My brother handed it to me proudly with a smile on his face. The case looked more tatty than when I had seen it last and the shoulder strap had snapped, hanging down to the floor. As I unbuckled the case and lifted it out carefully – almost reverently – I could see he had looked after it well. It was an old Webley Vulcan .177, an air rifle I had bought when I was just 13 years old. It was my treasured possession for many years when I did target shooting. As the case slid to the floor and I caressed the wood and metal in my hands, I felt an adrenaline rush as vivid flashbacks rushed through my mind.
I was 15 when someone tried to burgle the house at midnight. My parents were away on holiday and I was inside – alone. I could hear someone outside trying to break through the back door. I slid out of bed, grabbed the rifle, loaded it, opened the window, called out a warning (trying to avoid my voice shaking) and fired a shot at a metal bin in the garden. The loud bang reverberated in the dead of night and it startled me as much as them. They fell silent. I closed the window, held my breath and, after a few moments, heard them scrambling over the garage roof to escape into the night.
Why am I sharing this? As leaders, OD, coaches and trainers, we may focus on practical, thinking and feeling aspects of change and lose sight of the impacts of physicality, of environment, of doing-it. It is when I touched and held the rifle that I felt it, that my imagination was triggered. It’s often when we visit a place, meet a real person, do a thing, try something new (rather than think about, reflect on, imagine it, ‘as if’) that startling awareness, insight and ideas rise to the surface. We discover intuitively and viscerally – and it can propel us forward. If we touch something, it touches us.
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.