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The Memory of Touch

April 9, 2020

           As I scour social media these days, I come across various reactions to our global crisis. A hilarious video of a flight attendant “working from home.” Another video of poker aficionados playing for the higher-than-ever stakes of toilet paper rolls. Inventive sayings and song covers like Chris Mann’s take on Madonna’s “Vogue” called “Stay Home, Vogue.” The instrumentalists of the Colorado Symphony performing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from their homes. Photos and stories about acts of kindness and heroism, paintings, videos of singing from balconies and living rooms. This is humanity transcending the crisis to offer solace, smiles, wisdom, and the reassurance of being in universal company. If these reactions fail to give hope in the future of humanity, then I don’t know what will. Certainly not the doom-and-gloom prophecies that pervade social media alongside the expressions of optimism. Will this crisis transform us irrevocably? Absolutely. Will it change the nature of our personal and professional interactions? Undoubtedly. But the metamorphosis we choose to predict is, above all, a reflection of our own natures, and to a certain degree, of our conditioning.

            I am an optimist. This characteristic has been called “naïve” by pessimists who advertise their pessimism as “realism.” They are those “realists” who make a point of telling us how everything truly stands, and especially how dire it will all turn out. Some have predicted that, as a consequence of our isolation and the warnings not to touch anything or anyone, we will lose the desire for physical contact. We will fear to touch and be touched.

            Really?

            Just yesterday, walking outside, I saw a neighbor embrace another neighbor. “We’re risking it,” they said. Irresponsible? Yes. But what this reaffirmed for me was that the impulse for affection and physical contact is alive and well. I thought of how much more we will appreciate kisses and hugs, pats on the back and walking arm-in-arm, making love and dancing cheek-to-cheek, holding hands, shaking hands, kissing hands, wrapping arms around shoulders of friends and loved ones, sitting side by side glued together in conversation. How much richer will affection and tenderness and the physical expression of our feelings become for us!

            Touch is the first sense we acquire. Before birth, we experience the sensation of touch as the amniotic fluid in the womb amplifies the vibrations of our mother’s heartbeats. As we enter the world, our tolerance level for touching and physical closeness is determined by our mothers’ capacity for affection, and by the environment at home. In time, touch develops into more than a sense, and becomes an instinctive language that we can use to communicate and decipher emotions. Psychologist, professor, and author Matthew Hertenstein conducted a study of people attempting to communicate various emotions through touch to a group of blindfolded strangers. The results were astounding. The blindfolded participants understood the emotions being communicated with a 78% accuracy rate, which indicated that, even as total strangers, those doing the touching and those being touched shared the same language. Hertenstein has concluded that compared to speech, facial expressions, and body language, “touch is a more nuanced, sophisticated, and precise way to communicate emotions.” Naturally, tolerance levels for touching vary from culture to culture and person to person. Some people eschew the touch of others, while others may be labeled too “touchy-feely.” Needless to say, touch can also be taken in horrifying directions that determine one’s comfort level with it. The language of touch is, at once, a powerful, delicate, and pervasive influence on our lives.

            This is my own prediction: isolation in the time of Covid will not annihilate our capacity for physical connection. On the contrary, the expansion of mental and emotional bonding through technological means that is happening these days while we are suppressing the much-desired face-to-face meetings, will make our physical contact that much more meaningful when we will, at last, be able to meet, whether that contact is a formal handshake or an act of love. “Touch has a memory,” as John Keats wrote in a poem, and yes, he was referring to the sensual memory of a love that he wanted to forget. But I would like to embrace this phrase as the motto of my faith that not only will we never forget how to touch, but the act of touching will never forget us. It is as inextricable to us as our skin. When used in positive, encouraging, bonding, nurturing ways, it will remain a fundamental and enriching mode of communication in our connection to one another, no matter how long and arduous our separation.