Last week, I left my office flicking away a few tears after a particularly long, exhausting day. I wasn’t upset about anything that happened at work or elsewhere. The tears weren’t about tasks.
No, after several weeks of burying myself in work and way too many evening and weekend commitments, I was feeling overwhelmed. I wanted the comfort of physical touch. I wanted to be held.
My response wasn’t unusual. Physical touch is important and among our most basic of human needs. When met, our bodies release oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin (the “feel good” chemicals) and cortisol, the stress hormone, is inhibited. The benefits of touch include lowered stress, pain and inflammation. Our immune systems strengthen, we relax, and we may experience less symptoms of anxiety and depression. In other words, humans are generally healthier, both physically and emotionally, when appropriately and generously touched.
Society’s bookends – the very young and the elderly – are particularly at risk if not given adequate touch and human connection. We’ve heard that neglected infants can develop “failure to thrive.” Babies need to bond with a parent or guardian in the critical first five years. This includes lots of holding, eye contact and verbal affirmation. Without these interactions, they are likely to experience social deficits and setbacks in development.
In nursing homes, caregivers are trained to provide touch therapy alongside standard medical care, placing their hand on a patient’s shoulder or arm when communicating, or extending the length of a handshake or pat on the back. Such contact is vital for senior citizens, particularly if they are widowed, their families live far away or visits are few and far between. A hug a day is recommended. In fact, our need for touch is so vital, that it’s been dubbed “skin hunger.”
Singles Need Touch, Too
Young adults aren’t exempt. For single adults past the age of living at home with parents or the communal life of college residence halls, opportunities for touch are rare. We can go weeks or months without touch beyond casual business or introductory handshakes. Unless we have children of our own or family members that live nearby, it just doesn’t happen.
We live in a culture that values independence, privacy and personal space. We like to leave seats between ourselves and the people next to us on buses, in movie theaters and in restaurants. We can be so touch-averse that we bristle if someone brushes up against us. Public displays of affection, even when appropriate, can make us cringe. We also have to overcome the social stigma against physical touch between friends of the same sex or between men and women who are not romantically involved.
Our lack of positive, healthy and meaningful touch can lead to dysfunction. John Piper describes the story of a single woman who would purposely harm herself so she’d have to visit the emergency room, knowing that she would be touched by personnel as they dressed her wounds.
Although that’s an extreme example, did you know that “professional cuddlers” exist? People are paying to cuddle with another human being in businesses across the United States. While I would never frequent this type of establishment nor recommend it to others, I can understand the need underneath the patrons’ decision. Unless we’re grounded in our identity, we’re going to look toward questionable outlets to connect physically.
God Used Physical Touch
The first touch recorded in the Bible is God creating Adam and Eve with His hands. Whereas the other steps of creation were spoken into existence, with humans it was different. The experience was close, personal and hands-on. In Genesis 1:26, the triune God decides to make humankind “in our image, after our likeness.” The word “make” implies crafting with one’s hands. Adam is formed from the dust of the ground, and Eve is created or made from Adam’s rib, fashioned by God.
Whereas the Levitical laws of the Old Testament prohibited touch in a variety of circumstances, making strict distinctions between what was clean and unclean, the story changes in Christ, our forever fulfillment of the law. We see examples throughout the New Testament of Him touching people and allowing others to touch Him, restoring health and healing to lepers, a blind man, the dead and a woman with an issue of blood. We read of Jesus freely welcoming children into His arms. He even instructs the disciples, including a skeptical Thomas, to touch the open wounds in His resurrected body.
In Giving, We Receive
We need physical touch, and we have a model in Jesus of what is appropriate, generous and pure, so what do we do? We meet that need in others.
When we see a friend who could use a hug and an encouraging word, we provide it. If we sense God prompting us to get up and walk over to someone sitting alone in church and sit by them, we do it. If the person we’re dating responds best to physical touch, feeling safe and secure when we grab their hand, that simple action can be important.
We don’t give to receive, but God honors generosity and provides for His people. We ask Him to create in us a pure heart and renew a right spirit within us, so that we come to all of our acquaintances and relationships clean, with pure motives. Then, we trust Him to meet our own needs as He sees fit.
“One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” (Proverbs 11:24-25)
In a lonely and mixed-up culture, let’s be Christians who are wise and discerning about physical touch, but also quick to see needs in others and meet them, knowing how vital is it to be warmly embraced, included and incorporated. Young and old, married and single, we all need the powerful, life-giving human connection of touch.