I’ll begin with a confession. One known only by a small handful of my closest friends but one that I will share with you today as it pertains to this subject.
When I was younger, still in my last few years of high school, I could not stand to be touched except under specific circumstances. Any touch apart from that just really freaked me out. Shaking hands was sort of ‘ok’.. but I usually found a way to avoid even that. A hug from a family member, that was on the acceptable list as I come from a very warm and affectionate family. But apart from these narrow parameters it somehow was of high priority that I make it through the day without being physically touched. Who knows.. perhaps that was the reason why the only sports I felt comfortable with were tennis, chess and a bit of track.. no touching involved.
As I grew older, a whole new world opened up for me when I got married. That was my sanctuary. An environment with one person with whom I could liberally enjoy the sensation of touch. “Loving, touching, squeezing.. each other.”, as Journey put it so succinctly. Well, when I found myself single again some ten years later.. I found myself in a bit of a quandry. My previous anxieties regarding physical contact came back to haunt me yet at the same time I had this accrued appetite if you will for intimate contact with one, exclusive person. It was a difficult transition for a few years. I would break into a cold sweat at the very necessity of going in for a haircut. I would often pay for the full service but refuse to allow some woman to touch me while washing my hair. My entire body would go rigid while my mind tried to escape somewhere else as I got my haircut.
I confronted this paranoia repeatedly and despite many cold sweats and panic attacks, I eventually got to where I accepted the fact that I wasn’t going to die if the haircutter came into contact with me while washing my hair. On my own I had made significant progress. In the meanwhile, I was always affectionate with my own sons, my immediate family and even more so with my close friends. After twenty years since being a seventeen year old who bolted away from a girl who tried to give me a back rub.. I had finally let go of my issues with the sense of touch to arrive at something I’d like to call ‘normal’. (Whatever ‘normal’ is.) I’ll hug friends, strangers.. I’m fine with it now.
What I have come to appreciate through this long experience is the intensity of communication that comes with touch. Think of it as a blind person that spent thirty years slowly coming to regain full vision. Those of you who have had eye laser surgery can relate to the amazing ‘newness’ of the world around you when you suddenly really ‘see’ everything through new eyes. Similarly, for me, I find so much communication in any occaison where touching is involved. Which brings me to my point in all this.
In my lifetime, I have been ‘robbed’ by more vending machines than by any actual human beings, even though I deal with humans far more frequently than with vending machines. And so it has been with the difference between words and touch, in my own experiences. I find it almost impossible to figure out when someone is either lying to me or being insincere with their words. I just accept the fact that I am ‘slow’ in this particular skill. So, like any other living creature.. I compensate in other areas to make up for it. Since I cannot rely on words or even my perceptions of someone’s actions, I instead rely upon eyes, tone and touch. Perhaps you do as well and have not realized it as a conscious effort.
For me, words have always had high importance. I try to choose my words in a very specific manner when I communicate. And so, I also make the mistake of thinking everyone else holds words in the same high regard. Despite years of evidence that should have swayed me to think otherwise by now.. I still give people the benefit of the doubt, that they really do mean the words they use. But what I’m really ‘listening’ for is what I see in their eyes when we speak. Even in the most common of conversations.. there is a world of communication I gather from the minor nuances of a person’s eye movements as they speak. I’ve met people who cannot, absolutely -cannot- hold a conversation with anyone looking into their eyes. (I tend to make those people a bit uncomfortable, as you can imagine.)
And then there is tone. Has anyone ever told you, “It’s not what you said, but the way you said it?”. As powerful as words are, the ‘tone’ in which they are spoken can act as a catalyst to compound the impact multi-fold. For better, or for worse. There is, that I know of anyway, no exact science to any of this. But I do know there is a tone that resonates through a conversation. We each can usually pick up from a person that a conversation is hurried, full of anxiety, joy or sorrow. Two simple words, “Love you.”, can bring either heart-warming reassurance or the realization of love lost that can hurt to the very bone. There is a certain pitch, a rythm, if you will that can put us into a completely defensive mindset. It might come from a salesman approaching you while you cross a parking lot. It might come from the stranger who is intent on hitting on you. But you know that sound when you hear it.. no matter how well couched the words may be, you know that sound.
And finally, there is the subject at hand.. that of touch. Some people are good at diverting your attention from their eyes with distracting hand motions or body positioning. Some people are naturally well versed in feigning sincerity with the tone of their voice. But for all that the eyes and voice may be saying.. there is a communication via touch that speaks volumes.
