The Joyous Power of Touch

“Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our natural lives.”  

C.S. Lewis

Affection is defined as a gentle feeling of fondness or liking.  A home filled with affection is akin to heaven on earth.  It is a home where you greet your children with a welcoming hug, a home where you wink and smile at your seven-year-old at the dinner table, where you massage your teenage son’s feet after a long practice.  Children feel safe here, they know they are loved, they feel it.  Physical affection is particularly powerful.  When our feelings of love are expressed physically, it unites the spiritual and physical world with a loving touch.

The Potency of Touch

“To touch is to give life.”

Michelangelo
Creation, Michelangelo

We are all seeking happiness, especially the kind that can hold steady in turbulent times. But the nature of life is turbulent and our moods and circumstances make lasting happiness seem like an illusion. However, the longer I am a wife and mother, the more I realize that if there is something to help us cross the rivers of turmoil – it is the loving touch of someone we trust. When our world falls apart, we need to be grounded – pulled back with physical and concrete love – with an affectionate embrace. We have all seen the movies showing a neurotic and over-emotional person being slapped, bringing them back into reality – this I do not recommend, but a loving embrace can accomplish the same feat. Sometimes when pain is stuck in the body, we need to use the body to release it. The physical reality of love can plant our feet on the bridge Overcoming.

Last summer my husband traveled a lot. I had no break from the noise and chaos of a house full of little children and I usually ended the days with my nerves frayed. One night, after putting them all down and relaxing on the sofa, I heard my 8 year-old girl get out of bed and ask for water. She didn’t realize that my “noise-bucket” had been overflowing for hours and I quite angrily told her to get back in bed. Almost immediately, I felt guilty. I knew I had to apologize. But I was so worn out from noise and the hard day that I really didn’t know how I would approach it without allowing my stress to betray itself again. As I walked into her room, I did not say anything, I just went into her bed and laid beside her and held her. It is incredible how those five minutes of affection renewed my spirit. I thought I was doing it for my daughter but instead I felt my own stress melt away. As I left I said, I love you; she said, Mom I love you too.

I can’t tell you how many times in motherhood I have come into a potentially hostile situation with my children with no idea how to properly resolve it. Perhaps we want to do what’s right but our emotions are getting in our way, or the proper course of action is not clear, or we just don’t have the mental energy to figure it out. When this is the case, I usually opt to arm myself with affection. If I put my arm around my son – our previous animosity will melt away. If I rub my husband’s neck as he drives, it helps him release his work-day stress. We should never use touch to manipulate – but it can help us fill in the gaps of our weakness. It is the mortar that holds the family together. Without physical affection the home becomes sterile and unforgiving.

The Decline of Physical Touch

Unfortunately our world is increasingly becoming just that, sterile and unforgiving.  With human interactions at an all time low, is it any wonder we find ourselves less compassionate of others?  Touching another person makes them real, they are no longer an image on a computer screen or a voice on the other side of the phone but a living soul, deserving of empathy.

I worry that even when this pandemic passes, we may retain the norm of “social distance”.  I hope this is not the case.  Physical affection between friends, and even strangers, can tie communities together and prevent strife and misunderstandings. Children, especially, need to be free to express themselves physically and receive affection from friends and teachers. 

My children go to wonderful schools and I am grateful for their loving teachers. However, I am increasingly concerned about the “institutional” nature of schools. My daughter was reprimanded in kindergarten for hugging her friend at recess. In many schools teachers are not allowed to touch the students. It is easy to see why such restrictions may be put into place – schools are attempting to reduce their own liability. But there is no doubt that these “institutions” are destined to be cold and unloving places. Combine this with the worry brought on by the COVID epidemic, sending our kids to school may soon feel like admitting them into a sanitized hospital. We mothers need to make adjustments. If we choose to send our children into schools, the increasingly sterile environment must be counteracted by increased affection at home.

Mother and Child, Mary Cassatt

The Science of Touch

When a mother is affectionate with her child she is building her child’s social networks, improving their ability to fight infections, and building a bond that will last a lifetime.  Premature babies that are touched thrive, while babies who aren’t are much more likely to die.  Studies done on Romanian orphanages show the power of human touch in brain and social development.  Alternatively, children who are raised without affection are much more likely to be violent and have mental health issues.  

Some scientific findings on the power of touch:

-Researchers have found that children touched more frequently by their mothers developed more neuronal networks in their “social brain” – resulting in more empathy.  Children touched less are more likely to be aggressive and antisocial.

