At least 25 years ago, I saw a short film of Mother Teresa caring for a little boy who was sick and emaciated, and the powerful image has stayed with me ever since. The thing that so arrested me was the way he responded to her touch. His body was contorted with suffering and wracked with chaotic movement that was painful to watch. She got very close to him, laying her hands gently on his head and face, caressing him and looking into his face intently. As she gently stroked him and spoke soothingly, he relaxed into a calm, peaceful attention, gazing back at her face. Watching the effect of their attunement on the storm that had been raging in him, I knew I was witnessing a holy thing. You can see a short video clip of her speaking about God’s love here and at the end of it catch a glimpse of what I think may be the video I originally saw. The video also makes it clear that Mother Teresa herself views such experiences as an encounter with the presence of Christ.
Recently, I saw another video with a moving depiction of the power of touch. The film’s subject is an innovative and caring high school teacher named Jeffrey Wright who teaches his students about love as well as the laws of physics. The short documentary, filmed by one of Wright’s former students, won a gold medal in a college film competition. Mr. Wright has a son, Adam, with Joubert syndrome, a developmental brain disorder that makes him unable to control his body. He flails and hits himself, so he must wear a crash helmet and be strapped into a wheelchair to protect him from severe self-injury. Part of the film shows the boy, calm and free of all the restraints, receiving a gentle massage from licensed massage therapist Tim Grady of The Gift of Touch in Louisville, KY. Here again, the image of love expressed through the power of touch and nearness is quite moving. Grady’s website indicates that his massage practice focuses on the needs of those who are seriously ill, recovering from surgery, in hospice, their caregivers, and the grieving. He states “These special populations are unfortunately underserved and underappreciated, yet they are so deserving of the comfort and relief that massage can offer their tired and often beleaguered bodies…. The Gift of Touch will come to you, whether in your home, a hospital, a nursing home, assisted living facility, a rehab center, or a hospice facility. Massage therapy/comfort touch will bring peace to body, mind, and spirit.”
Perhaps one of the reasons images of caring touch are so moving to me is because they tap into deep feelings based on my own experience. As a patient in treatment at UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Center, I experienced a lot of touching that was painful or invasive, such as needle sticks for blood draws, IV’s, surgeries, and examinations. The day I started chemotherapy, my anxiety was at an all-time high. Everything felt out of control to me. I realized later that I was feeling overwhelming self-imposed pressure to accomplish everything I might possibly need to do for the next six months. Think of the way expectant mothers go into “nesting mode” (except on steroids with a shot of rage) and you’ll approximate what it felt like to be me at that point. The nurse navigator wisely decided to send a chaplain in to talk with me. As a therapist I’m quite easily able to recognize the dynamics that were at play – when they are happening to someone else, of course – but it was quite a different thing when it was happening to me! I needed the chaplain to point out that feelings I had during any past experiences of having my body painfully touched or violated might readily be reignited as I anticipated what was about to happen to it in chemotherapy. Suddenly, as a rape survivor, my seeming over-reaction started to make a lot more sense. The physical presence of my husband and my best friend, who held my hand and gave me hugs, and the volunteer massage therapist who came to the chemotherapy unit and rubbed my feet and hands were a welcome and much-needed comfort.
Another time when having someone to hold my hand made all the difference to my well-being was when I was in a serious car accident. A plate glass delivery truck ran a stop sign and T-boned the used car my father had just given me as a college graduation and wedding gift. When I came to in the ambulance, two things were very important to me: to know the name of the attendant (which I still remember – Chris), and to have some reassuring physical contact. I asked him to hold my hand, which he did as the ambulance sped to the hospital. A broken rib had punctured a lung, and I was having trouble breathing. That calming connection with Chris helped me to relax and breathe. I can’t recall a single thing about what Chris looked like, but I have never forgotten that he held my hand when I needed it.
We don’t have to be sick, in hospice, or in an ambulance to need comforting contact. Life is hard, and the everyday wear and tear on our souls produces stress. Research has shown that we all benefit from touch. The pressure receptors in our skin that touch stimulates have a direct connection to the vagus nerve that slows down the heart and decreases blood pressure. Friendly or loving touch decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and triggers the release of oxytocin, known as the “bonding hormone” for its association with feelings of connection, intimacy, and trust. A person whose body is flooded with oxytocin is a person who feels relaxed, content, and at peace. American researcher Paul Zak believes that oxytocin is “the moral molecule” and has written a book by that title. He founded and named the science of “neuroeconomics” to study people’s moral choices and the brain and body chemistry that affects them. His early research showed that prosperous countries have a higher proportion of trustworthy people in their population. He theorized that since economic transactions are based on trust, a healthy business and social climate would exist where people had higher levels of oxytocin. He devised ingenious experiments to measure the generosity of people’s behavior in relation to their oxytocin levels. His work indicates that the experience of being trusted triggers a release of oxytocin, which in turn results in more generous, trustworthy behavior. Being treated well, as it turns out, also causes a release of oxytocin, completing a self-replicating circle of virtue. One might say he has found a biological basis for the Golden Rule (treat others as you would want to be treated) that provides insight into how traditional morality creates a peaceful, just, and prosperous society that benefits everyone.
To maximize oxytocin, which has a short half life of just three minutes, Dr. Zak recommends a minimum of eight hugs a day, a quota that I imagine would be difficult for many people to reach. At least one person in San Francisco works as a “cuddle therapist” offering comforting touch “in a safe, non-sexual environment.” Is cuddle therapy an idea whose time has come? Based on my observations, a lot of people do need and long for more touch than they get. Some people bemoan the influence of the internet on relationships, blaming the common sense of social disconnection on our ubiquitous electronic devices. Interestingly enough, some of Dr. Zak’s research has shown that like physical, face to face interaction, virtual social interaction on Facebook and Twitter also creates a rise in oxytocin. This provides, as a reporter for The Guardian observed, “a powerful retort to the argument that social media is killing real human interaction: in hormonal terms, it appears, the body processes it as an entirely real kind of interaction.” Either way, on the internet or in person where physical contact is possible, it’s important for our health and relaxation to reach out and connect with someone. This promotes well-being not just for individuals, but also for society as a whole.
The Judeo-Christian Scriptures say that the first thing God called “not good” was for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). To remedy this bad situation, God created a partner for Adam. She was also created in God’s image, like Adam, and designed to correspond to him in a way that no other creature God had made was capable of doing. Pets are wonderful, and cuddling with a cat or dog does cause a release in oxytocin, but nothing can compare to interaction with another human being. The Hebrew words used to describe what Eve was to Adam are usually translated as “helper” giving some the impression that she is not his equal. However, that misses the beauty of the image the words are meant to convey. The words are “ezer kenegdo” which means “corresponding strong help.” The word ezer is most often used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to God as a strong rescuer. Eve was created to be Adam’s strong helper to rescue him from the plight of aloneness! From our earliest origins as human beings, we have needed each other. Adam knew it in his bones, and our bodies know it, too.