Okay, so the sappy skeptic has gone of the deep end in his exploration of what it means to live a “naturalist,” truth-driven existence, in a world otherwise full of supernaturalism, magic, superstition, and downright woo-woo wackiness. You’ll see why as we explore today’s topic: When was the last time you were really loved?

This is not intended to be a sexual question, though it could be; in Seinfeldian terms, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” But I could just as easily have asked the question “When was the last time you were made love to?” and still intended it in a completely non-sexual fashion. Yup, time to explain. As usual, I’ll do so with a personal anecdote.

In recent years, I had the opportunity to participate in two experiential learning seminars called Challenge Day, which were conducted in the public education setting to reduce bullying and improve empathetic understanding. Without getting into a lengthy description of the process, suffice to say that the professionals who orchestrate these experiences are amazing, as is the structure of the day. As featured on Oprah and in other national media, this experience for many young people constitutes their first real introduction to consciousness-raising, empathy-creating awareness—and to experiencing what it is like to walk in the pain- and trauma-scarred moccasins of their peers. By design, the day progresses from simple instructional games, to a higher understanding and empathetic response to what participants are witnessing; even the most frozen of hearts cannot deny the insights and emotion that are ultimately elicited. For example, I often return to those experiences when someone gives me the one-finger salute while driving “too slowly,” or lashes out on the phone at me for absolutely no reason; the fact is we just never know what horrors and challenges someone is enduring that might be motivating their outbursts. It doesn’t excuse them, but it surely can help us control our own reactions and mental health, and maybe theirs when we show some sympathy or compassion.

But of all the fun, games, and yes, emotion-laden activities through which the Challenge Day facilitators led us, one has re-emerged and resonated in my mind many times. Ironically, for me it involved one of the exercises in which I was paired with another adult volunteer, a younger woman perhaps in her early or mid twenties.

As adult facilitators, one of our roles was to participate in the fast-paced activities that are designed to mix the students throughout the day. Kids who would never be face-to-face with other races, socioeconomic groups, or cliques, from the first moments are sharing and learning about what it is like to be those other people. In this case, however, all the others paired off and this young adult and I were left to work together. What happened, obviously, was memorable.

While I had gained a few nuggets of insight into this young woman through the small group activities, and she about me, I really did not know her; nonetheless we followed the instructions along with the rest of the pairs. We were to arrange our chairs so that we were knee-to-knee, sit quietly—with absolutely no conversation or verbal communication, and simply look into one another’s eyes and “be present” for each other. Say what? You heard me, for three minutes, we were to just lock eyes with a relative stranger, accept them, say nothing, and absorb a few minutes of supportive connectedness.

Believe me, this sounds strange, and it did to me as well; perhaps that’s why the experience has returned to conscious thought so many times for me. For the young woman with whom I was sitting, the experience became emotional. I do not know what was in her mind when we began. I do not know her history, though I suspect this was an upper-middle class young woman from a good and loving home—who like all of us had some hidden scars from life. But as we sat without words, just absorbing one another’s gaze and feeling a sense of safety, caring, and attentiveness, I saw a glassy look come to her eyes.

I could see her own shock as tears welled up in her piercing blue eyes. She tried briefly to squelch the expression, but was not successful. Of course being the sap I am, and starting to feel her surprise at the power of the caring attention, my eyes started to well up as well; I swear I could sense exactly what she was thinking.

This is only my speculation, but I’m pretty confident. She was feeling a strong emotional reaction to the fact that it had been months—or who knows, possibly years—since anyone sat quietly, absorbed her and cared for her, and looked her directly in the eyes! No one was challenging her. No one was trying to change her. No one was asking anything of her. No one was trying to make out with her. Someone was “listening to her,” accepting her, and caring for her. To heck with sex, THIS was intimacy—and it was most assuredly unexpected to both of us.

Now, as a skeptic, I will agree that this could be written off as the simple effect of an emotionally-charged environment (which is true, and is part of how the walls are broken down to clear the way toward empathetic understanding); but I think it would be a mistake to do dismiss it that way. As I have argued extensively through my blog and novel, diminishing human emotion has never been a reasonable goal of skepticism. The essence of what it means to be human is captured in words like “love,” “intimacy,” and “emotion.” Without these things we are but Vulcans or computers, are we not? So let’s explore our humanity further.

When was the last time you were made love to?

Think for a moment of a person who means a great deal to you—perhaps a spouse. When is the last time you genuinely locked eyes with him or her, or sat quietly eye-to-eye and simply connected? When did you last let them know that—in your eyes—they are worthy of your admiration and respect—whether you did so with or without words? Can such an exchange ever happen too often? How long has it been since you’ve been loved in this powerfully human way?

I doubt I’ll ever forget that young woman’s eyes. We literally said nothing! At the same time we exchanged a great deal of information! Anguish and disappointment no doubt arose from months or years past; evident was that emptiness that comes from merely going through the motions of life, as was a stark awareness of what was missing in her world. The extremely warm embrace afterward was further affirmation that we both understood and knew what had been exchanged; we both appreciated it, and had shared a human connection that, silly as this may sound, nobody could take away from us—and maybe nobody could understand it (including you). But we both knew it. It fed her, and in that process I was fed as well.

