I’ve been thinking lately about the way we interact as society. With a newborn in my home, I’ve spent the last few days endlessly stroking, sniffing, nuzzling and poking this tiny little stranger trying to familiarize myself with every intricacy of her novel body. Despite the fact that we don’t share a hobby, a favorite color or alma matter, in three short days through intense physical interaction we have forged a bond I’m quite sure will never be broken.
Acquaintance through physicality, however, is generally unaccepted outside of family units. While it is okay to hug, kiss and caress nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, once I leave my family circle, such physical intimacy is rare. When I do encounter it, it generally comes as a surprise.
After giving birth on Wednesday, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. The crew of nurses scurried busily around the room cleaning up, clacking on their computers and checking my vitals on large black monitors. I lay back and breathed, trying to digest what had just happened. Then a tiny Asian nurse came to my bedside and took me by the shoulder. She lead me gently to the bathroom, took off my hospital gown and with a warm washcloth tenderly washed down my arms, legs, face and body. “Is this okay?” she asked. “None of the other nurses do this, but I usually like to wash the moms after a birth.” I assured her that it was okay and let myself go weak under her loving care. Physically, I had no need for such administerings, but emotionally it brought me back to life and made me feel human again. She is the one nurse from my hospital stay whose name I remember. Xhan Xhan.
Although this type of physical contact with strangers is extreme, I’ve found other moments where unexpected physical contact with a stranger surprised and calmed me. A scalp massage from the underpaid stylist at Supercuts, A hug from the cashier at Big Lots and many other unnecessary, loving contacts that remind me how much of our culture’s interaction with each other has been lost in words. I am quite aware that people are highly sensitive to unwanted, inappropriate physical conduct with strangers. There are stories on the news constantly of abuse of the powerful nature of touch. I worry that our culture has ruined for the most part the precious relationships that can be forged from touch because of these cases of impropriety.
With old friends, a physical relationship can spring up. It’s acceptable to give girlfriends hugs, backrubs, stroke their hair. One a relationship has been founded, physical gestures are not as surprising. But it takes extreme trust before this level of a relationship is reached. Many people never even find a friend like this. They simply go through life at arm’s length, trying to connect through words. Is this physicality necessary for a society so intellectually advanced as ours?
Although I’m not a “touchy feely” type person, there are times when I can hardly resist touching people. A man’s thick, curly hair who sits in front of me at the movies, a soft sweater on the woman in line at the grocery store, the chubby ankles of the little boy on the swings at the park. But I don’t. Instead of smelling and stroking these people to get to know them, we have taken the more intellectual route of asking them name, occupation, address and beliefs. While all of this may in the end create intimacy and a lasting relationship, I can’t help wonder if our society would be better of if we were a people that sniffed, nuzzled and stroked. Instead, I’ll have to get my physical fix from my precious babies and concentrate on not bothering the stranger with the great hair at the movies. I’m sure he would appreciate my restraint.
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