It was as if his eyes told the whole story. They seemed hollow, lifeless. He looked past you. Over you. Around you. Any place but at you, as if intentionally avoiding all human contact. Despite his uninviting manner, I attempted to reach him on more than one occasion. Sadly, despite my best efforts, I don’t think I made a difference. During our entire week, I saw him smile one time. I can’t even remember his name.

Our volunteer vacation went exactly as I had imagined. The Guatemalan orphanage, where my teenagers and I did a week-long service project, was bare and emotionally cold. The staff was most efficient with the daily tasks needed to sustain the physical lives of the children – feeding, bathing, dressing, keeping the lot safe and at the end of the day, making sure they were all accounted for.

Despite their best efforts, something was missing. Vacant was warmth and joy – life’s quintessential emotional juice. Not that I anticipated much. It was like trying desperately to cover an entire slice of bread with the scraps of peanut butter remaining on the sides of the jar … there was just not enough to go around. Think two adults per fifteen young children. Just not possible. I guess that is why we were there. All we did was sit on the floor, play, hold, hug, kiss and sing songs in an unrecognizable language. We were there to add that “optional” component – love.

Some of the kids were hungry for whatever we provided. They smiled freely, hung on our arms and lapped up attention, as a thirsty dog discovering a new watering hole.

Some kids appeared resilient and thus, hopeful. It was as if whatever painful circumstances that brought them to the orphanage had yet to steal their spirit. They insisted on keeping an open heart.

And then there were those like the young boy I described above. Tragically, life had taken its toll. As if they had already resigned to the fact that they would never get their share. Heart-breaking.

It got me thinking. What exactly distinguishes one from the other? Why do some children stay alive emotionally while others give up – as if the hurt is so bad they decide to no longer feel, to never try again, to withdraw more and more into the sinkhole of their selves?

Naturally, my reflection at the orphanage made me think about us adults. The ones that have experienced more than his or her share of life’s hard knocks and yet remain bright-eyed. As opposed to those that brittle and break, become hardened, seemingly beyond repair. What exactly determines such different paths?

If I was a betting woman, and being the optimist I am, I am leaning toward that “optional” component – the one called love. Food, clothes and housing alone, without the added necessary ingredient of the soul, is futile. The former makes the child. The latter makes the human being.

I wish I could have given more to that small Guatemalan boy. I certainly hope someone will. Meanwhile, I am grateful to what he gave me – even deeper conviction that pain without emotional cushion sure does a number. That the belly can be full but the heart can remain starved. That love, demonstrated through consistent human contact, is ultimately a non-negotiable ingredient.