The Power of Touch
I wonder what it was that the Christ child first touched. Was it a strand of hay from the animal feeding trough he was laid in? A tiny hand reaching out and brushing against the dry grass. Was it his mother’s skin, his soft palm against his mothers breast as she held him close? Isn’t this an astounding wonder when we take the time to consider it? That Immanuel – God himself, God with us – could touch with human hands?
Touch has been something that many of us have missed during 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic has led to us withdrawing touch and physical contact in a way that we could not have imagined at this time last year. Who could have imagined that we would not have been able to hug our loved ones, put an arm around a distressed friend, or even shake hands as a greeting? If we had been told that we would need to keep two metres apart from others, except for our own household or ‘bubble’, we would have been astonished, and dismayed once the news sank in.
We believe that a day will come when we can once again hug our friends, put a reassuring hand on someone’s shoulder, and high-five another without even thinking about it.
Touch is something we need. It’s essential to our health – both physical and mental. A BBC Article from April, during the first lockdown, quoted Prof Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, who said that:
“The sort of more intimate touching – arm round the shoulder, a pat on the arm and these kind of things reserved for closer friendships and family members – are really important,” he says. They make us feel happier, satisfied and trusting of others.”
Psychology professor, Dacher Keltner wrote in 2010:
“A pat on the back, a caress of the arm—these are everyday, incidental gestures that we usually take for granted, thanks to our amazingly dexterous hands. But after years spent immersed in the science of touch, I can tell you that they are far more profound than we usually realize: They are our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion.”
In 2020 we have withdrawn touch to protect one another from the virus. As hard as it is, most of us recognise that it is kind and caring to not have the usual physical contact that we usually take for granted. We also believe it is temporary. We believe that a day will come when we can once again hug our friends, put a reassuring hand on someone’s shoulder, and high-five another without even thinking about it.
Men, women and children who contract leprosy are often so feared by their families that they are starved of touch.
For the millions of people affected by leprosy, touch was often withdrawn from them many years ago, and this loss of touch is far from temporary. I am reminded of the woman so feared and rejected by her family and community that she was reduced to living in a goat shed, shut out of all human warmth and kindness. Men, women and children who contract leprosy are often so feared by their families that they are starved of touch. There are no warm cuddles for children, and no compassionate hugs from friends. Unlike the measures we are taking to protect each other from Covid-19, this withdrawal of touch is not grounded in science. Leprosy is not spread through touch.
When Jesus touched the man with leprosy in Mark 1: 40-45 he broke all the rules! The man was immediately physically healed but I also believe he was mentally and emotionally healed. That’s perhaps why he couldn’t keep it to himself! The compassionate touch of the Son of God said, ‘You are accepted, precious, and loved. You belong. You are not rejected, you are not excluded, and I do not fear you.’ If our human touch is powerful, imagine the power of the physical touch of God himself!
This Christmas across The Leprosy Mission we will be following in the footsteps of Jesus, reaching out with hands of love and compassion to give the precious gift of touch. Our physiotherapists will be touching and massaging hands and feet that are stiff and paralysed. Our surgeons will be touching tiny, delicate tendons in the hands and feet during reconstructive surgery. Our nursing teams will hold the hands of patients who are afraid, dress wounds and ulcers, and put reassuring hands on the shoulders of those who are newly diagnosed with leprosy.
It is the gifts of money given by supporters across Scotland that will enable loving, healing touch to be given to people affected by leprosy this Christmas. Thank you for your kindness, compassion and generosity. We pray that you will be blessed just as you are blessing others.