Tuesday, May 13, 2014

"To touch can be to give life..."

The title of my post today is a quote from Michelangelo.  It is a subject I have thought a great deal about in the past few years, more so recently.  Touch is one of the five basic senses and provides some very real needs for our bodies.  Sadly, it is one of the most neglected senses as we live in an extremely touch-deprived society.  More so every day as new technological advances move us, in many ways, farther away from our humanity as they claim to be constantly "connecting us."  Ask yourself when was the last time you gave a long and generous hug to someone else or reached out a hand to touch a friend during a conversation.

The Shockwave

It's time for me to get a little personal.  I thought about keeping this post in the abstract, but as I am trying to convey the need for greater human connection, why not tell a personal story?   Even as I write this, I wish I was talking to you face to face, maybe placing my hand on your hand.

Anyway, I am single, as I've stated before.  I live with one roommate, but our schedules often keep us from seeing very much of each other.  I've found myself in the past months spending increasing amounts of time alone.  And I realized that I sometimes go for days without touching another human being.  The loneliness and depression started again about a month or a month and half ago.  So, I started trying to find the causes.  Then something happened at my new job (which I love) that had a profound affect on me.  Two things really. 

First, my new boss is an amazing woman.  She's full of life, energy, ideas, and has an uncanny ability to foster greatness in others and help them find and build their strengths.  She's also a "touchy" person.  Meaning, she touches people when she talks to them. She'll reach out and touch your arm, or give you a gentle pat on the back or even a high five.  But I've never had a conversation with her in person in which she didn't reach out in some way.  The first time this happened, I felt a shock wave go through my body (no exaggeration), because it was then that I realized how long it had been since I'd touched another person, and how touch-deprived I actually was.  At that point it was about a week since I'd touched someone else.  I also started to realize how much more connected I felt to my boss than I usually do in a work situation, and how much more like a team our office staff felt, and how much more easily we worked together.  We are all thriving under her influence.  Then yesterday, my co-worker simply laid her head on my shoulder for a moment, a gesture of trust and connection, and I was reminded of all these things again.

Last night as I was mulling all this over in my mind, I was watching Anne of Green Gables, an old favorite of mine.  I noticed the friendship between Anne and Diana, and the way they interacted with each other.  In every scene when they were together, they were either holding hands, had their arms linked, their arms around each other, were kissing cheeks, or some other form of physical affection.  Every scene.  Then I noticed Anne's influence on Marilla, a touch-deprived soul if ever there was one.  At first, any little gesture of trust or affection from Anne seemed like a shock to Marilla's senses, and she doesn't quite know what to do with it.  But gradually, she loosens up, and by the end, they too are hugging, touching hands, walking arm in arm.  And Marilla is happier and healthier for it.  As I thought of my own relationships, I could see a lessening of physical contact with my friends in direct correlation with somewhat of a loss of connectivity.  The less I touched my friends, or allowed them to touch me, the less connected I felt to them.

Science of Healthy Touch

So, what's the big deal?  Why do humans need physical touch from other humans?  At times in my life the human connections I've had have been unhealthy and even traumatic in nature.  You would think I would want to cut myself off from all human touch.  But my skin literally aches for human connection daily.  The scientific name for this in psychological corners is "skin hunger."  It's a real thing.  You can read about it here.   Basically, in the same way that your body hungers for food, water, and other physical needs, it also hungers for the NEED of human contact.

There has been a great deal of research about the positive effects on health and emotions from healthy human touch.  To name a few of the benefits:
  • An increase in oxytocin levels (the love hormone), healing feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anger
  • An increase in serotonin
  • Lower stress
  • Relaxes muscles
  • Fosters a feeling of trust and safety
  • Boosts self-esteem
  • Balances the nervous system
One of the best articles I've read about for its scientific basis is this one by Dacher Keltner.  He talks about our touch-deprived Western culture and some experiments that he's done in his own lab as well as other studies.  One study from the 1960s fascinated me because of its relevance to friendships.  In the 60s, many different friends at cafes in the United States, the UK, and Puerto Rico were observed.  To quote from the article:

"...Pioneering psychologist Sidney Jourard, who studied the conversations of friends in different parts of the world as they sat in a cafĂ© together... 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! Of course, there are plenty of good reasons why people are inclined to keep their hands to themselves, especially in a society as litigious as ours. But other research has revealed what we lose when we hold back too much."