Now jump ahead several years to my journey of inquiry into the biggest questions in life. Jump ahead to book tours for A Secret of the Universe (a skeptical novel, but one that underscores the human “secret” of the power of love), and many podcast interviews and deep conversations over a beer or three. My hypothesis is that in this world, so very, very many people are lonely, and their souls are not fed. No one looks in their eyes and tells them it’s okay—or better, that they are okay. It’s overly simple, but sometimes I think almost all assholedness is the result of someone not being loved enough—be it currently, or at some point prior in their life. We run hard, work long hours, strive for some religion of perfection and productivity, and suffer an existential hangover that we just can’t seem to resolve. Our hearts are hungry. We tussle over daily schedules, kids’ events, making ends meet, and working eighty hours; what we don’t do is let people know they are worthwhile, and loved, just for being who they are. Just think how much better the world would be if everyone had that opportunity to hear such things, and to give such things!

In recent years, I have been incredibly blessed to have added to my life some of the types of real, deep friendships that I’d gone literally decades of my life without being able to add. I have felt that acceptance, and even experienced a very few, rare moments of genuine connectedness—even eye-gazing—in quiet understanding after a meaningful sharing. It’s a unique feeling, a wordless means of exchanging gifts. It’s saying “thank you for the gift; I get it. I accept it.” To this day, those are among the human experiences I value most—perhaps just behind those including my wife and family. “What a gift” is the phrase that always runs through my mind when I remember some of these interactions, and the kindness and love they have allowed me.

Yeah, but was she hot? 

Now lest we leave it there, and violate my prohibition against brevity (why stop at 1,100 words when 1,500 are available?), you may be asking the question that nobody would ever dare ask—and that only I would dare wrestle with proactively and provocatively. (Yes, we westerners tend to repress thoughts, but I find my journey through life is so much more authentic, interesting, and productive when I follow the rabbits down the rabbit holes.) The question you might ask, is, “Were these women or men?” Of course the real question you ask is, “Is there a sexual element to such intimacy?”

As always, I will be extremely honest. The experiences that come to mind most dramatically and readily—like the one expressed herein—have been with females (of course this and nearly all in my adult life were still not sexual). But that said, I can think of deep, loving exchanges that—while probably including more verbal content—were certainly powerful exchanges of depth, trust, love, and admiration among male friends; yes, even a few including a shared tear or two. So what about those situations, how about the second part of the question? Well, I think it is also a highly qualified “yes, there is a sexual element to all intimacy.”

Now, I feel compelled to qualify that answer and disclose that I have not ever been consciously attracted to men in a sexual way. I’m not one who happens even to be curious, though I am not at all bothered that many are. I think on the Kinsey scale—which purports to place everyone along a continuum between purely heterosexual and exclusively homosexual, I am clearly at the hetero end of the spectrum. Heterosexuality is as engrained in me as being purely homosexual is for many homosexuals. But that said I will cite two sources for my answer that intimacy IS tied to sexuality. One is a mega-church pastor, and the others are co-authors of books on sex and relationships.

We are sexual beings, says mega-church pastor Rob Bell, who authored “Sex God.” He says music connects with us on a sexual level, for example, that memories and even keepsakes are often related to things sexual or to relationships with sexual components, and that it can be impossible to distance ourselves from that part of our being. He says, “If we take this understanding of our natural state seriously, we have to rethink what sexuality is … Our sexuality is all of the ways we strive to reconnect with our world, with each other, and with God.” Sexuality is intertwined with being. Bell recounts a celibate friend who nonetheless remains “sexual” through his “energies for connection.” Perhaps this is merely an exercise in changing definitions, but essentially he argues that sexuality and genuine connectedness are somewhat of the same substance (my words). Conversely, he says, one can have meaningless muscle spasms via orgasm, yet not be capable of—or understand—real human connection; doing so would not fit his definition of “real” sex.

While I’m confident I am less judgmental of mere orgasm than Bell, so long as it is consensual and additive or complementary to the human experience, Bell is clearly on to something, even though he and I would part ways on just about every other aspect of what Christianity has done to, in my opinion, destroy and denigrate the beauty of sexuality—despite the fact it is part of the fabric of human interconnectedness and love. (For a much deeper and less misleadingly “not-about-sex” book on Biblical views of human sexuality, read Bishop John Shelby Spong’s thorough examination, “Living in Sin?: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality.”)

As for Dossie Easton (Therapist) and Janet Hardy, the co-authors of “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures,” these two women take a rather different approach, but share the conclusion about sex being almost inseparable from intimacy. They say, “We have found that the more we learn about sex, the less we know about how to define it, so now we just say the truth as we know it: sex is part of everything … .” Almost like Bell, they point out that “We have had long, intense, intimate conversations that felt deeply sexual to us. And we have had intercourse that didn’t feely terribly sexual. Our best definition here is that sex is whatever the people engaging in it think it is.”

In short, I don’t mean to confuse you or myself, but I can’t suggest that intimacy and genuine loving connections—whether opposite sex or otherwise—are asexual at all. They might be non-sexual, or might be sexual, but I’ll argue that true and genuine interconnectedness cannot be anti-sexual or stand in denial of that portion of our fabric.

This relevant rabbit hole notwithstanding, few of us are loved too much by the ones who most care about us. Perhaps you can end this day with a warm embrace, or even an eye-to-eye expression that tells someone how much you value them—regardless of what they did or did not accomplish or do today. And maybe, just maybe, as time goes by you will be as lucky as I have been, to find a family and friends who make you feel loved without condition, and fill your soul on a regular basis.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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