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Touch and Go: Contemporary Relationships


Stephen Willats: How Others See Us and How We See Ourselves, Panel One
Photograph by Stephen Willats
Hello readers,

I work a lot on myself to grow beyond the pain in my life and to let go of negativity.  Believe me, I have experienced many challenges in life, but it is a lot more pleasant to accept the love and energy that life has to give me right now than to wish for what might have been but never was.  As I gently pat myself on the back, I think, what now, what next? 

We all need to feed ourselves somehow to get our needs met. Not just those primary needs for food, sleep, shelter.  We also need love, companionship, affection, recognition, delight.  Some of those needs and desires may be met by pets, by special interests and talents that we have.  But when we get down to the wire, sometimes we do need something from other people.  As loving, devoted and affectionate as my dog is, and as much pleasure I derive from my spiritual life, reading, writing, gardening, and artwork, I still crave human touch.

My son is becoming a teenager, and he usually pulls away from me, and I know that is the natural process of life.  Still, when I think about how rare it is to touch another person, I feel sadness in my heart.  Why has it become so rare to experience proximity with another human being? Recently, I had some neck stiffness and creakiness due to prolonged use of computers, stress, a lumpy mattress, and a dearth of hands to massage me.  I went to see a chiropractor, and I think the physical manipulation was very helpful.  While he was very skilled and knowlegeable about the body, it also simply felt very good and relaxing to be touched.

I know that the amount of touch and closeness to other humans is defined by cultural boundaries and mores.  Some peoples only touch intimately in the privacy of their bedroom, and even married couples cannot touch in public. I remember when I lived in Paris, a friend of my ex-husband had recently arrived from Burkina Faso.  He was walking, accompanied by another compatriot, who had been living in France for a while.  The two men spotted a couple kissing in public, on a park bench.  The newcomer strode up to the young couple and was about to slap them, when his friend called him to restraint, explaining that in France, kissing in public was accepted and not taboo at all.  It was funny to think about the scene and what might have happened had that man happened upon that couple alone.

Today, I am living in the southern United States, and this culture to me is as foreign as France was to that Burkinabean man years ago in Paris.  There is always an unspoken code, a language of bodies and traditions that spell out how to behave and how to be accepted.  Contemporary life is changing many traditions.  I am wondering if anyone knows “how to be” any more.

I know how to be myself, I think.  I wonder how to be with others.  Everyone is so absorbed in and by distractions.  There are multiple screens between all of us, gorging us with entertainment, information, and distance.  While culture does modulate distance – how much and how little we should maintain between individuals in various situations, it does seem that intimacy – emotional and physical – has become a rare commodity. 

Being touched emotionally and physically restores energy and is healing.  Perhaps a lot of the diseases from which we suffer as a nation and a culture are in part due to this lack of self awareness and intimacy with others.  To be able to relax and enjoy our connection to ourselves and to others generates energy, creativity, and joy.  I hope that our culture will evolve away from fearful distraction to involved and creative interaction.

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