Tethers: The Touch of Someone Who Cares

by on August 8, 2023 · 1 comment

in Ocean Beach

By Joni Halpern

In times of great turmoil and great division among humanity, there is always the argument that it is human nature for us eventually to act in ways that destroy each other and every good thing we have ever built, whether tangible constructs like buildings or intangible ones like good will.

A practicing psychologist I know who listens daily and empathetically to the pain of others seems to take the opposite view. She believes that most human beings desire to be decent, even good.

People who act badly toward their fellow humans lack the ties that bind us to each other, the connections that make us decide to do the small and large acts of decency that sculpt a family, neighborhood, or nation into a group in which individuals feel they matter.  And if we feel that way, it is harder for us to dismiss or destroy those who make us feel valued.

There is some sense to that.

There are thousands of gestures, most of them small, some of them unnoticed, and others visibly generous, that can make us feel cared about by those who love us or even by those who do not know us.  These ties form a network of big and small tethers that connect us to the common conscience of humankind and in many ways, guide our course of conduct at times when we experience loneliness, fear, pain, or anger.

Tethered to whomever we consider our people, whether a family or a nation, we often choose conduct that is less likely to sever us from the whole, for then we either must find a new sense of belonging somewhere, or lose faith in our people and struggle alone.

It seems that tethers originate in caring.

A mother caresses her baby a million times before the baby is even able to understand words.  Each caress, a tether.  A father admires his kindergartener’s indecipherable art work or helps his teen with homework.  Every word or touch of support, a tether.  A brother and sister fight like heck over what is fair in a game, stomp off, then play again the next day.  Their unspoken forgiveness, a tether.

A neighbor offends a neighbor, but brings food when illness strikes one or the other’s household.  Their generosity and the acceptance of it, a tether.  The inhabitants of one state are scorned by the public dialogue of another state.  But when catastrophe strikes, the victims are aided by the resources and support of the state that criticized.  The rush to aid, a tether.

Unless we suffer from frank mental illness or some other description of a break from reality, we cannot help but be bound to each other by the touch of someone who cares.  It raises the question of why we currently speak and act so despicably toward one another, why we judge one another so harshly, why we condemn whole segments of humankind with careless words, destructive acts, and uninformed opinions.

Is it because we ourselves do not feel cared about?  Or that we have separated ourselves from others to the point that we care nothing for them?  In short, have we severed ties to entire groups of human beings whom we have the capacity to care about?  Have they severed ties to us?

I remember a time in my late teens when my siblings and I went hungry.  We could only afford enough groceries to cover the first week or so of each month.  Our parents had died, and we were trying to make it on our own, four kids, two finishing high school, two working at low-wage jobs while trying to figure out how they were going to get through college.

We lived in an apartment complex in which other households had adult wage-earners who roomed together or parents who supported children, or elderly folks still able to care for each other.

Every night, the aromas of meals cooking in other people’s kitchens wafted through the summer air and made their way through our windows.  We devoured the aromas, but in some measure, they made the hunger worse.  We had taken to stealing apricots from fraternity house trees until our stomachs were riled.  Our neighbors, perhaps out of fear, had ignored our many brazen hints that we were in need of food.  (“Oh, you must be a great cook!  Your dinners smell so good!)

One night, as we sat in our living room listening to the clink and clank of pots, pans, dishes and cutlery, the ritual of the evening meal once again played out in our apartment complex.  By this time, our hunger pangs had turned to pain, and we talked about how nice it would be if we could just knock on someone’s door and ask for a bite of their dinner.

But nothing tied us to these households of plenty.  Not blood, not friendship, not work or shared experience.  Invisible walls separated us.  Fear, disgrace, judgment.  It came to me at that moment:  People can starve in this country without the person next to them ever knowing or caring.  Suddenly, I understood how it can happen that we sever the ties to one another in so many ways, just by concluding they couldn’t care less about us as individuals, and we needn’t then care about them.

We can continue to starve each other if we wish.  We can remain ignorant of the needs of our fellow human beings – whether they are family, neighbors, community members, or fellow citizens.  We can starve them of the abundance we each possess:  whatever resources we can spare, but also our compassion, our mercy, our forgiveness, our respect, our love.

Or we can start rebuilding the network of tethers, the filaments of caring, until they are so numerous that a great many more of our fellow human beings feel tied to us as a family, a community, a people.

Tethered to each other in this way, the psychologist might turn out to be right.  Most people who feel cared about might not want to hurt or disparage others senselessly; they would be harming their own people.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jeanne Brown August 11, 2023 at 9:37 pm

This is beautiful and powerful, Joni! We don’t need religion to know that we need to do unto others… For those of us who were blessed with lots of tethers, we need to send them out to this who have few or none.


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