First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

seek ... nurture ... serve

Embodied Love

May 21, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

A Jewish parable tells of a rabbi who was sitting around a campfire with a group of students. Like many good spiritual teachers, she posed a question. She asked: “How can we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”

As often happens in these parables, the students respond with answers that are more literal than the teacher intended. One student looks up at the stars and says that you know the night is over and the day has begun when you can look off into the distance and determine which animal is your dog and which is your sheep. The rabbi acknowledged this was a good answer, but not the one she was looking for. Another student offered this answer: “You know the night is over and the day has begun when sunlight falls upon the leaves and you can tell the difference between a palm tree and fig tree.” Once again, the rabbi acknowledged that this was a good answer, but not the one she was looking for.

The students can not come up with any other answers. They finally beseech the rabbi to tell them how to tell when night is over and day has begun. The rabbi replies: “When you can look into the eyes of a human being and see a friend, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a friend, you know it is still night.”

If you cannot see a friend, you know it is still night. Sadly, it is still night, metaphorically speaking, for a lot of people. Too often, people do not have the experience of looking into someone else’s eyes and finding kinship. Studies of contemporary American relationships reveal that individuals are love-starved and friend-starved. Rates of loneliness are increasing not decreasing. Just listen to some of the findings.

In 1985, when Americans were asked about how many confidants they have, the average response was 3. By 2004, that number declined to zero. Beyond that, 20 percent of Americans say they feel isolated enough that it is a source of unhappiness. That would mean about 20 people here this morning are isolated enough that it is a source of unhappiness. Though of course it is possible that members of a community like ours might have lower rates of isolation. For older people that number who say they feel isolated enough for it to be a source of unhappiness rises to a disturbing 35 percent. (The Atlantic)

Science supports the need for relationships. It shows that what we humans long for is love. That probably does not come as much of a surprise to any of us. We may not need science to tell us that. But what may come as a surprise is that science suggests that part of the problem is a “failure of imagination.” (Barbara Fredrickson)

Hollywood and society have failed us by defining love too narrowly, she says. Society tends to focus on love among family and friends. This is the kind of love that is long-lasting, unconditional, and committed. Many people carry this idea and expectation of love around with them their whole lives. Other ideas about love get weighted less and can even be dismissed as insignificant. Those narrow definitions can hinder us from recognizing and even seeking a fuller, richer, more steady experience of love throughout the day and throughout our lives.

Science rejects this interpretation. According to science, love is not the long-lasting emotion of a marriage. Nor is it the sexual passion of a new relationship. Nor is it the special bond of family or intimate friends. Nor is it blood ties.

Love is a micro-moment of warmth and connection shared with another person – any person. According to Barbara Fredrickson, love is a "micro-moment of positivity resonance." Frederickson is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina who received a National Institutes for Health grant for her research. Her term - positivity resonance - has a bit of a scientific feel to it, not exactly the touch-feely language we might prefer to use when we talk about love.

She redefines love as a connection that creates a flow of positive emotions shared with another person who you happen to come into contact with. Any person. This can certainly be with a spouse or partner, a friend or family member. But it can also be a stranger you pass on the street, the clerk at the grocery store, a co-worker or anyone else.

This week we hosted the group of about 30 individuals who are part of the March on Harrisburg. Their mission is to end gerrymandering, create a gifts ban for legislators, and have automatic voter registration. They were here for two nights in our building en route to our state capitol. They arrived on Tuesday afternoon having walked 17 miles that day in the heat. When they turned the corner from 4th street onto Franklin and were walking toward the church, the marchers saw a group of volunteers outside this building waiting for them. Waiting to greet them. They were so grateful to see friendly welcoming faces! Grateful that they had arrived, I’m sure. Some of them were hurting – from sunburn, muscle aches and blisters. They had also endured the ticks along the Schuylkill trail. But they were also grateful that there were real live people here to welcome them, real humans beings in the flesh. It was one of the things they mentioned to me several times that meant a lot to them. And it’s even something they noted in their thank you note to the church. That they were greeted when they arrived.

When they arrived, we all shook hands and introduced ourselves. I even had a high-five moment with one of them. Throughout their time here, there were many micro-moments of love. Many moments of connection and warmth.

What is key: the pleasant feelings of warmth and understanding. These micro-moments are like nutrients. They nourish. They sustain. They are essential. And they happen in the body. Fredrickson offers this explanation. She says: “Love is like an essential nutrient. [These] micro-moments of positivity resonance build bonds, weave the social fabric that creates our community, promote health and arguably are the supreme emotion.”

She argues that there must be a “real-time sensory connection” – the kind that happens when people are physically together. Such love is embodied. Eye contact is one of the primary ways it is embodied. Evidence indicates that eye contact in particular lends itself to these positive micro-moments. There is a biochemical, physiological component to love moments. Our brains mirror the other person. The high five itself is a mirrored gesture. Mirroring also happens when someone tells a story and we relate to it. Our physiological response as listeners mirrors that of the storyteller. That is empathy. We also know that the hormone oxytocin is released during intimate contacts. These connections are not limited to only romantic and sexual ones.

Now I know that some of you may want to contest the next thing I’m about to share with you about these micro-moments of love. And others of you are going to say: “I knew it.” Here it is: Fredrickson insists that “The ways we connect by texting, emailing, and messaging may feel good at times, but do not lead to this experience” of micro-moments of positivity resonance. They have to be in the flesh.

We know that people often seek out a church community when they are lonely, have recently moved, or are in the midst of a crisis. These are not the only reasons, but they are some of the reasons. They seek out a community when they need embodied love. While the need may not be acute for everyone, a desire for belonging and connection and for positive warm relationships is a common underlying reason to seek out a church.

In our community we have been devoting much of our institutional energy to the big picture of love. On Standing on the Side of Love. These efforts are absolutely essential to our common good as a nation, as a state. But the smaller moments of love live alongside those large efforts. In fact, they are interwoven. Our work with the marchers focused on our concern for democracy but also personal support and connection with the marchers. Our work in racial justice seeks to dismantle institutional racism but also builds safe sharing circles for deeper self-examination and reflection. Our work in immigration has focused on advocacy but also personal spiritual support to and relationship with women and children seeking asylum in this country.

We need the micro-moments of positivity resonance every bit as much as we need our grand efforts and large-scale gestures. Science assures us that the small gestures we make in reaching out to people matter enormously – as if we didn’t already know. They can be life-saving and soul-nurturing. Indeed they provide the very nutrients humans need to thrive and grow. They can build community in profound ways and improve our health.

When we exchange a look with another person of friendly regard and empathy, when we encounter another person with friendliness and warmth and connection, that is morning. The sun is rising. That is positivity resonance. That is embodied love.

What this understanding of love as micro-moments promises us is that there is more love. There is always more love somewhere, everywhere. For everyone.

I invite us to spend a moment together experiencing that love. I invite you each without too much striving or effort without forcing anything - to gently look around. Perhaps to the person to your left or right or to someone across the sanctuary. Whoever’s eyes you catch. Let your eyes rest on a person here and a person there. With friendly regard.

There is more love somewhere. May we keep on till we find it. May we keep on till we find more and more of it in the moments of our everyday lives.

Amen. Blessed be.

 

Resources:

There's No Such Thing as Everlasting Love (According to Science), EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH, JAN 24, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/theres-no-such-thing-as-everlasting-love-according-to-science/267199/

Fredrickson Describes Nourishing Power of Small, Positive Moments, Ellen O’Donnell) https://nihrecord.nih.gov/newsletters/2013/05_10_2013/story3.htm