Every Person: A Web of Relations

Let us hope that every child and every adult has had the delight of watching a spider weave its web. It is one of nature’s great enchantments.

Spiders are created to build webs. They are gifted with multiple spinnerets, organs specifically designed for producing the spider’s silk thread. Most spiders make four or five kinds of silk; some make as many as seven types. Spider silk can be thick or thin, dry or sticky, beaded or smooth. It is both light and stronger than steel. It has an impressive tensile strength, which means it stretches a great deal before it snaps. Scientists have been trying for decades to decode exactly what gives spider silk both strength and elasticity, but so far, they have failed to crack the code. Spiders are endowed with an amazing planning ability, making them among God’s most skilled engineers. They possess eight legs, perfect for the intricate work of web building, also making them one of God’s most skilled craftsmen. Making webs is innate for spiders. They are born knowing how to do it, and they can’t flourish without it.

The typical orb weaver spider (the group most common to North America) begins its web by casting a thin line of silk in hopes of it attaching to a suitable secure surface, such as a branch, a window frame or a rock. When the silk catches hold, the spider tugs to ensure the silk strand is truly attached. If the attachment is secure, it pulls out new silk and attaches the strand to its perch, gathers up the snagged strand and begins pulling itself towards the object of the strand’s attachment, all the while laying behind it a new, thicker, stronger silk. In a well-constructed web, this silk will serve as the first of seven securely attached lines that will anchor the entire web. Without such a fixed foundation, the web is frail and malformed.

With a secure foundation, the spider begins to spin its web in a relatively simple and predictable way. Radial lines are laid through the center of the web, extending out to the anchor lines, establishing a strong inner core and giving strength to the entire web. Then, the spider works from the outside in, attaching threads segment by segment, creating concentric circles, called orb lines, ending with a center spiral of sticky silk that traps prey. The result is a beautiful gossamer web, providing the spider with both security and nourishment.

As the spider is made for building silk webs, so we are made for building relations with persons and things. Spiders possess spinnerets, organs specially designed for making silk. Contemporary neuroscience has established that we possess relational brains designed for and dependent upon the creation of meaningful relations with persons and things, persons being of foundational importance.[1] Just as a spider depends upon its web for flourishing, so we persons depend upon our web for flourishing. Human flourishing begins with anchor attachments, particularly attachment to mother. Like the spider casting the initial thread hoping it will land on a surface suitable for attachment, so babies cast a line of desire, receptivity, and responsiveness, hoping to find in mother a place of belonging that is secure, reliable and nurturing. Failure here results in a painful distortion of the entire web. Assuming a relatively secure attachment to mother, babies then cast for other primary relations (father, sister, brother, grandparents) which, when firmly established, anchor still more relations (friend, neighbor, clerk, pets, books, toys, flowers—an infinite variety of good things). A beautiful spiral of joyful relations is created, all connected, all informing one another. Such a spiral is resilient, able to bear the insults and fractures sure to come. Such a spiral produces a solid center, a core identity that both understands itself and lives by the touch of all its relations.

Like the spider, it is innate for persons to build a web, although this web is not naturally a beautiful, resilient and nourishing web. Our brains are so relational that they cannot develop in a healthy manner apart from secure, relational attachment with others who possess knowledge and skills which we lack. Before we learn to read a book or to write our name, we must learn something about what is worth having and not having, doing and not doing. We must learn how and when to be joyful or sad, afraid or angry and how to recover from sadness, fear or anger, how to get back to joy. We must learn what’s not worth our time, what’s worth our attention, and how to sustain that attention. We must learn what we ought to do and how to compel ourselves to do what we ought. We come into life with great powers of heart, but we need teachers to help us mature those powers. In like manner, we come into life with great powers of mind, a hunger and a thirst for the treasures of the knowledge of heaven and earth. Yet, we need a guide to point and say: “Look. What do you see? What do you hear? Isn’t it lovely or interesting or curious or hard or scary?” In other words, we need teachers. Mother needs to be the first, establishing the primary anchor line. Ideally, father will be second, but there must be other teachers who will frame a rich relational life, each providing a part that others cannot. Unlike spiders, children must be educated. Thus, we maintain that “Education is the science of relations.” 

In Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason provides a lovely description of an idealized web, a child’s life rich in relations to persons and things, a life that is both flourishing and formative.

We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby's needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges. And, what tempered 'fusion of classes' is so effective as a child's intimacy with his betters, and also with cook and housemaid, blacksmith and joiner, with everybody who comes in his way? Children have a genius for this sort of general intimacy, a valuable part of their education; care and guidance are needed, of course, lest admiring friends should make fools of them, but no compounded 'environment' could make up for this fresh air, this wholesome wind blowing now from one point, now from another.[2]

Such an image, drawn from a century ago, may seem foreign. But there is something beautiful about it, something attractive and thick. We live in a time of ever thinning relations, and we long for something richer, thicker. Too often, our technologically mediated and utilitarian relations are about as thick as the layer of pixels on a flat screen TV. Our hearts and minds, even our bodies, suffer because of it. Connecting on Zoom is no replacement for being face-to-face. Watching a baseball game on a screen pales in comparison to being at the ballpark or playing pitch-and-catch with friends. Seeing a favorite character on a sitcom is a poor substitute for sharing a joke with a live person. Seeing a rare African spider on the Discovery Channel is nothing so rich as attentively observing with one’s own eyes the most common of backyard spiders. And indeed, blackberries pulled from the hedges with one’s own hands are far sweeter than any to be purchased at the local supermarket. Unless so jaded as to despair of it, all persons long for thick attachments with the real, the real always being good and satisfying.

The spider makes a web. The web provides the spider security and a means of capturing food, but the web does not make the spider. While it is true that the way we direct our attention shapes our relational webs, it is an often-ignored truth that our relational webs create us far more potently than we create them. As our relations with persons and things grow thin, we grow thin. As our relations with persons and things grow thick, we grow thick.

Let us pause today and every day, to give some time to our continuing education by thickening a relation with some real person and some real thing. Education is the science of relations.

 

[1] See Alan Shore’s book, Affect Regulation and the Formation of the Self, as a seminal work of neuroscience on the effect of primary relations on brain development.

[2] Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), 96.