“It is our nature to nurture and to be nurtured.” -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD
In his book “Born for Love”, Dr. Bruce Perry describes a form of poverty that impacts us all, regardless of race, gender, age, or socioeconomic status: relational poverty.
Perry’s “relational poverty” is just what it sounds like; it is a deep lack of the connectedness with others that we all need to survive and to be well. Perry describes how modern American society, with its technologies, impaired values, financial obsessiveness, broken social structures, and self-centeredness has created a massive, massive problem for people’s ability to relate to each other. And, according to Perry, relational poverty is “a form of poverty far more destructive than economic poverty.”
Perry writes: “Simply stated, the human brain is not designed for the modern world–despite the fact that the modern world is a ‘product’ of the human brain’s remarkable capacities for invention, communication, and adaptation. We are now living in a world that is disconnected from the rhythms of nature (i.e., climate controlled, light-dark manipulated, overstimulating to our auditory and visual senses); we raise and educate our children in social environments at once more complex and demanding on our social neurobiology (e.g., hundreds of day-by-day interactions with acquaintances or strangers) yet oddly impoverished of complex somatosensory-rich, relational interactions (i.e., touch, holding, rocking, conversation, or intergenerational interactions).”
“You might have 100 friends on Facebook, but you might not have one single person to have dinner with.” -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD
This is bad for us, he says, because we humans need relationships to “survive and thrive.” Relationships with each other are critical not only to our own individual survival and wellbeing, but also to the survival of our species. Perry also argues that relational poverty is wrecking our ability to empathize with each other, which further alienates us from one another.
So, what can we do about this? I propose that we, as individuals, we can diminish relational poverty by ramping up our emotional generosity.
By “emotional generosity” I am referring to a willingness to be kind and giving to others, even when you’re not in the mood. You are being emotionally generous when you smile at your barista, even if it took a while for her to make your latte. You’re emotionally generous when you give a surprise compliment to a stranger. You’re being emotionally generous when you make time to take another person’s perspective, and feel for them. You’re being emotionally generous when you find a way to calm your tantruming child, or offer help or sympathy to a mother whose child is tantruming.
Our society is flooded with connection-wrecking technologies, many of us live far away from or have damaged relationships with our families-of-origin, and our lives are busy and time is in short supply. We can’t necessarily change those things, at least not easily. But what we can do is look each other in the eye, offer a kind word or a smile, hold the door, and be understanding. Through these small gestures, we can replenish each other. It’s that simple.
“A healthy human being is a related human being.” -Bruce Perry
©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.