Boston Women’s Journal - April/May 2006

Have We Lost Touch?

One of my fondest memories of childhood is my mother and her sister walking arm in arm down the street chatting and laughing. How unselfconscious they were. Lost in their own world oblivious to the busy street and traffic, enclosed in communication and supported by each other’s touch. I also remember my uncle rubbing his scratchy bearded face against mine till I squealed with delight, and my grandfather throwing me high in the air catching me mid-flight while the waves crashed on the beach. My brother and I used to tickle each other until one of us cried “uncle.” At family events everyone entering the door was kissed and hugged by everyone else. So natural, so human, yet it seems to me such sights are hard to find today.

What happened to unselfconscious touch? When did it become odd to see two grown women walking arm in arm? To see two men embracing when they meet? I miss being part of those experiences and also the comfort I had as a child of knowing that there were always arms open to me.

I’m not sure about the reasons for the change in attitude toward non-sexual touching. I have some thoughts, and they are sad ones. We have become a very sexualized culture, perhaps through ads, music, and the eternal quest for youth everlasting. Touch, especially between adults, is portrayed as a sexual overture. In some ways it is like eternal adolescence. Everything has a hidden meaning or nuance. Or perhaps touching has gotten lost in the rush to run and be and do all the time. Whatever time was left as “spare” has been categorized into an activity, work, or dinner, or homework or whatever. Can’t a hug just be a hug? People spend thousands at spas, (and don’t get me wrong I enjoy them as well), just getting safely touched, and held and pampered.

Studies during World War II in England showed that babies in orphanages failed to thrive, and even died, for lack of physical contact. Our central nervous systems are programmed to be held for comfort, reassurance, or just a feeling of connection. That need does not go away with age. If anything it becomes more essential as our lives are impacted by hurts that go deeper than a skinned knee.

I worked for many years with older people. Many of them had lost a spouse and were alone for the first time. Almost all these widows and widowers, when asked what was the most difficult part of being alone, said that it was being held, or cuddled, or facing the prospect of sleeping alone every night. These concerns prompted me to start a massage program for the elderly. An hour of safe touch went a long way to keeping someone vital and happy. Call it a sensory tune up. We all need it on an ongoing basis.

I can’t change the culture but I can propose some alternatives to relieve our touch-starved lives. Make a conscious effort to hold and touch your children, especially after they are older. Even if they get embarrassed and squeal, “Oh Mom, I’m not a kid anymore,” as do my teenagers, know that they still want your physical expression of love. Give a pat on the back or a little rub as you go by. As for spouses and significant others of all types, make time for hand holding, and reaching out physically when it isn’t a sexual moment.

Unfortunately, at different times in our lives we are not in a position to easily get all of our needs met. In fact, for some of us negative feelings related to touch may be blocking our ability to experience positive touching in our daily lives. That is why it is nice that there are so many alternatives to choose from. In my practice I use gentle touch with both guided imagery and in my energy work to release old pain and allow people to feel their hurts and strengths. It’s amazing how quickly we can release the old buried feelings stored in our body when we are in a safe and holding environment.

Some of those big strong guys really need to be cuddled. We are human animals and crave the warmth of an embrace. But touch is not only for those needing to heal. It is essential to the mental and physical health of all of us.