Fingers entwined. The squeeze of a hand. A soothing circular motion on the back. An arm slung over a shoulder. A pat on the back. An all-out bear-hug. A furry paw on skin. The nudge of a wet nose.
Whether from human or furry friend, touch has power. It heals. It soothes. It has emotional and physical health benefits. Research suggests that the effects are so profound that “…touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.” ().
We know that without touch, a baby cannot thrive and can even die. The evidence is there. Yet while many of us are quick to give a hug to the young one who revels in touch, what about when the child gets older and stops reaching out? Do any of us really think they have lost the need to be touched?
“Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language, and the last, and it always tells the truth.” — Margaret Atwood
The societal messages we receive ties so many strings around the act of touch. Does it mean you’re attracted to the person? Is it a preamble to sex? Does it cross a line? Touch can so easily become about something other than a simple act of compassion and connection.
There are so many children, teenagers and adults who goes days without feeling the warmth of another’s hand. An elderly person alone. The disheveled man on the streets. The young adult whose world revolves around social media with its electronic physical barrier. Men who have been socialized into being wary of touching another man. Adults spending their days in no physical contact workplaces and their nights online and alone. The child in a school where caring teachers can no longer offer any healthy physical expression of compassion and support.
“No other form of communication is as universally understood as touch. The compassionate touch of a hand or a reassuring hug can take away our fears, soothe our anxieties, and fill the emptiness of being lonely.” — Randi G. Fine
I know we live in a society where the darkest of dark exists, where rules governing those in positions of power are rooted in the reality of past atrocities. The rules are there to protect us from touch that traumatizes and terrorizes, but when a school instills a where kindergarteners cannot even hold hands or play tag, doesn’t that tell us something?
Yes, we need to protect our children and ourselves from harmful touch. But it saddens me when I think of the stranglehold of fear that we live under. Young, old and everyone in between, need to be physical touched and to touch. Research abounds as to the emotional health benefits of everyday forms of touch — a simple hug, a pat on the back.
“…the science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to—we need to—connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts.” — Dacher Keltner
Yet our cultural taboos about touch, the sexualization of touch, and the scarring ways that touch has been abused has made the spontaneous touch of compassion almost extinct. We hesitate to reach out, fearful that it might be misinterpreted. We see lines everywhere and do not want to cross them. We fulfill our need for touch with our furry friends, where we know a scratch, stroke and snuggle will be accepted with a purr or a wag.
But as much as our four-legged friends give us (and we know they give so much), does it fully replace the two-legged kind? Without the latter, are we slowly disconnecting ourselves from each other? From humankind?
Kindergartners need more hand holding and hugging, not less of it. We all need the warmth of another’s touch to build connection, cooperation and trust; to feel and show compassion; to reach out, reassure and comfort. We need the warmth of another’s touch to thrive.
In our attempt to insulate ourselves from bad touch have we walled ourselves off from experiencing enough of the good touch?
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” — Henri Nouwen
“The pressure of the hands causes the springs of life to flow.” — Tokujiro Namikoshi
“I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.” — Maya Angelou
“Hugging is good medicine. It transfers energy and gives the person hugged an emotional lift. You need four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. Scientists say hugging is a form of communication because it can say the things you don’t have words for and the nicest thing about a hug is that you usually can’t give one without getting one” — Unknown
“To touch is to give life.” — Michelangelo