Nearly two decades ago, I had the opportunity to spend the summer in the beautiful town of Cuenca, Ecuador volunteering in a relatively small orphanage that was cared for by a handful of Catholic nuns. That brief experience left a lasting impression on my heart.
I was unprepared for the emotions that would wrench my heart when I walked up the stairs to the second level of the orphanage where the nursery was. The walls and floors were clean but barren which accentuated the feeling of loneliness. I was in my early twenties, and my heart knew very little about the pain and suffering of others. As I walked into that quiet nursery, I found myself drowning in my emotions unable to find the surface to breathe again. Five long neat rows of cribs filled the room, each holding a tiny infant laying perfectly still. Seldom would you hear them cry, and that was perhaps the most heartbreaking sound, the silence.
The responsibilities of the orphanage rested upon the shoulders of the few nuns living there and a couple of employees. It was them who carried the tremendous responsibility to care for these children. Time heartlessly forced them to become efficient at providing the basic needs. The essential tasks of feeding and changing each of the infants were time-consuming. But there was also the laundry and the food preparation that demanded the daily attention of these caregivers. There was not enough time to hold each child and look into their eyes lovingly while telling them a story or singing them a song. No time to sit and hold them close while rocking them to sleep. Time robbed these innocent children from the opportunity to receive meaningful, loving connections, and because of that, they learned not to cry when they were hungry or tired or when they wanted to feel loved. And so they would lay there awake and silent. Many of their heads were misshapen from laying in the same position day after day. They had plenty to eat and a warm place to sleep, yet they were underdeveloped.
That is except for one child.
There was this one little boy that one of the nuns favored. I’d watch her as she’d finished all her tasks, and having just a few minutes to spare she’d walk over to the crib of this little boy and gently pick him up. She would smile and gaze at him talking to him as she looked into his eyes. She’d hold him close for a few moments and then place him back in his crib. And that was it. All the children received the same care that he did except for those few brief moments he had with the nun. And that made all the difference. He was noticeably bigger and healthier than all the other children. He was more alert and happy.
Meaningful connections with others play a significant role in our ability to live meaningful lives. Relationships have the power to enrich our lives. Those little children in Cuenca are not the only ones whose emotional well being is at risk due to a lack of meaningful connections.
Ironically, we live in a day and age when connections are more “accessible,” yet we are experiencing more disconnect in our relationships. On my bookshelf, I have a stack of old envelopes that at one time held the handwritten letters written by my Grandma and Grandpa Stephens. At the time grandpa was working in New York, and grandma was home in Utah with their young children. Phone calls were expensive, and so they used handwritten letters to stay connected. I’m not sure how much time elapsed between the time they placed their letter in the mailbox until it arrived in the hands of their spouse, but it must have been at least a week. Today we are privileged to have greater access to those we love regardless of the miles and other obstacles that may separate us. A few years ago, my parents lived in Moldova for a year and a half, and even though they were on the other side of the world, we could talk and see them on a regular basis due to the miracle of modern technology. But this power works both ways. It can connect us with others but it also has the dangerous ability to disconnect us from those we love. Social media and modern technology are powerful, but the responsibility lies within to decide how we will use that power. How we use technology determines if it will be a productive or destructive force in our lives.