Spiritual Palmar Reflex

Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” (Luke 2:34–35 NLT)

To those of us who sleep in beds that are rested solidly on terra firma, it can be a disconcerting or even precarious sight watching birds sleep while perched on the branch of a tree or the roost of their birdcage. It’s easy to imagine them losing their grip while in the deepest of sleeps, resulting in a very rude awakening. Yet their feet are designed specifically to make this a near impossibility. The way perching birds rest their bodies on their heels results in a tendon in each foot tightening, forcing the toes into a tight grip. This, then, is their default resting position, which makes hanging out in the treetops much safer, for they must actively choose to let go in order to fly.

Human infants also have a gripping reflex, called palmar grasp. Whenever something puts pressure on the palm of a newborn’s hand, they involuntarily grab it and hold on tight. This can act as a defensive reflex by helping new babies attach themselves to their parents and thereby giving them, and their parents, a sense of security. By the time they reach six months of age, most babies lose the palmar grasp reflex and can more deliberately choose what they grab onto.

It can be easy for many of us to metaphorically live with hands closed rather than open. We may have outgrown our physical palmar grasp, but it is still active in our souls, minds, or hearts. We have trouble letting go of old wounds, failed relationships, and broken promises. We find ourselves still clinging to bad theology, bad habits, and mistakes from our past. We struggle with allowing the Holy Spirit to have supremacy in our everyday lives and letting God shape our future rather than controlling it for ourselves. Like the palmar grasp, this is often a defensive posture designed to keep us safe from harm, perceived or actual.

Based on everything we know about Mary, the mother of Jesus, she appears to be a great case study in what it looks like to live with hands open rather than shut. She knew from the outset the child who grew within her, the boy she would help raise into a man, was never hers and his destiny was beyond her ability to control. She knew when Jesus was eight days old, if not sooner, that a sword would pierce her very soul, but she was steadfast in her commitment to resist the internal palmar grasp reflex. We never read of her acting defensively or in her own self-interest.

When our natural reflex is to live with our hands clasped tightly around the things and people we hold most dear, it is not easy to loosen that grasp and hand over control to God. Yet that is exactly what we must do if we are to allow him to reign in our lives and have control over our everyday moments. God wants all parts of us, not just the ones we are comfortable giving up to him. Like the bird on the branch, it is only by learning to let go that we can truly fly.

What areas of your life are you holding onto tightly rather than handing over control to God?