“Don’t make this personal. I don’t like to be touched literally OR metaphorically, thank you very much. I haven’t got the time.” ~ Doctor Who, the Absorbaloff from that one L.I.N.D.A. episode
I know what you Whovians are thinking: the Absorbaloff COULDN’T touch anyone without absorbing them and slowly digesting them over an extended period of time, so this quote isn’t really a very good one to use as an example. But I’m too lazy to look for a different one.
And besides, we’re not Absorbaloffs.
It’s midnight as I’m typing this, so I suppose this post will turn up on Monday instead of Sunday like I originally intended, but it’s still Sunday to me because I’m still awake, so I’ll just consider it Sunday.
Today one of the elders of my church was speaking because the pastor and his family were on vacation. I like this particular elder and I always find his sermons very interesting, but this time he REALLY hit the nail on the head. His sermon was on physical touch.
You might be thinking somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind as just a passing thought that physical touch is more of a subject to be found in a psychology class lecture hall than a Christian church, but no matter what religious denomination (is that the right word?) you belong to (or lack thereof), physical human contact is INCREDIBLY important, and I have strongly felt for a very long time that it’s often dismissed in American culture today, which is something I’ll get into a little later in the post (which hopefully won’t end up too terribly long).
I wish I could recount the whole sermon back to you word for word, because it was just that good, but I can only tell you the things I remember (which is why I’m typing this today, despite the late hour, instead of saving it tomorrow).
First, let’s talk about prison. Yep, I know: great opener. Personally, if I were sent to prison, I think my first choice would be solitary confinement. After all, those other people didn’t get here for doing community service and working in soup kitchens. I don’t really want to be around them. So just toss me in the little room and let me serve out my four years in there. (Four? Two? Six? Twenty? Whatever.)
But I did some research on solitary confinement awhile back and I came to realize exactly what it was ~ and what it could come to. Solitary confinement is a special form of imprisonment in which a prisoner is isolated in a cell for 23-24 hours a day, with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for human contact and social interaction. The first time I read that, I thought, “That’s not so bad.” After all, I usually prize being alone, and I’m not good at social interaction (in case you’re a new follower and you haven’t noticed that about me yet ~ “not good” is really a major understatement). For three years of my life (ages 14-17) I spent an average of maybe three hours of interaction (basically just church) with people outside my family per week, and my family is NOT “touchy-feely” AT ALL (I have managed to increase that number significantly in the past two years, though I’m not sure it’s helped ~ it may actually have made it worse), and through the past five years I have had very little environmental stimulation, so I figure, solitary confinement? No problem. I’m basically in it already.
But solitary confinement is often considered a form of psychological torture, especially when the period of confinement is longer than a few weeks or continued indefinitely. It can produce various other serious physical AND emotional problems, including: anxiety, nervousness, headaches, insomnia, lethargy, chronic tiredness, nightmares, heart palpitations (when your heart beats faster or harder than normal), fear of impending nervous breakdowns, chronic depression, emotional bluntness, mood swings, panic attacks, social withdrawal, feelings of overall deterioration, irrational anger, outbreaks of physical and verbal violence (including sarcasm, I suspect), cognitive problems, confused thought processes, memory loss, incapacity of maintaining an adequate state of alertness and attention, perceptual distortions, over-sensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations in all senses, depersonalization (observing yourself from outside your body, or having a sense that things around you aren’t real), obsessive ruminations (the inability to control recurring distressing thoughts), violent fantasies, and suicidal ideation.
I won’t tell you how many or which of these things I have experienced in myself (obviously not intensively, since I’m not ACTUALLY in severe solitary confinement), but I WILL tell you that they’re not things to take lightly ~ this is something I’ve figured out just by feeling them in their mildest forms. There are times when I have been literally TERRIFIED of my own brain and the things I am feeling, and in those times, all I want in the world is a light touch on the hand by someone I love and trust (MY problem is that there are so very few of those people).
But anyway, no more about me. Back to the importance of physical touch.
I think everyone knows that words are not always adequate for accurately communicating our feelings ~ more can be said to a sad friend through a hug or a squeeze on the shoulder than through ANY speech we could come up with, no matter how extensive or beautiful. Touch forms an incredible emotional connection, and even the smallest touches, it has been discovered, have a significant impact on a person’s mood, even if they’re unintentional from someone you don’t even know. Studies have found that waitresses who happen to touch the hands of people at their tables receive higher tips, people who were brushed on the elbow by a department store greeter as he opened the door for them were likely to buy more, and premature newborns who received just three fifteen-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for five to ten days gained 47% more weight than those who received standard medical treatment.
