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We are made to live in community, families and friendships. That’s why there’s nothing more beautiful than having a relationship with someone who is supposed to love you and actually does, and there’s nothing more painful than having a relationship with someone who is supposed to love you and doesn’t.
As a counselor, I’ve learned some of the exciting breakthroughs in modern science that confirm what God said in Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for man to be alone.” A new era has dawned, and it is all the gift of what many scientists call the field of “interpersonal neurobiology” or “interpersonal neuroscience.”
The core truth of these discoveries is that the mind is relational. Our minds are actually dependent on relationships. From birth, our neurons fire and form not only because of genetic patterns but also in response to all our interactions with other people. We know this because imaging allows us to watch the brain work when humans respond to other humans.
Increasingly, research is confirming that human-to-human interaction has a biological effect on us. Thus, our relationships not only change our brains, but they also change our behavior and condition the way we experience the world and even God.
Consider for a moment the experience of telling your life story and then feeling understood by another person. We know this experience of feeling empathy from someone else produces a calming effect in one’s limbic system that is similar to the effects of anxiety drugs like Ativan. Expressing emotionally charged experiences challenges the brain to use the robust, integrative neural circuits of the middle prefrontal cortex, which is involved in helping us learn how to regulate emotions, gain flexibility and perseverance and master our most troublesome impulses.
Children who are regularly involved in family meals learn better and perform better in school.
And the benefits of the family dinner, which many of us have allowed to fall to the wayside, provide more evidence that we are wired for community.
A generation or two ago, family dinners occurred so often that it would have been odd to discuss the science of the family meal or the benefits of eating together. Yet, with the intrusion of technology and the often relationally broken American family, many experts are turning their attention to the astonishing benefits that come to those who share a meal with family members.
The Family Dinner Project, which is entirely devoted to the study of regular family meals, profiles families who are changed by eating together often. The site suggests recipes, topics for dinner conversation, and ways to draw people in from the community and handle challenges. They also present some of the science behind the genius of the family meal.
Here’s what we can learn from what they report: Children who are regularly involved in family meals learn better and perform better in school. They don’t just get better grades —they enjoy learning, and their happiness increases as they learn.
These children have higher self-esteem, likely because they feel the security of being part of a family devoted to being together and to the well-being of each individual. In addition, kids who eat with their families often are more resilient. This is most likely because they hear other family members around the table talking about what they’ve experienced and how they conquered obstacles.
Notice the vast difference a family meal makes in the lives of family members. If you do this with your family whenever you’re able, it will change lives. And these changed lives, in turn, will transform other lives. We can leave a legacy of love just by sitting around the table together.
Many in our world have suffered unspeakable trauma in relationships. As a Christian, I believe God loves us and is reaching out to each one of us. Scripture tells us that God settles the lonely in families, and I believe God is ever trying to connect us to one another. We have the responsibility and privilege to become family to those who have none. So, invite people over for a meal or go out for one. Ask someone how they are doing and really listen.
Our future is relational, and healthy relationships are the answer to much of the trauma we are experiencing in this generation.
In this new year, let’s resolve to spend more time together around the table.
This op-ed is adapted from excerpts of Tim Clinton’s newest book “Focus on the Future: Your Family, Your Faith, and Your Voice Matter Now More than Ever” (Charisma).