A touch can hurt, but it can heal.
It can divide, or unite.
Cause pleasure, or instill pain.
But always, touching causes a ripple effect whose consequences can be far more widespread than our intent or imagining.
There are two disparate stories in the Gospel of Matthew [9:18–26] that have always befuddled me because they are linked for no apparent reason. Read the passage for yourself, and note my emphases:
While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.’ And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute-players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, ‘Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up.
I come away from this passage with a new awareness of what a social species humanity is. We are engineered for both verbal communication and the nuanced messaging of body language—from fondling an infant to holding the hand of a dying parent.
Author Neel Burton notes that scientists used to think that touch served merely to emphasize a verbal message. But now it is clear to them that touch can be the message itself. And a person’s reaction to our touch can tell us much more than their words. While words can lie, touch is difficult to either ignore or discount.
Matthew Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana, demonstrated in a series of experiments several years ago that emotions can be communicated. Volunteers touched a blindfolded person and eight distinct emotions were recorded, from gratitude to disgust to love, some with about seventy percent accuracy.
Touch is the first language we learn,” says Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley. It remains, “our richest means of emotional expression” throughout life.
Because we are so eloquent in the language of touch, we understand immediately the difference between touch and, say, grope.
verb[ with obj. ]
The faculty of perception through physical contact, especially with the fingers
verb[ with obj. ] informal feel or fondle (someone) for sexual pleasure, especially against their will
Veteran Actress Robin Wright just last week told the Today show that she has been subjected to sexual harassment in her career and doesn’t believe sexual misconduct is an issue of lust—as much as it is lust for power.
“I don’t care who you are, it’s about power. And once you overpower someone, that person then begins to be vulnerable.”
Of all the effects that the administration of touch can drive, perhaps its greatest power lies in its absence.
In their book, Born for Love: Empathy, the Brain, and Human Connections, Bruce D. Perry MD, PhD, and Maia Szalavitz write:
Babies who are not held and nuzzled and hugged enough will literally stop growing and—if the situation lasts long enough, even if they are receiving proper nutrition—they die.
Diana Ross brought the message home in her emotive and unforgettable 1973 song, Touch Me in the Morning.
Till you go I need to lie here and think about
The last time that you'll touch me in the morning
Then just close the door
Leave me as you found me, empty like before
If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my new novel, Billy of the Tulips, a sensitive boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity, now available from Amazon.