Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.
– Lao Tzu
Last week, I came across this sign while exploring the D.C. zoo.
But I didn’t see an obliviously happy lemur stroking a stuffed friend. Instead, I saw this:
And, about 20 feet away, this:
Mr. Real Lemur was napping alone, his “friends” propped shiny-eyed and lifeless on a different rock ledge. And maybe it was just my timing, and Mr. Real Lemur does hang out with them when he’s awake, but the sight still made my heart drop into the vicinity of my boots. I wondered why I would have felt better if I’d witnessed him snuggling the toys instead. It still wouldn’t have been real companionship; he still would have been completely alone in his enclosure… but it would have reassured me that he didn’t feel quite so alone.
It all made me think of Psych 101 and Harry Harlow’s monkeys. It reminded me of how, starting in the 1930s, he spent years of his life studying Rhesus macaques who he intentionally deprived of love. I compulsively imagined the cruel yank as he separated them from their mothers, the cold hardness of the concrete rooms where he isolated them, and the desperate sadness of his experiments with offering them surrogate mothers.
Tell me, little monkey, which mother do you prefer? The cold, wire one or the soft, warm one made from cloth? Oh, you like the soft mother better, even when it’s the metal one that provides your milk? Harry, I can’t believe it took you 30 years of experiments to understand that living beings crave touch.
One of the most heart-rending details was that, when the cloth mother was placed in a room full of new stimuli, the baby monkeys became emboldened to explore. They even playfully attacked the unfamiliar objects, because they could retreat back to their “mother’s” embrace if they got scared. When the cloth mother was removed, though, the babies became too overwhelmed by uncertainty to do anything but rock on the floor, curled into tiny balls.
Even writing those words makes my chest feel tight and my eyebrows draw together in sympathy. This story eternally reminds me that, at our core, we all require so little. Underneath wanting a slightly bigger house or a more fulfilling career, it’s still true that all we really need is love. When we have it – from our parents, partners, friends, or even a community of close-knit colleagues – we embrace more, dare more, enjoy more, and live more. When we lack it – due to neglect, abuse, or isolation – everything else becomes muddled.
So today, try in one small way to love a little harder. Don’t be a wire surrogate, providing only the essentials, and don’t be a cloth surrogate, only giving comfort when someone seeks you out. See what happens when you actively offer your love. Give an extra-long hug, or ask real questions about someone’s day, or send a care package to that person you often think of but rarely see. Just imagine the explorations, ideas, and life-changing actions that might be set in motion when someone knows they’re secure in your support.