Friday, May 30, 2008

The Absence Of Touch

A simple experiment was once conducted to try and understand the effect that touch has on the mood and experience of an individual. The exercise consisted of nothing more than a librarian checking out books for users of the library, and an individual stationed outside of the library to interview the clients as they exited the building. The librarian was instructed to (with her own hand) lightly brush the hand of some of the people as she was returning their library card to them. The slight touch was to appear to be inadvertent, and barely perceptible at all. And for others she was instructed to make no physical contact whatsoever. Then as the people exited the library they were stopped outside and asked to discuss their library experience. No mention was made of them being touched, or not touched, by the librarian. And they made no mention of it either. As expected, those who were touched were probably not even aware that any touching had taken place.

But the remarkable thing is that there was such an enormous difference between how the two groups of people viewed the library experience. Those who were not touched invariably described the experience as OK, not great. Kind of cold and institutional really. Quiet, kind of intimidating. Just a library. But those who were touched described it as a warm and friendly place. A good experience. A comfortable place to be. They felt good about it. Unbelievably, these kinds of comments were consistent across the board with the touched and the untouched.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that we, as individuals, need touch in our lives. Not only do we seek it out, much like a thirsty man seeks water, but we de-hydrate emotionally without it. Touch plays an enormous part in how we see and experience the world around us. It helps frame our perspective, our point of view, our sense of well-being, and even our self-esteem. Understanding this, I became a licensed massage therapist way back in the early 80’s. I practiced periodically over the years, but ultimately gave up the practice because of unwelcome circumstances related to touching strangers in intimate settings. Nothing too salacious, more a matter of wanting to reserve those kinds of affections for the one I love. But being in, and part of, the profession enabled me to see, even more clearly, how desperately lonely, and needy, people become because of the absence of touch in their lives. Pimps and prostitutes understand this dynamic very well, and exploit it to their own benefit. Many business people do as well, touching clients as a means of making them feel connected in order to gain a business advantage over them. Kind of a dishonest use of touch, but nevertheless, effective. The fact is, people can have sex with themselves, but the touch of another human being is a necessity that few people can live without. And if they do, they are usually not functioning at their most optimum level. We live in a culture (The U.S.) that constantly promotes sex, but has never been considered to be a touching culture. We are more concerned with protecting ourselves than with being physically magnanimous. In fact, in our society we tend to grow up learning to protect our own space rather than learning to share it. And it carries over to our physical habits and behaviors.

I recently had a brief conversation with someone I care very much about. She was mentioning how a couple we both know are always touching each other, holding hands, wrapped around each other, little touches and rubs etc., but always some kind of physical involvement. She was mentioning it because she perceived it as kind of odd, or uncomfortable, behavior. I can’t remember her exact words, and I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but that was the overall tone of the conversation. She also stated that she and her husband rarely touch each other, and as I look back I recall very few times I can ever remember seeing that kind of affection between them. It made me kind of sad. I like to see the couple she mentioned touching each other. It shows me a communication, a passion and a trust that I find healthy and inspiring. I believe the with-holding of touch is actually a with-holding of trust, and a need to not give up any of one’s own power to another. I think trust enables one to share power. And both the giver and the recipient benefit greatly from the exchange.

I know this from having lived for many years with The Absence of Touch.