It is more than a dozen years now since he spoke in a college chapel. It was a September evening, the start of a new academic year, his audience were very attentive. His father had died during the long vacation, and he reflected on his experiences coping with the funeral and the sense of grief he felt. He was a man in his early sixties, so his father must have been someone born around the time of the First World War, if not before. He looked at the assembled faces and said, “do you know, I do not remember a single time in my life when my father gave me a hug.” It seemed an intensely sad moment that has lingered in the memory since; for an experienced academic to share such a thought must have meant the lack of expressions of affection from his father had been significant for him since the days of his childhood more than half a century before.
Touch is the most basic of human senses, it is the most basic form of human communication, to be deprived of touch is to be deprived of love. Stories from Ireland’s appalling Mother and Baby homes tell of the mothers of newborn children being forbidden to cuddle their children; they could feed them, but shows of affection were prohibited because physical contact would build bonds of love.
Our retreat into a world where communication is almost exclusively online, and where the only reality is increasingly a virtual one, threatens our welfare as human beings. It is a sensory deprivation that impoverishes our lives, leaves us without the very thing that has bound us together since the brief history of homo sapiens began.
Real friendships and real relationships are built on our physical presence, on communication made through touch; touch ranging from the handshake of business associates to the bodily embrace of lovers. Touch communicates at a level inaccessible to the words of even the most articulate of people. When someone is enduring grief or emotional pain, there is no vocabulary that is remotely comparable to the feeling conveyed in a single hug. Touch is sometimes a confession of our inarticulacy, an honest admission that we have no words adequate to the occasion.
If touch conveys a sense of being present with a person, if it is the means of expressing affection or love, if it is all we can do to express sympathy or concern, then to be without touch can be to experience a great sense of loneliness. The death of a partner, the end of a relationship, the rupture of a friendship, it is in the physical that loss may be most keenly felt. Just a touch says something for which we have no words.