Touch is so difficult, so awkward, so suspect even, in British culture. We’ve relegated physical contact to analogy, to expressing it in words. ‘I felt touched when you did that’, ‘let’s stay in contact’, ‘that really moved me’. We say to our children, ‘look – but don’t touch’. In fact, even looking is a bit tricky. It’s as if looking, really looking, constitutes an extension of touch, an invasion of space.
When was last time you really looked at someone, gazed at them intently, studied their features, their body, their movement, without you or they feeling acutely embarrassed? ‘Don’t look – it’s rude to stare!’ It’s a cultural thing, we learn from our earliest experiences what is acceptable, what kind of behaviours will bring punishment, awkwardness, surprise, fulfilment or reward.
So it is with touch. We have unwritten rules about what constitutes appropriate touch, exacerbated by a desire to prevent inappropriate contact with children or other vulnerable people. And so we don’t touch. We live lives largely devoid of contact, of the joy, support and healing that can come from a simple touch, a feeling of tangible human contact that bridges the space between us.
I remember visiting my parents a few years ago. In my family, we certainly didn’t touch. It would feel awkward, embarrassing. But I decided to hug each of my parents on arrival. They looked shocked, it felt rigid, stiff, difficult – but they didn’t push away. I persevered each time we met or I left, until the time came when they protested if I left without giving them that now traditional embrace.
And I’m reminded of how often Jesus touched people, often in surprising ways and with unexpected impacts. He didn’t just work miracles through words, connect with people from what we would regard as a safe distance. He touched people physically and, in doing so, touched them at a profound human, deeply spiritual level, resulting in transformational experience and effect.
We have cultural norms and boundaries, often with good reason to safeguard people and relationships. It’s sometimes about protecting ourselves from embarrassment, hurt or rejection. Often it’s a matter of unquestioned reserve, a cultural heritage we inherit as children and perpetuate through our own beliefs and actions. So, reader, what do you think? Let’s keep in touch.
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.