Of Monkeys and Men and How We All Need Love

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.

– Lao Tzu

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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.

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35 responses to “Of Monkeys and Men and How We All Need Love

  1. Researching these experiments a while ago made me sick, too. Harry, though, went even further. He invented the “pit of despair” where newborn monkeys were placed in an isolation tube for months on end where they couldn’t move. Sheer torture. Sick.

    • The things he learned were in no way worth what he put his animals through. It sickens me as well, and I didn’t go into many of the details here because I didn’t want to utterly depress people. But it’s good to know you feel the same – that this amounted to nothing more than torture. I think emotional deprivation can be worse than physical abuse (although there’s probably very little of the latter that doesn’t also involve the former).

  2. Holy crap do I love this post, Jennie. LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE. Although I also hate it because of the poor monkeys. That’s the sort of thing that makes my chest hurt too, and makes my insides wail in sadness. The idea of an animal–or any creature being deprived of touch or love is almost more than I can bear.

    • Thanks, Weebs! I super love the enthusiasm! Especially because we’re in the same animal-adoring boat, and the whole thing just wrecks me, and I was kind of a mess while writing it… but I felt like there was something worthwhile in all of it.

      You know what’s the worst? When people share stories about abused animals on Facebook and you see the image as you’re just scrolling mindlessly through your feed. And then you just want to crawl under your desk or play sick so you can go home and hug your pets. (Of course, the real worst thing is that the abuse happens at all… animal abusers are on my list of “don’t need ’em on the planet” people.

  3. Pingback: The End is Near (and we deserve it) . . . Man Crushed to Death by Own Marijuana « Bayard & Holmes·

    • As a silver lining, I can offer you this: I also learned that outrage with these very experiments grew into the beginnings of the animal advocacy movement in the U.S. They were so atrocious that they opened people’s eyes.

  4. personally I have no use for zoos, but I love animals and actually spend most of my day hanging out with my gaggle of dogs and cats. I enjoy your essays very much. Keep them coming

  5. Pingback: Of Monkeys and Men and How We All Need Love | Outwash Plain·

  6. The timing of this is spot-on perfect. This morning I volunteered at a nonprofit where not-financially-solvent people could sign up to participate in a holiday shopping event next month. The nonprofit has a very lovely playroom, but none of my fellow volunteers wanted to spend their time there – they wanted to spend their time with the adults and make a “real” difference. When I arrived on the scene (admittedly 5 minutes late), the woman in charge asked me if I would be willing to spend my 2 hours in the play room. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll do whatever you need.” I then spent the next 90 minutes with 10 kids (ages 1-8), playing with them. Pushing trains on a track, coloring on paper, eating “pretend” food, disciplining them when necessary (which wasn’t often, but occasionally), and just generally paying quality attention to them. They responded SO beautifully – each kid turned from a reserved child to a spunky kiddo. All they needed was a little caring from an adult who authentically gives a damn. While my peers may have enabled parents to provide a better Christmas for these kids, I gave them a gift today. And that feels awesome. 🙂 Besides, all they really need is some love.

    • That’s a great story. I think the “real” work of life is frequently that which is done out of sight (in play rooms, in homes, after school in classrooms). I’m very glad you give a damn. Your “presence” is the best present, indeed. 🙂

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