-Preterm newborns who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 5-10 days gained 47 percent more weight than premature infants who’d received standard medical treatment. 

-You have likely noticed the constant rear slapping and high-fiving between teammates in NBA and NFL games. Turns out they have good reason for this. Studies reveal that NBA basketball teams whose players touch each other more win more games.

Research found that students who were gently touched on the back by a teacher in a friendly incidental way were twice as likely to volunteer and participate in a class discussion.

– (And highly relevant now) -“In one set of studies, touch was shown to boost the immune systems of people who had been exposed to the common cold. For two weeks, researchers monitored a little more than four hundred adults, asking them, not just about their social interactions, but about how many hugs they’d gotten over the course of each day. Then the subjects were quarantined in rooms on an isolated hotel floor, where the researchers proceeded to expose them to a cold virus. The virus was quite effective: seventy-eight percent of subjects were infected, and just over thirty-one percent showed signs of illness. But not everyone was equally susceptible. The people who had experienced more supportive social interactions, battled infection more effectively and exhibited fewer signs of illness—and, when you tease apart the effects of social support and hugging, touch, in itself, accounted for thirty-two percent of the reduction effect.” (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)

“The more we learn about touch, the more we realize just how central it is in all aspects of our lives—cognitive, emotional, developmental, behavioral—from womb into old age. It’s no surprise that a single touch can affect us in multiple, powerful, ways.”

Maria Konnikova (The Power of Touch, New Yorker)

Courageous touch

The truth is that often it takes courage to touch. For example, imagine after an argument with your husband it feels like a gulf has opened up between you. Days pass and the chasm grows bigger. You believe that the simple act of reaching over and grabbing your husband’s hand can bridge that chasm – the tension can melt and you will be free to resolve your issue. But that initial touch takes courage, you are reaching into the dark hoping he will take your hand- it will take the full use of your free-will to overcome your pride and fear. But the outcome can be healing and unity.

Touch as a symptom of the relationship

We cannot easily pretend with touch.  A good indicator of the strength of  relationships is how comfortable we feel with affection.  If touch is awkward and uncomfortable then the relationship needs work.  

“One mother, after hearing a discussion about how mother’s should supply love to their children, determined that before her fourteen year old son went to school in the morning, she would give him a hug. She wanted to prove to him and to herself that she was a good mother. That next morning, as she tried to hug him, he rejected her. But she was determined to give him a hug, and she chased him around the kitchen table and even out the back door. He ran away from her- down the driveway, down the long sidewalk, and around the corner beyond her sight. She stood abandoned in the driveway, crying. She was so frustrated that she went into the house and called the school counselor and told him the whole story, how her son was mean to her and rejected her when she had tried to love him.

The concerned counselor called the boy privately out of class and tried to talk to him. He asked the boy why he had acted that way towards his mother. The boy looked at him quizzically, then he said, “Mr. Jones, do you know the difference between a hug that gives and a hug that takes?” The counselor, who was not a very sensitive person himself, replied, “No” And the boy said quickly, “That is what I thought.”

This is a perfect example of doing things for the wrong reasons. The counselor did not call the boy in to find out how the boy felt, but rather to scold him for not making his mother feel better. And the mother had not wanted to hug the boy because her heart was filled with love for him, but rather to prove to herself that she was doing her job as a mother according to specifications.”

Excerpt: Sterling Ellsworth, Getting to Know the Real You

We cannot fake physical affection. We have to build a relationship worthy of its display. We have all had the experience of receiving a hug from someone that is cold and distant – done out of obligation. The soul is betrayed in our physical interactions. We must not misuse touch or it can become a dark thing. Men and women who were sexually or physically abused often have difficulty giving and receiving physical affection for this very reason – honest and loving affection was replaced with something ugly and false. We must always strive to ensure our touch is unselfish and done with an attempt to build stronger relationships. When touch does not come naturally; it may be a symptom of an underlying issue within ourselves or the relationship itself. We must attempt to repair the fracture quickly and then we can honestly display affection for one another.

Some of us are not naturally “touchy” people. Our childhood home may have shunned affection. Some cultures are less physical than others. However, we need to ensure there is a place for touch in our homes. When words aren’t enough, or our pain is too complex to communicate, or when a child feels alone or discouraged – they need to know they can feel safe in our arms.

