Paulson Veliyannoor, CMF
In the Garden of Eden, in response to the serpent’s query, Eve spoke: “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’” (Gen 3:3). Well, Eve’s reporting was more like today’s fake news: God had ordered them not to eat, alright; but He had never said they could not even touch it! The ‘touch-not’ was Eve’s invention.
Fast forward to the Gospel according to John. Taking offence at Jesus appearing to the disciples while He was away, Thomas insists on touching Jesus physically – His wounds, specifically – in order to believe. And Jesus complies by inviting Him: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:24-29).
What is it about touch that makes for such significance that Eve would fantasize and suffer a non-existing prohibition, Thomas would demand that he be allowed to touch, and Jesus would egg on Thomas to do so and believe? Perhaps a reflection on the significance of touch is called for in these pandemic times when we have been suffering through a real prohibition to touch, and what it could mean to our human life.
The Role of Touch in Human Life
Touch is the primary sensation that develops in a human being; and skin, which mediates the sense of touch, is our biggest sense organ. Ashley Montagu begins his classic study Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin thus:
[The skin] is the oldest and the most sensitive of our organs, our first medium of communication, and our most efficient protector. […] Touch is the parent of our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. It is the sense which became differentiated into the others, a fact that seems to be recognized in the age-old evaluation of touch as “the mother of the senses.” […] The skin is the largest sensory organ of the body, and the tactile system is the earliest sensory system to become functional in all species thus far studied—human, animal, and bird. Perhaps next to the brain, the skin is the most important of all our organ systems.
Deprivation of touch can lead to retarded growth and delayed maturation. When the deprivation occurs very early in the life of an infant, it can even cause death, as research has shown. For example, in a 1915-study of paediatric institutions in the United States, Dr Fritz Talbot and team were perturbed by the high rates of child mortality in the US clinics, but were surprised by low infant mortality rate at the Children’s Clinic at Dusseldorf in Germany. Whereas the conditions of care were fairly similar in both countries, Dr Talbot found one key difference in Dusseldorf: the presence of an aged woman called “Old Anna.” There, when the doctors failed to help a sick infant, they would turn the baby over to Old Anna, who would simply hold the child, carry it around, providing skin-to-skin touch. And that was enough: babies would almost always survive in her hands. Talbot replicated the practice in the US clinics under study and, lo and behold, the infant mortality rate dropped significantly.
When it comes to touch, what is true of physical growth is true of psychological maturation as well. Mental life begins in the very foetal stage with the elementary psychic functioning being dominated by primitive sensory experiences. Didier Anzieu calls this fetal mind “skin-ego.” Upon birth, it is necessary that the mothering person provides what Thomas Ogden calls “skin-to-skin moulding” – be it through breast-feeding or simply holding the baby – so as to provide a sense of self and boundaries of one’s being. We get to know the world around us primarily through touching. Of course, we see and hear realities around us; but those realities do not necessarily have to be close to us to be seen and heard; the closeness of the other is felt when the other is in “touching distance” to us.
Studies have shown that, when requesting help from a stranger, if we gently touch the person, the chances are significantly greater that the person complies to help us. It is a common place experience that any loss or failure is bearable if someone can hug us or simply place one’s arm around our shoulders. Do not lovers spend hours holding hands, without having to speak anything at all? It is a pity that once our children grow up, parents shy away from hugging them, even from touching them. This is especially so in the case of boys and in a conservative society like Kerala. If only the parents hugged their adolescent children more often and on a daily basis, the suicide statistics would have read differently! Research has further shown that in societies low on physical touch, the rates of drug addiction, violence, and cruelty are consistently high. The opposite is true in societies that encourage physical touch. The social evil of untouchability was all about dehumanizing people: we know it from our own painful history.