“Regrettably, though, some Western cultures are pretty touch-deprived, and this is especially true of the United States. Ethologists who live in different parts of the world quickly recognize this. Nonhuman primates spend about 10-20% of their waking day grooming each other. If you go to various other countries, people spend a lot of time in direct physical contact with one another ~ much more than we do. This has been well-documented. One of my favorite examples is a study from the 1960s by pioneering psychologist Sidney Jourard, who studied the conversations of friends in different parts of the world as they sat in a cafe together. He observed these conversations for the same amount of time in each of the different countries. What did he find? In England, the two friends touched each other zero times. In the United States, in bursts of enthusiasm, we touched each other twice. But in France, the number shot up to 110 times per hour. And in Puerto Rico, those friends touched each other 180 times!” ~ http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research
The sad truth is that physical touch in our society is much more suspiciously viewed today than it used to be, or even SHOULD be. Now, you can hardly touch anyone, whether you’re different genders or the same, without people thinking you’re “going together” (to old-style it) in some sense. American culture believes that men in particular can’t be trusted in the physical realm, not with women or even with other men. The only time touch is condoned for men is between fathers and their very young children. And I wish I could go into all the points of why touch is so hard for men, but to be honest, this post is simply getting far too long already. Perhaps I’ll post a spin-off later on.
Bringing it back to the big picture, how often do we get the opportunity to express affection to each other through long-lasting touch? I don’t mean through a handshake or even a hug, but just some sort of lasting contact that is comfortable and purely platonic ~ for instance, holding hands, leaning on each other, or sitting together. And when we DO touch others, we work so hard to make it look pure and polite that we take no joy in the connection itself. I wonder if sometimes it’s not until your own children are born that you rediscover the gentle platonic touch you remember from your childhood: simple caring that is free from any awkwardness.
The annoying thing is that we KNOW the value of human touch ~ every one of us can feel it every time ~ but we still do all we can to shield ourselves from it. We both crave it and are repulsed by it when it is unwanted, uninvited, or inappropriate. But the real issue is, if we spend so much time and effort fighting against it, how and where from are we going to get it when we REALLY actually NEED it?
I guess that’s the question. And I guess all of you who have read all the way through this post are asking it right now. And I suppose you expect me to have an answer. Well, I’m sorry. I don’t. I want one though, as much as you do. And I know you’re probably saying, “Darn it, Spitfire, you never answer the important questions.” This is also true. That’s because I don’t have the answers.
And some others of you might still be stuck on the fact that the importance of physical contact was preached in my church this morning. I guess I’d better wrangle it back to the point of that sermon, just to grant some clarification. Check this out:
“When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.’
Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing; be cleansed.’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” ~ Matthew 8:1-3
Leprosy was a very serious skin disease. If a person had leprosy, they were banished from society, forced to live as an outcast. They had crazy laws about infected people as well ~ they weren’t supposed to get within six feet of anybody, and if the wind was blowing, not even within 150 feet or something crazy like that. It was highly contagious.
But here, Jesus breaks ALL the rules (which I’m sure some religious leaders got on Him about). Not only does He get closer than six feet to this leprosed man, He reaches out and He TOUCHES him, which was no doubt the first physical contact the guy had had for however long he’d been a leper. The Bible doesn’t include the man’s response, but if it was me, I would sob hysterically and thank Him profusely, because I know what it feels like to go a long time without touching anyone.
“When Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd wailing, He said to them, ‘Make room, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping.’ And they ridiculed Him. But when the crowd was put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went out into all that land.” ~ Matthew 9:23-26
Back in Jesus’ time, if you touched a dead person, you were considered “ceremonially unclean” for like, a week or something, which limited you to almost no social interaction until you cleansed yourself with some sort of ritual that I can’t remember because I’m not perfect. (Yeah, I know. I’m such a good Bible scholar.) Being unclean was not a fun place to be, because people avoided you. But Jesus broke the rules again. He walked into that room, sat down by that dead girl, took her by the hand (like Sam and Frodo in Rivendell!), and said, “Arise, my love.” (Or something to that effect, or maybe just “Little girl, get up.”) And up she popped.
There are a LOT of people that Jesus healed while He was here on earth ~ blind men, cripples, paralytics, the demon-possessed, lepers, dead people. And you can find stories about them all in the Bible, and I think you’ll find that He actually TOUCHED a lot of them. He didn’t need to ~ in Matthew 8:5-13, Jesus heals a man suffering from paralysis in ANOTHER TOWN just by speaking! (Which makes me wonder, how many people did He heal in totally other places of the world that weren’t recorded in the Bible, because those who wrote the gospels weren’t there to see it?) His words were easily powerful enough to do great miracles, but sometimes He chose to form that emotional connection with the people ~ HIS people, people He knew by heart even if they didn’t know Him ~ with the power of touch. Isn’t that crazy awesome?