By Lee Snyder
Although we had been getting together for five years, the members of our small group still had trouble carrying on a normal conversation. Vicki and I started the Bible study group in our home with 10 or 12 people, and we met each week except in the summer. All of us learned a lot about the Word and a little about each other. After half a decade, though, we still felt a certain reserve with each other.
Recently, we tried again. This time, our Bible study lasted only three months. Yet, at the end of the time, people were relaxed, joking, and sharing spiritual concerns with each other.
What made the difference? Perhaps it was that I quietly resolved to touch each person who attended, once when they arrived and again when they left. This human touch is manifested in a handshake, help putting on a coat, a hug, or an arm around the shoulder. Touch helped me communicate what I felt for the friends who blessed our home with their presence. My willingness to touch eventually spread among the other members.
Human and Humane
I have to admit, touch is not my favorite means of communication. Many people, especially men, are nervous about touching or being touched. In the United States, parents teach children to suspect strangers; avoiding touch is part of the caution we all exercise just in order to survive. Conversely, we know others may misinterpret when we touch. So, for the most part, we live without touch, which means we are more isolated and lonelier than we have to be.
We forget touch is both human and humane. Mother cats and cows both lick their newborns to help them survive. More relevant is the fact that scientists have learned that human babies also need a loving touch; otherwise, their brains simply do not develop properly.
In a cold world full of distant people, much of our human contact is virtual, which means we need touch more than ever. High school students in South Korea who use their cell phones the most—more than 90 times a day!—are also those who show the most signs of depression and anxiety. Presumably, they are looking for wireless friendship and high-tech encouragement.
In the United States, high school students spend an hour a day on their cell phones. In Manhattan, lonely people pay $30 each to attend “cuddle parties,” where they huddle innocently with others who hunger for human contact. My wife attends church in a town 33 miles away because Christians there love her with their hugs as well as their words.
The need for touch is universal, especially among the aged and the sick. Jesus touched lepers even though his culture taught they should have no human contact. Jesus risked offending his host by allowing a woman of low reputation to touch him (Luke 7:39).
Do we have “lepers” today, despised people whom everyone else is afraid to touch? People with AIDS are seldom touched, and nursing home residents are neglected in the same way. Perhaps Jesus’ body may still reach out a healing hand.
Touch has a variety of religious meanings. In the Bible, touch was so intimate it was part of the ritual of taking an oath. By touch, the sins of the Israelites were delegated to a scapegoat. Today, when our church wants to set apart elders or preachers, we have representatives of the congregation place their hands on them. This is our way of playing spiritual tag, of saying, “Now it’s your turn to run the race.”
Both in and out of the church, a friendly touch removes barriers between people. If the waitperson in a restaurant gives you a gentle pat on the shoulder, you generally tip more. Speakers use touch, too. The next time you have to speak to an audience you do not know, arrive early and shake hands with as many people as you can. You will be more comfortable speaking to them because you are no longer a stranger.
So if you are a “touch” person, may I suggest you stop feeling guilty about it and enjoy your gift? On the other hand, if you are like me and have a cooler temperament, try to get over it. Touch is a warm, humane way of expressing affection and letting down defenses with people you trust. People on the same team, whether they are playing football or bowling, encourage each other with the language of touch—not necessarily limited to just a pat on the back!
Let me suggest a couple of cautions gleaned from students of haptics, the study of touch.
First, like all nonverbal communication, touch can carry more than one meaning. If another person holds your hand, you may interpret that touch as encouragement, friendship, or romance. So if touching people at church brings you the wrong kind of warmth, you’d better avoid temptation! Instead, follow Paul’s advice to Timothy. He told his protege to treat younger Christians like his sisters and brothers and to treat older ones like his parents (1 Timothy 5:1, 2). That attitude should eliminate any romantic overtones from your tactile communication.
Second, recognize that touch is used differently in various cultures. In Kenya, adult brothers hold hands when they walk together. In England, people touch very little. In the United States, black people communicate by touch more than white people do, and northerners less than southerners.
Finally, some people simply are uncomfortable being touched, so respect their feelings. They may love the brotherhood passionately but distantly. A friend confessed to me that she disliked worship because her congregation practiced the habit of “passing the peace” (embracing or shaking hands) as part of the liturgy. This attitude is understandable because a hug is a sign of affection that we reserve for people we know well, not for strangers. When someone fails to make eye contact or shrinks from your touch, you know that person is not comfortable with that kind of communication.
The Great Communicator
Now that I’ve offered some cautions, let me encourage you to use this rich medium. Nothing else communicates sympathy so effectively as touch. When I was a young minister, I arrived at the hospital just after a woman lost a family member. I stood there in discomfort, not knowing what to say to her under these sad circumstances. When an older minister who also knew her arrived, I listened to hear what he’d say. He spoke no words—he simply held her and wept with her. That kind of touch heals and consoles better than most words can.
Touch shows acceptance, which is not necessarily the same as approval. When we are angry or disgusted with someone, we immediately withdraw from them. (Remember how little boys avoid touching girls so they won’t catch cooties?) Research in haptics shows that positive attitudes go with touch and negative ones accompany withdrawal from touch. It is good for people haunted with guilt to come to church and still find a smile and a warm welcome. Remember, the father welcomed his prodigal by “falling on his neck.” How long has it been since you hugged your own kids, regardless of their age? Do you hold them while you pray for them, as Jesus did the little children?
In short, touch helps Christians say, “We have time for you. . . . We are cheering for you to win,” or “No matter what you’ve done or who you are, we want you to enjoy with us the grace of Christ.”
When I discussed these ideas with a young friend, he commented, “Cool! The church is the new bowling alley!” To a world that is rich in images but poor in human contact, the church family offers the warm comfort of Jesus’ touch as well as the high-five of victory.
Lee Snyder is professor of rhetorical studies at the University of Nebraska in Kearney.