The other day I was having a conversation with a friend, and he asked how I was faring in this time of uncertainty. I said I was doing all right, but that I have found I really miss handshakes and hugs. He laughed as he found it amusing. I laughed, too, but I still miss the touch of another person.

Michael Luenen,photo

John Keats once said that touch has a memory. I agree. There is a unique reality when two people touch. An intrinsic bond of a shared experience begins the very moment a physical connection is made between two people. Each person brings their own intent yet assimilate together as one when hands touch or a warm embrace is felt — a mutual moment shared between two people. Touch is what sets us apart from everything else; it is the only form of communication inherent in all of us without the need for an interpreter.

Our sense of touch is perpetual. It does not fade into the night as we age like our other senses do. The need to touch, if anything, grows stronger as we get older. We can easily compensate for the loss of other senses using hearing aids and glasses. There is no enhancement that makes our sense of touch better. But the satisfaction achieved with the fulfillment of this essential need — when we comfort one another, express joy or simply to say hello or goodbye — is exponential.

Our need for human touch begins when we are born and stays with us until death. Touch is our spouse, our friend, a constant companion in good and bad.  A world without physical contact would be a world that is cold, uninviting and brutally hard to endure for a species such as ours. Deprivation of touch is akin to a slow death of the soul. As people, we are who we are because of touch. Think about it.

In a blog post written years ago by a 90-year-old woman titled “The Power of Touch,” Rhoda Curtis shared her views on the uniqueness and essential nature of our need to touch. Her words resonated with me more than I could have imagined and no doubt are made more real today with all of us being asked to social distance due to a novel virus. No handshakes, no high-fives, no fist bumps and absolutely no hugs have been really hard because of where I live. In Downeast Maine, I can easily say, along with the abundance of smiles, this place is known for its hugs.

Jude Beck, photo

Curtis writes, “We are born with the need to be touched. If we are not cuddled as babies or children, we do not develop as well. Mammals, also, need to be touched and cuddled as pups. There are many experiments with chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, as well as other monkeys, rats, cats and dogs, which demonstrate dramatically the difference between touched and cuddled as babies and those who are not.”

The late Dr. Saul Schanberg, a neuroscientist and physician with Duke University, spent decades researching touch and its implications to the development of mammals. Over time, he determined touch to be the essential component for human development. “Touch affects the whole organism,” says Schanberg, “It’s ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damn near everything we do. No other sense can arouse you like touch. If touch didn’t feel good, there’d be no species, parenthood or survival.”

Going even further, Curtis says, “Our sense of self is related to our sense of touch; with how we feel. We stroke our forearms; we run our fingers through our hair to relieve stress. And as we age, we need more assurance that we are loved.” For many, this is the grueling aspect of our situation and is why today’s six-feet-apart reality is so very hard for all of us, especially grandparents. Being denied what we all have been accustomed to since we were young is a tough reset in this current game of life.

Gisel Aatje, photo

We are at a precipice in history with a silent invader that does not discriminate in forcing space upon us. Distance is something we are not used to and is an essential obstacle right now. In our daily lives it is a safe splinter we accept in our own way. I think this experience will make us stronger, more resilient and more appreciative of each other. Though normal feels so far away right now, the distance between us today will bring us back together and make those handshakes and hugs feel that much more gratifying tomorrow. It will feel like sunlight on the face after a long, dark night.

© RJ Heller / July 10, 2020

About Author

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer and author. His writing reflects a kindred bond to living Life Downeast along with the occasional Random Thoughts on life and society in general. He is an avid reader and an award-winning book critic, Maine Reads, who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. — “We all take things for granted, life should not be one of them.”

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