It’s hard to believe, but in the first part of the twentieth century, psychologists and doctors were suspicious of nurses who wanted to pick up newborn infants in the hospital nursery and hold them. Some doctors observed that infants who were picked up by nurses got sick, and concluded that the close contact had transmitted a disease. Accordingly, parents were told not to cuddle and kiss newborns. Not only might you spread disease, you would almost certainly cause adult psychological disorders. Behaviorist John B. Watson actually warned parents, “When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.”
In the 1940s hospital workers noticed that infants who weren’t touched, held and cuddled withered and could actually die. But the psychological establishment would not change its mind.
That’s when psychologist Harry Harlow broke ranks. His research was showing something quite different. In a famous experiment, he separated young rhesus monkeys from their mothers a few hours after birth and gave them a choice between two different “mothers.” One was made of soft terrycloth, but provided no food. The other was made of wire, but provided food from an attached baby bottle.
The baby monkeys spent significantly more time with their cloth mother than with their wire mother—despite the fact that the only food they could get came from the wire “mother.” In other words, love and affection, warmth and embrace were more important than food. An infant could have all the food it needed to live, and still die for lack of love.
I thought of this powerful truth as I listened to the gospel on Sunday. We read from Mark 9, where Jesus picks up a little child and holds her in his arms. It was a masterful illustration of the way God loves every human being, the God whom Jesus knew not as a distant deity but as “Abba,” papa, a loving father.
This is how we are loved, every one of us. And we need it long after we leave the hospital nursery, long after we leave home. Human beings need love more than any food, more than anything that promises to fill the aching hole in our hearts. Jesus knew this, which is why in the presence of his disciples he lifts a child and holds her in his loving arms. It’s a living icon. This is how God loves you, holds you, protects and enfolds you. And when we know we are so loved, we can offer that love to someone else.
Today, who can you hold?