Some children need more touch than others. If touch is your child’s “love language”, they may not know you truly love them unless you show them physical affection. Ever since I was a small child, I have craved physical touch. My mom said I would give her about 100 hugs a day. Even today, I feel love most not from kind words or gifts – but when someone touches me on the shoulder, or pats me on the back. If I lived in a home that lacked physical affection, I would feel unloved and unsafe.

Touch can, unfortunately, be used as a tool of manipulation. Since we all crave touch, this need can be used against us. My toddler even knows this. A few weeks after taking away all her pacifiers, she was sitting on the couch next to me and I said, “Juliet, come cuddle.” She looked at me sternly and said, “No! Not until you let me have my paci again!”

But withholding affection in an attempt to control others will sour our relationship and hurt our own chance for happiness.

Healing Affection

Forsaken, Norman Rockwell

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” 

Leo F. Buscaglia

When I hugged my daughter in bed that night, she forgot about my harshness and instead saw me as a loving mother. Physical touch can help repair damage caused by our imperfections by showing the genuineness of our love. This love can be shown not just for our families and friends but is the natural outgrowth of the empathy we feel for others. There are millions of lonely and confined people in this world that crave physical contact. Just as babies fail to flourish without touch, the elderly in nursing homes, the homeless, and disabled and mentally ill, need touch to thrive.

A few years ago my sister was visiting my brother’s family in New Delhi, India. While there they went on a humanitarian tour of a nearby train station where there was a large population of street boys. I had attempted to take the same tour a few years before. I was pregnant at the time and despite having relatively mild morning sickness – simply standing near the train tracks and seeing the rats, filth, and experiencing the smells caused me to lose my lunch and nearly faint. Thousands of young boys and some girls in India live in these conditions, attempting to survive off food thrown from passing trains or begging from travelers. They usually have no mother to comfort them, no father to encourage them. Rather they are raised expecting the abuse of strangers, arrest by police, and the scorn of passers-by. The only potential for a kind word comes from the rare soft-hearted stranger, or humanitarians who sometimes bring food. But loving touch – that is something these children do not experience from adults.

Street boy, India

While my sister was on the tour she saw a group of boys berating a small boy, no more than five.  They were mercilessly teasing and hitting him and he was weeping bitterly. The other boys left him in this state of distress. My sister simply could not bear it, she walked over to the small boy and knelt down to sweetly speak to him.  He kept weeping and barely acknowledged her presence.  She kept trying to comfort him but he would not be calmed.  She felt the call of a nurturing mother – to take this poor child into her arms – but also the ambivalence of touching an unknown dirty child.  Yet she gently put her arm around his shoulders.  He instantly stopped crying and looked into her eyes, astonished.  A powerful moment occurred between them.  She suddenly knew that this was the first kind embrace this boy could remember.  She was astonished by the instant effect her touch had on the boy, it seemed as if God’s love was being poured out to him through her hands. Her touch was speaking to him and hearing him – when words were useless.  With anguish she had to leave that beautiful boy there, now calm, in that filthy train station.  That experience has had a profound impact on her. 

“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”

William Shakespeare

Touch is powerful. It can be the mortar to our relationships. It can bring healing when words are useless. It can develop empathy and bring joy and meaning into our lives. We must bravely use the power of touch often and wisely in our homes and in an increasingly affection-less world.

-Ally

*If you would like to help a very good cause – feeding desperate migrants in India stranded because of COVID, please consider donating. This effort is run by a trusted family friend in India. 100% of donations go to help the poor. Regular updates/photos are shown in the GoFund Me page. The more they raise the more they will feed. Thank you.

https://www.gofundme.com/f/share-your-dinner-with-the-hungry-in-india

-Ally

Resources:

Holding children immediately after a traumatic event can quickly lower their stress levels and help prevent long-term psychological damage.

Premature Babies and Touch: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2124885-premature-babies-brains-respond-differently-to-gentle-touching/#ixzz6MF3SFi10

The Remarkable Power of Touch: https://www.heysigmund.com/the-remarkable-power-of-touch/

The Power of Touch: https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/power-touch

Compassion and Touch: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/hands_on_research

NBA https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21038960

One thought on “The Joyous Power of Touch

  1. Thank you, Ally. This is very relevant, and the article stirs the sadness that I have for our current no-touch dilemma. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. If we dedicated time and energy to understanding and quantifying this issue, and many many more, equal to the amount we have dedicated to Covid-19 research, our response to this pandemic would look very different. Our societal reductionism is causing great harm and many of us are being shamed for publicly saying so. As always, thanks for expressing the point with a clear head.

    Liked by 1 person

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