Why Touching People Is Essential

A precious woman in my life finds herself in widowhood earlier than she anticipated. She lives alone now–something she’s never done. My friend’s main love language is physical touch (hugs) and she gives great ones. When this corona-virus quarantining isolation started up, I asked her if she wanted us to stay away and she emphatically said “no”. She needed to see precious people, touch them, hug them and be near to them. There are worse things than getting sick and dying.

Another dear sister in the Lord is single; she lives alone and works mostly by herself. Her church has stopped meeting in person and her community group Zooms instead of sitting together on a couch. Her neighbors and friends keep their distance. Seeing a face and hearing a voice over a screen ministers to us, but is not nearly close to the way a gentle hand on the shoulder or a warm embrace will help us.

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“She’s 98. And the isolation and loneliness came over her in a river of tears at my visit. Not able to see her son or daughter for 6 weeks. She wants to die. Because at 98 the waiting is too much. I offered to FaceTime her son. She cried more. She wanted a real hug. I in my PPE said enough. I too bent over into her arms she wrapped so tight around me. I broke the rule. I hugged her till she could breathe. We both had a healing. I’d do it again. Love matters most. The older folks in long term care haven’t been touched or hugged. It’s causing failure to thrive. Hugs are a necessary part of living.” – shared from a nurse

Spiritually, loving touch is a part of what it looks like to walk and talk as Jesus did. He didn’t just send the Holy Spirit as an aberration to waive away our sinful status, but He sent His Son as a human, in bodily form, to live and move and eat and walk beside us. He got in the dirty mess with us. He didn’t remain aloof or distant, but reached out to us in tangible ways.

“And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” Matthew 8:3

In Matthew 8, Jesus and his disciples encounter a leper. Because of the extreme contagious nature (and fatal guarantee of their diseases), lepers lived outside the city, and people gave them a wide berth.

Jesus didn’t have to touch the man to heal him; he could have said, “Stay back. I will cleanse you from here.” But He didn’t. In his touching of the leper, He showed His disciples that He was over all, that He cleanses us and makes us new and that we don’t have to live in fear and isolation. The disciples didn’t have to be afraid because He had given them the same authority and power from on high to cast out demons and to heal those afflicted.

“How many years had it been since someone had hugged this man? How many years had it been since someone had done something as simple as give his shoulder a loving squeeze? How many years do you think it had been since this man had been touched? Jesus knows this and so he put out his hand and touched him. In fact, the word is much stronger than just a touch. The Greek could literally be translated, Jesus took hold of him. Jesus could have healed the man without touching him. He does it all the time in the Gospels. He can heal with just a word. He can heal from a great distance, without a word and without any touch. But Jesus knows that this leper needs love just as much if not more than he needs healing. Oh, the healing will be wonderful, but what he really needs is love” (Jeremy Myers, Touching the Untouchables).

Psychologically speaking, we also need human contact for mental and emotional stability. Babies need to be regularly held and children need to be hugged and cuddled. Doing so helps the body and brain to develop in healthy ways. Likewise, adults need hugs (even if, like me, physical touch isn’t your primary love language). Psychologist Jennifer Delgado states our need this way: “[…] we could live without hugs, but it would be like dying slowly, a little every day. About this, family therapist Virginia Satir said: 

“We need four hugs a day to survive, eight hugs to keep us as we are and 12 hugs to grow”.

“When someone hugs us, the physical contact activates the pressure receptors that we have in our skin, which are also known as Pacinian corpuscles, and respond mainly to deep pressure. These receptors immediately send signals to the vagus nerve.

“At that point, we begin to feel good because that nerve is connected with nerve fibers that reach different cranial nerves and play an important role in the regulation of most of the key functions of the body, including blood pressure. Therefore, as a result of a hug and vagus nerve stimulation, the heart rate and blood pressure decrease. Actually, the vagus nerve plays an important role in the parasympathetic system, which represents a kind of handbrake when we are under stress or overexcited” (How Many Hugs Do We Need a Day?).

Hugs temper stress, alleviate mood disorders, and boost our immune systems. We aren’t just hugging out of formality or friendship. We are hardwired to need healthy and loving touch from other human beings.

” Michael Murphy, Ph.D., post-doctoral research associate at the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, says it’s because touch deactivates the part of the brain that responds to threats, and in turn fewer hormones are released to signal a stress response, and your cardiovascular system experiences less stress.“In other words, it’s linked to less of a ‘fight-or-flight’ response to stressful situations,” Murphy explains, adding that theorists believe interpersonal touch can modulate oxytocin (a feel-good hormone also known as “the cuddle chemical”) and the endogenous opioid system (neurons in the brain that can produce soothing chemicals), both of which can boost health. “Feeling safer and cared for, in turn, can make us less sensitive to physical pain and less reactive when faced with potentially threatening experiences, especially socially threatening experiences,” he says” (Health Benefits of Hugging).

So, when people say, “You are not allowed to hug or embrace here,” I would respond with, “Does the person seeking the hug need it? Do they want to be touched and embraced?” If the answer is ‘yes,’ then the need is self-evident and the freedom should not be squelched. It’s sad to me that that need for Christian fellowship must take place outside of the confines of a church building instead of being encouraged within it.

After all, the Law commanded that Jesus not touch the leper and yet, He knew what the leper really needed and Jesus embraced the man.

***I recognize that my thoughts and convictions aren’t held by every believer; I know many are trying to act out of a heart of love and do what they think is best, and for many, we are navigating gray waters. I am just encouraging us as the Church to continue to seek those who are struggling and not be afraid to go against the current to reach out to those who are isolated and hurting. We all need to know (in spiritual, emotional, and tangible ways) that we matter. The timeless question still applies: What did Jesus do?

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