Sunday, May 05, 2013

Body Language

A few days ago, I went to the mall with a friend who seemed to spend an ETERNITY in one of the stores. While she shopped, I sat on a mall bench and people-watched.

I stretched out, coffee in hand, and watched as people moved by. Some never looked up, wholly engrossed in their smart-phones. Some were apparently deaf to mall sounds: they had their ear buds in, listening to their iPods rather than the piped-in mall music. Young and old, singles and couples, men and women went about their business.

One sight in particular caught my attention. A young mother pushing a stroller with a little boy in it, probably around 12 months of age. Mom was attentive to highlighting the kid's cute quotient, dressing him in denim overalls and a red polo shirt. The little boy was bubbly and bright, smiling as he played with a stuffed dog in his lap. Mom queued up in the line at Dunkin' Donuts, right behind an older African-American woman. The woman turned, smiled politely at the mother, and then cast her eyes down toward the little boy. Her face lit up.

I watched as the woman bent down and started to talk to the little boy. She was clearly experienced with little kids. She played with the plush dog and tussled the boys hair. Mom didn't seem to mind in the slightest and, as they advanced in the slow-moving line, they continued talking. Then the old woman asked the mother a question, the mother nodded her assent, and the woman bent over and picked the little boy up out of the stroller. In one hand he held the dog and, with the other, he played with the woman's free hand. He giggled and wriggled about, his smile exceeded only by the woman's.

They advanced another few steps in line and, just before it was her turn to order, she returned the boy to the stroller. She purchased her beverage, said goodbye to the mother and child, and walked over to the bench next to the one I was sitting upon. The largest smile beamed from her face. I grinned at her and said, "That was really lovely to see." Her smile widened and said, "Little ones can't be told they are loved. They have to feel the love...babies just have to be held."

In our digital age, I think it's easy to reduce all forms of communication to text. Heck, you're reading my blog: you don't see my facial expression or hear my voice, you only read the text before you and infer from it how I'm feeling. We live in a sea of digital text - emails, texts, tweets, Facebook posts - each attempting to express how we feel. I wonder, though, how much we're missing out on because we limit communication to speech, to words. Too often do we neglect the importance of body language or, even, the language spoken only by the body: a held hand, a hug, a kiss.

"Communication," John Macmurray writes, "is for all human beings a fact before it becomes an act." Before we ever said, "Feed me," we were fed; before ever said, "Hold me," we were held. We felt love, we "knew" love, not in words but in deeds, in embodied action. Yet, at some point in our development, it seems that we move away from "feeling" love and reduce it to "saying" it only through words and greeting cards.

Now, I'm not suggesting going out and plucking children from strollers: I suspect that's a felony! But I would say that babies aren't the only ones out there who need to feel love. Saint Ignatius counsels, "Love is shown more in deeds than in words." If the opportunity presents itself, perhaps each of us can seize a moment to show our love, rather than tell of it, to someone who needs it.


Katesha Jackson said...

Why did you feel the need to tell us the older woman was African American?

Ryan G. Duns, SJ said...

Because she was. I was writing from a memory - is it an inappropriate detail?

Katesha Jackson said...

Very inappropriate.
You never tell us anything about the other woman's skin color -- just that she's a "young mother." Does that mean she's white? Are we to presume that everyone is white unless specified? Is white the default?
Or is this truly unimportant -- so unimportant that we don't, indeed, need to know that the second woman was African American?

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

Sharing love and giving children the sense they are loved by holding them is very important.

Here in rural villages in Honduras it is not uncommon for children to be passed around from person to person - usually women, but not always. (I do my share of holding kids.) Sometimes you can only tell who the mother is when you see her breastfeeding the child.

It's an important part of the culture.

Anonymous said...

I must say, Duns, I preferred this blog when your critics were a bit more entertainingly unhinged. While Katesha's comment above was appropriately inane (because of course she'd be just as offended if you HADN'T mentioned that the woman was African-American, because she's already concluded you're a racist), I miss the old standbys. Whither the angry lady who thought Pedro Arrupe was the devil and Obama was stockpiling coffins for a future genocide? And where must one go to reconnect with Maria, and her unhinged rants against the universe and thinly-disguised threats of violence against your brethren?

I miss them so.