There is much documentation about the development of pre-mature babies who have touch therapy vs. the lack of thriving in babies with no touch therapy.  But what of adults?  Can we survive without human connection?  Absolutely not.  Think about the country we live in.  The list of diseases and ailments (along with accompanying medications) seems to be growing by the day.  What if we could literally heal the world with a hug?  That's not too far from the truth. 

The Counterfeits

It's not a coincidence that these diseases are growing almost at the same rate as our technological advances.  More and more time online or with our many devices, and less and less time in the real physical company of other people is literally killing us.  From face to face to conversations, we went to phone calls, then emails, then online chats and texts.  With each descending level of communication, something is lost.  We receive less of the other person and give less of ourselves for the sake of brevity and convenience.  We can do more things at one time: have a chat window open while putting up a status on Facebook, and sending a text, and writing an email, but how much of ourselves are we sharing in each of those instances?  How much are we holding back, closing off, abbreviating for the sake of time and space?  Are we not abbreviating our very souls?

The Lord gave us bodies because there were very real lessons we could not learn without them.  Our progression was stopped until we obtained bodies.  Those bodies unite with our spirits to create the soul, the very essence of who we are.  Satan's progress has been eternally stopped or damned because he gave up his chance to obtain a body.  Because of that, he wants to do everything in his power to deprive us of the positive experiences we can have with our bodies. Even if that's just by distraction or counterfeits.  One counterfeit for real relationships is online relationships (friends or otherwise).  Facebook and other online social sites can be fantastic as a supplement to real relationships, but as a replacement, they are seriously lacking.  We must nourish every aspect of both the body and the spirit.  Just as man cannot live by bread alone, neither can he live by the spirit alone, or the mind alone, or the internet alone.  We desperately need healthy human interaction.

Even the horrible epidemic of pornography in our culture, I believe, can be traced back to our lacking enough healthy touch, which leads to depression, and anxiety, and a seeking for other things to fill the hole.  Then the pornography usage causes more secrecy, isolation, and depression, perpetuating the cycle.

Healing Hands

Now the question I would like you to think about is this: Why do you think healing through the use of priesthood power comes by the laying on of hands rather than with just a spoken word?  What about the gift of the Holy Ghost or ordination or setting apart for callings?  Why the laying on of hands?  Because "to touch can be to give life."  The power of the priesthood can be transmitted through this wonderful gift the Lord has given us, our sense of touch.  He did not place us here to live out our mortal days in isolation.  My last post was about manna, and the daily tender mercies which link us back to the Lord.  What if this healthy human touch is another form of manna?  It's another one of those things we need daily, that cannot be stock piled for future use.

I'm currently reading a wonderful book called The Hiding Place about a wonderful, strong, and loving woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp.  For the first few weeks of her imprisonment, she was kept in complete isolation in a small gray room only big enough for a cot and a bucket.  She saw no one, heard no voice, touched no one, and was not even allowed to sing quietly to herself.  She was horribly ill.  After several weeks of this, one of the kinder Nazi officers came in to speak to her.  There were little bits of color on his uniform which delighted her eyes.  She was thankful to see any human face, even that of an enemy.  Later when she was finally allowed to be with her sister in the prison and concentration camp, she started to get better and was able to endure a great deal because of the strength she gained from being in close proximity to her sister.

It has been proven that children learn better in environments of healthy touch.  It saddens me to think that in this society of fear which we are perpetuating, teachers cannot even hug their students or give them a pat on the back anymore without accusations flying.  I weep to think of the hugs from my teachers and guidance counselors in guidance counselors which literally saved my life on several occasions.   We cloak ourselves in an armor of fear, only to wilt in isolation.

Virginia Satir, a respected family therapist, has said  “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”  This article explores that idea further and points out some of the benefit of hugs specifically.

My challenge to you is to open yourself up to more human touch, more affection, more connection.  The next time you're talking to a friend or walking with them, touch their hand or arm.  Give a longer embrace.  And don't be alarmed if the next time you see me, I do the same.

1 comment:

  1. While I agree in the healing power of touch, I also believe in honoring and respecting someone's restrictions on the receipt of touch. I am generally a hugger and touch the people I talk with in what I believe are non-invasive (or flirtatious) ways. However, I have times in my life when I do not want to touch or be touched. When, more than anything, I need to nurture myself and rely on the Lord for a while. I've also met many people who might very well be from England genealogically. They don't like touch! I think that, in this way, we are different types of seeds. Some seeds do really will in damp, moist soil. Others of us need a little desert air.


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