Now, just as wearing sunglasses with pink lenses will make the world seem rosey.. perceiving ‘touch’ from someone else with preconceptions will lead you just as much astray. But I believe it is most difficult to hide one’s intentions when touch is involved. All the more so when we have a baseline to work with. Consider friends that know each other for some time. Or lovers, spouses, family we come into actual ‘contact’ with on a regular basis. We know the difference between a sincere touch of reassurance and a hurried, insincere obligitory pat on the back. We know the difference between a kiss that holds joy and passion, no matter how brief that kiss may be.. from the kiss that has lost all love behind it. It may be with the softest, gentlest touch in the first ten minutes of meeting someone that you can convey it was -truly- a joy to have met them. And, of course, in intimacy.. there is the huge difference between an exploration of sensory, passionate touching.. and that of simply running through the motions.
There is a common prayer that ends with the words, “..grant me the wisdom to know the difference.”. Over the years I’ve come to learn that some people are simply very ‘touchy’ people in an affectionate, loving way. And they are that way with Everyone. Whether they are meeting men, women, old people, babies, strangers.. they have lots of love and affection to go around. And that’s great, so long as you don’t read into it for something that it’s not. Several times I’ve had my whole day consumed with interpreting a woman’s kiss on the cheek that came out of nowhere. It made more sense when I compared it to her ‘baseline’ and saw that it is simply how she is with everyone.. it wasn’t something of special significance towards me in particular. Different people have different comfort levels in regards to touch and affection. Mine began very restrictive, now it is more giving.. but it took me time. For many, it simply never was an issue.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, “The Four Loves” put forth that the clarifying distinction between friends and lovers is that difference between ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘exclusivity’. As he put it, Friends are a group of two or more who all stand shoulder to shoulder walking towards their common interests that they share. However, Lovers is a matter of -only- two who stand face-to-face, joyfully and exclusively looking into one another. I believe the same goes for touch. We have certain parameters of ‘touching’ we operate in with our friends. And then there are manners of touch that we only share with a lover(spouse). We can try to think we’ve evolved to the point that we think we can somehow ‘mesh’ the two together (the infamous ‘friends-with-benefits’ scenario). And I’m sure many people have found an ‘acceptable’ arrangement which seems to cram that square peg into the round hole. But even at that, gravity is always pulling it to be defined. Eventually one of the partners wants to know, “Are we friends.. or is this going somewhere?”
Years ago I read of an experiment in which young, twin monkeys were separated at birth from their mother. One was raised in a cage alone with a furry, stuffed animal that it was raised with as a surrogate mother. The other was raised identically, but the surrogate mother was a bundle of wires that had been wrapped and twisted to resemble the shape of a monkey. Obviously the stuffed animal was furry and soft while the metal-wire figure was cold and unappealing. After a year the monkey raised with the stuffed/furry animal made a normal transition into the rest of the tribe. However the monkey raised with the wire-figure was violent and took longer to blend into the tribe, often preferring to be alone and attacking when approached. This study had a profound impact on me and impressed upon me as a young parent the importance of hugs and touch to express the love I have for my children.
The same is true for me when in a relationship. Those passing touches, in so many and varied ways, can communicate so much. And what it communicates is something we desire from our deepest core. To be reassured we are ‘together’. To be reassured we consider each other as priceless, loved.. touch speaks this in ways that we need apart from speech, eyes and tone.
A man by the name of R.W. Sockman made a statement that has been imprinted in my mind since I first read it almost twenty years ago. He stated, “Strength is measured in it’s ability to be gentle.” The greater invention is not the machine that can move large boulders.. but rather the machines that can perform assisted surgery on the most microscopic portions of the human body. Any man can inflict damage with his fists to another human being. But real strength is found in the man who can convey love with the touch of one fingertip to the cheek of his beloved.
It is my sadness that too many people take actual pride in making a beast of themselves. Choosing our words with forethought takes effort. Minding the tone we speak in requires a sense of tact. Whether we are to be a good friend to our friends, a good parent to our kids, or convey the love we feel to our lover.. it takes a conscious effort. But it is such a gift we are able to give as a reassuring hand to a friend’s shoulder, a heartfelt embrace with our children or a caress to our beloved that can make all the difference between either existing as brute beasts or living our lives as caring human beings.
Henry Velez is a writer, traveler and vlogger currently living in the Philippines. He has written extensively on social issues, relationships and travel.