Even in the creation of human being, God did so by shaping Adam by His touch and an intimate breath. Yet, the Old Testament books of law gave the “do not touch” prohibition around 48 times, making it one of the strongest prohibitions. However, in the New Testament, with the coming of Jesus, this prohibition was turned on its head. Jesus revived the dead by His touch (cf. Mk 5:41); healed the leprosy-affected, the blind, and the sick with intimate touch (e.g., cf. Mt 8:3; Mk 1:31; 7:33-34; 9: 27; Jn 9:1-12). Jesus let Himself be touched as well: The woman with haemorrhage touched Him and was healed (cf. Mk 5:25-34). He touched not only to heal, but to comfort and alleviate fear: When the disciples were stricken with fear at His Transfiguration, Jesus touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid” (Mt 17:7). He laid hands on children, blessing them (cf. Mt 19:13-15). And to top it all, He left Himself in the Eucharistic species wherein we can touch him, hold Him, and eat Him. Andre Dubus, an American writer, explains his belief in the Eucharist thus: “Without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on flesh.” Indeed, the Eucharist is God’s skin-to-skin embrace.
The COVID Prohibition to Touch
Now, posit the above reflection against what we have been living through during these pandemic times: the prohibition to touch. Think of how it affects children, students, couples, parents, friends, the faithful! Not only is the touch prohibited, even physical proximity is viewed with suspicion and fear. This is not to say that the prohibition to touch in these pandemic times is unethical or violation of human rights. On the contrary! Given the nature of the pandemic, we have no choice but to keep away from physical touch. However, it is imperative to reflect on the enormous implications of this necessary – and hopefully temporary – prohibition.
And, the implications of the deprivation of touch must impel us to find ways and means to supply for this deprivation in ways that can compensate it and keep us going as wholesome human beings. In other words, if we cannot touch physically, we must find ways and means to touch mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We must communicate our love and concern for others verbally. A word of appreciation or love or forgiveness spoken with sincerity is an emotional-spiritual hug. Reaching out to connect with long-forgotten relatives and friends is equivalent of touching them. Generally Keralites are reserved in verbal expressions of love and appreciation; perhaps this is the time to correct the deficit. If sacramental participation is difficult, nothing should stop us from daily “touch” of the Word of God by scriptural reading and listening to soulful reflections. Having meals together and praying together (all with sufficient physical distancing) are ways to keep hugging people emotionally and spiritually. Now that we are spending more time at home than at work, holding some “family fair” (leisure time) that can involve risk-free interactions such as sharing of family folklores or listening to each other’s activities of the day or simply sharing humour and laughter can be wonderful ways of touching the souls of one another. Praying for everyone we know by naming them is an excellent way to touch people spiritually. Receiving spiritual communion as many times as possible would be the equivalent of the Eucharistic touch. Given that we are the most creative species on earth, nothing should stop us from finding ways and means to reach out and touch our dear ones emotionally and spiritually. Spending the entire day in one’s private room cut off from everyone else is definitely not one of them (unless you are in quarantine!).
Touch and the Sexual Abuse
Even before the pandemic, we had grown suspicious of touch. This was due to the revelations of sexual abuse, within and outside the Church. What the sexual abuse taught us is the conviction that there is bad touch and good touch, and our children should be educated about them. Of course, the skin is already gifted with the ability to discern various types of touches: Even when people were milling around Him, Jesus knew the moment the sick woman touched Him (cf. Mk 5:30-31). When a medical practitioner touches us, we know that it is a professional touch; but the moment his or her intention is different, we know it too. We just need to make our children conscious of what they already know subconsciously, and more importantly, give them the confidence and the trust to say ‘no’ to bad touch and to report it to their significant others without shame or guilt. What would be disastrous, for us and them, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to denounce all touch as bad or to create a mind suspicious of all touch forever.
Touch is sacred; it is sacramental. It mediates human and divine grace. As therapist Virginia Satir said, “we need four hugs a day for survival; eight hugs a day for maintenance; twelve hugs a day for growth.” Now that we are deprived of these, we know how precious touch is. When the pandemic becomes a mere memory and we can return to being in touching distance with others, let us rediscover the sacramentality of touch and embrace it as our daily bread.
[Fr Paulson Veliyannoor is a Claretian missionary and clinical psychologist. firstname.lastname@example.org]