Sunday, July 02, 2006

Skin Hunger

Whenever Jesus healed he touched. Given the society he lived in the most extraordinary part of these healings is that he touched. He touched women – something a Rabbi was not supposed to do. He touched women who were haemorrhaging – making himself ritually unclean. He touched people with skin diseases – who had been kicked out of their families and villages, forced to live in the wilderness.

Ever wondered why we shake hands? I like the explanation offered by some evolutionary biologists. Our ape ancestors needed to mark their territory but marking one’s territory is a problem when you live in a tree. So instead of using faeces and urine, like so many other mammals, apes use secretions on their hands and feet which automatically mark the trees they are climbing in. This is why your hands often sweat when the rest of you doesn’t or why our feet smell. Shaking hands is throw back to a time we marked our territory with our hands and bonded with family members by sharing our smell.

Shaking hands is like saying: “You and I belong together.”

The movie Fisher King is a modern retelling of the fable in which a prince discovers the importance of touch. The prince goes into the wilderness to test his courage and had a vivid dream in which he sees the Holy Grail surrounded by flame. When he reaches out to grab it, the flames burn him. When he wakes, the wound is real but the Grail is gone. He becomes King but is consumed by his wound and one day in desperation returns to the wilderness to try resolve his pain. Lying in the wilderness, delirious and dying of thirst, he is met by the Court Jester who asks him, “Tell me what I can do for you.” The King replies: “I am thirsty.” So the Jester pulls a chipped wooden cup from his bag and offers it to the King filled with water. As the King reaches for the cup he sees that it is the Holy Grail. He realises that it is not the jewel-encrusted treasure of his previous vision that he needs, but rather the battered old cup offered in the hands of compassion.

Not all touch is good. People who are fighting are touching. Sexual and physical abuse uses touch to injure deeply. Sometimes we refer to people with mental illness as “touched”. But appropriate touch is very important to humans. To loose touch is to cease being human. Touch is literally and matter of life and death.

In old age homes I have hear the term “skin hunger” to describe the peculiar loneliness of people in homes like these. Skin Hunger… We need to be touched.

Rene Spitz in 1945 studied infants in a South American orphanage that were starved of physical contact. Because the staff were under resourced they simply did not have the time to cuddle the babies. Despite having enough nourishment and medical care, a third of the children he studied died for want of a hug. The survivors remained permanently psychologically damaged.

Think of the people who need your touch. Remember the people who touch you. Which people are you afraid to touch, or are you not allowed to touch? Who do you long to be touched by?

When I baptised my first child I remember the sheer terror I felt having to hold this fragile being. I saw myself as incapable of holding something so precious. Deep down I didn’t think I was good enough. That child and the trust of his parents healed me. Nobody knew it, but that touch healed me.

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