
Attachment styles also impact more than human relationships, they can also impact your relationship with God. Many people who have insecure attachment styles project this attachment style onto the relationships they share with God. There are two predominant hypothesis regarding how attachment impacts our relationship to God in the psychology of religion literature (Kirkpatric, 1992, 2005). The first is the correspondence hypothesis in which it is believed if an individual has a secure attachment to their caregiver than this translates into a secure attachment in their relationship with God. The opposite would be true as well; an insecure attachment to a caregiver would imply an insecure attachment to God. The individual would be anxious about whether or not God would be there for them in their time of need or might be ambivalent to the relationship with God. The main proposition of this hypothesis is that the attachment style you develop with your caregiver will correspond with your attachment style to God. The second hypothesis is the compensation hypothesis. This hypothesis states you will seek out in God the attachment that you lacked in your caregiver. The idea is your relationship to God “compensates” what was missing in your relationship with your caregiver.
Both hypotheses have research support and make sense. What will be interesting for the purposes of this book is to look at how our attachment to God impacts our ability to manage suffering and loss. One can already see if we are anxious about how God will care for us because of an anxious attachment style, we may have difficulty drawing spiritual strength and assurance from him. We will explore this further in the book at a later point.
As a final note regarding our need for relationships, consider that God has demonstrated it is not good for people to be alone (Genesis 2:18). This desire for the “other” is exceptionally important for the human condition. We are drawn toward one another at the core of who we are. In Plato’s Symposium, he provides a speech by Aristophanes that describes how human beings came to have this longing for one another as part of their base nature. Socrates and the other members of the dialogue are discussing love. The story is as follows:
“In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle, and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck, and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backward or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, running on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when we wanted to run fast. Now the sexes were three, and such as I have described them; because the sun, moon, and earth are three; and the man was originally the child of the sun, the women of the earth, and the man-woman of the moon, which is made up of sun and earth, and they were all round and moved round and round like their parents. Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods; of them is told the tale of Otys and Ephialtes who, as Homer says, dared to scale heaven, and would have laid hands upon the gods. Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts, as they had done the giants, there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained.
At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: ‘Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’ He spoke and cut them in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the center, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also molded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few, however in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state. After the division of the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart: and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, – being the sections of entire men or women – and clung to that.”
Aristophanes echoes the same ideas about the relational nature of human beings found in Genesis (Of course the Greeks at this time did not have the benefit of divine truth revealed in the scriptures). God decrees that it is not good for man to be alone in Genesis 2:18 and then proceeds to create. He creates a myriad of creatures and presents these animals to Adam to see what he will name them. God delights in watching Adam take part in his creative work. God seems to do this to allow Adam to recognize that while he is somehow connected to all of creation he is unique and different from it as well. Adam reaches a point after naming each animal where he recognizes the existential reality that he is alone even in the midst of all God created. Adam recognizes he is incomplete. Then God does something special for Adam. Instead of taking the primordial material used to create the world and form a new creature, God does the following (Genesis 2:21-24):
“So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
The Christian discovers in this story that men and women were made for each other and share an intimate and connected nature. The Greek story above echoes the same biblical truth. We long for one another and desire to be together. We seek out our “Other half” and desire to be with another person because at the core of who we are is this communal relational nature desiring other people. We not only desire the general community to be with others, but we also long for an intimate connection with another person. Relationships give us that intimate connection and when they fall apart we suffer. If our significant other is no longer present it feels as if a part of who we are is gone and unavailable. We are like the people Aristophanes describes searching for our other half. If divorce, death, or distance divides us from the ones we love, we feel as alone as Adam did when God showed him all the beauty of creation and yet that beauty was not enough to make him feel complete.
I want to explore our suffering a little more before thinking through what it means to grieve the loss of another person, relationship, or key aspect of our lives. Regardless of the manner in which that loss occurs much of what we have discussed plays a part in the suffering that follows. Suffering as we have previously said is a reality found in this broken and difficult world. That suffering, however, is not merely an emotional experience, but one impacting our whole being. Stay tuned as we explore suffering from a holistic perspective in the next post.