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By Suzanne Spencer

During my graduate studies in gerontology, I did some research and wrote a few papers on “failure to thrive in the elderly.” Senior adults sometimes appear to waste away for no obvious medical reason. It’s been noted that an absence of human interaction may lead to malnutrition even when there’s no limits to access of food or the ability to eat. This same wasting, known as marasmus, has been seen in babies, who are not picked up and cuddled.  Human babies and, for that matter all mammals, have a built in need for loving physical contact.  Without the loving touch of a parent or other caregiver, even if they do survive, they may be neurologically impaired.  There was an era when pediatricians actually advocated not picking up infants other than to feed and change their diapers, and that was only to be done on a very rigid schedule. As a result, a whole cohort of institutionalized infants experienced failure to thrive, severe malnutrition, and some even died.  My concern in my graduate studies was institutionalized and isolated homebound older adults. Were we in our nursing homes and assisted living facilities and our home care contributing to their failure to thrive and even early deaths by our own failure to provide loving interaction and touch?  How could we build environments that nourished the soul as well as the body?  It’s not just the physical touch, but the emotional and spiritual connection, which can come from it.

 Over decades we have moved from the multigenerational, extended family in one home to a nuclear family often separated by many miles from relatives, to today’s single adults frequently struggling to find time for love and commitment. The opportunity for ongoing and growing relationship has to be intentionally sought out. Making and growing disciples requires deliberate relationship building. How do we as the church lovingly encourage this in all age groups? 

Coincidentally, the term failure to thrive has come up several times from various sources in the past few days. And, going through old papers to purge my files of the “stuff,” which seems to be irrelevant to my own elder years, I found a couple of those papers. I read over words, which apply quite differently today in my more “spiritual life” prospective having served for a few years as a licensed local pastor   As a pastor I preached on abundant life fairly frequently. You know, John 10:10. Jesus’s words, “I come to give life and life abundant.”  To me abundant life means one of great joy in relationship with God and neighbor, but it also means fruitfulness. The great contrast of abundant life to one of failure to thrive struck me. How are we as the church contributing to our world’s failure to thrive? 

I believe we were already seeing the effects of social distancing long before COVID-19 descended on us.  Changing mores in our culture and ironically social media have made building meaningful relationship more challenging. A whole generation seems to long for real, honest relationship, but doesn’t seem to know how to make connections. Could our home lives be failing to provide the physical, emotional, neurological and spiritual nourishment for cohorts of children, now suffering as teenagers, adults and older adults?  Did we, the Boomers and beyond, choose to seek a more materialistic life over one built on relationship, both with our fellow human beings and our Creator?  Did we present ourselves as role models, who emphasized acquisition over loving?  How many of us are failing to thrive and are malnourished spiritually? 

I’ve thought about how our country, and perhaps, our whole world is failing to thrive right now. Not only are we suffering a worldwide pandemic, creating the need to isolate ourselves from one another, the discord between world views has led to violence and anarchy in streets around the world.  “Politically correct” has come to mean everyone is offended by everyone else. There is no unity.  Not only have we physically distanced ourselves, we have become emotionally distanced.  In many ways we have separated ourselves from God and from each other. Texting in brief bursts and email has replaced real conversations. I noticed a long time ago that electronic communications are fraught with opportunity for misunderstanding. No wonder our relationships are suffering. Perhaps because we’ve become accustomed to communication in commercial length segments, all too often we stop listening to one another after 60 seconds. No wonder the media gives erroneous reports on what our leaders say. The reporters don’t even pretend to listen to an entire statement, but selectively hear what they expect to hear.

When Jesus was asked what was the most important command, he answered to love God with everything in us and secondly to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. That means building relationships.  That means feeling we have significance. That means spending time in God’s presence and spending true quality time with other people. In Kairos prison ministry, the motto is listen, listen, love, love. Being heard, really heard communicates love. Today we are appropriately avoiding physical contact, which I believe makes our “not in person” communication, whether by Zoom, What’sAp or old fashioned telephone conversation all the more important. Will we choose the abundant life Jesus offers, or will we continue our failure to thrive behaviors? Will we reach out to others, as we move forward?  When we return to increased physical contact, will we reach out to gently touch one another, but especially those, who are more isolated? How do we appropriately replace hugs in a post pandemic world? I believe our survival, quality of life and sharing of the Good News depends on us doing so.