Pastor Tim Smith: Reach out and touch somebody’s hand

Touch is our first language and one of our core needs

Touch is our first language and one of our core needs - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

It’s been an excellent start to the season for Torquay United, with two recent wins both gained with injury-time winning goals.

Such drama reminded me how much I miss being at a live match.

This was also brought home to me a couple of weeks back when my footballing first-love, Aston Villa, somehow managed to put seven goals, including a first half hat-trick from Torquay-born striker Ollie Watkins, past Liverpool’s Premier League-winning defence.

Sadly, this stunning feat was accomplished in front of an almost-empty stadium. Oh, to have been at Villa Park to share this joyous experience!

Another long-suffering Villa supporter, the author John Flanner, in a recent interview with The Athletic, bemoaned not being able to share the community experience that comes with supporting your favourite team.

“There’s no greater feeling than hugging all of those around you when Villa score,” he said. I know what he means. Even though I’m not one for showing many outward displays of affection, preferring a hearty handshake to a hug, even my brother Mark and I have on occasion shared a joyous embrace following a vital Villa victory goal!

Such embracing is discouraged in these days dominated by social distancing, but I wonder if many of us don’t realise how detrimental our lack of close contact with others is proving to our emotional and mental wellbeing?

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Back in America in the 1940s, a controversial social experiment was carried out on two groups of 20 newborn babies.

One group of infants was treated with all the normal care and affection and close personal contact you would expect a mother to pour out on her son or daughter, whereas the other group, although fed, bathed and changed as required, were treated with a minimum of touching, hugging and loving contact.

The experiment was curtailed after four months because, although all the babies in the first group thrived, a number of the newborns in the 20 deprived of normal parental contact and care, tragically died, even though they were physically healthy.

It was concluded that the denial of the loving touch of a mother for her child had caused irreparable and fatal psychological trauma.

Professor Francis McGlone, head of the Somatosensory and Affective Neuroscience Group at Liverpool John Moores University, believes that ‘touch is as important as the oxygen we breathe in, the food we eat, because we are social beings’.

Dr Jon Reeves, a clinical psychologist from Washington, agrees, saying that ‘touch is our first language and one of our core needs. The touch of a safe, trusted loved one can alleviate anxiety and promote a sense of wellbeing’.

In the New Testament, Jesus embodies this truth when, in Matthew 8:3 a man suffering with leprosy kneels at his feet, asking the Lord to heal him.

Those who contracted this horrific skin disease were made outcasts of society and experienced what we today might call extreme social distancing. But not only does Jesus heal the man of his leprosy, he does something which perhaps this sick person had not experienced in years; Jesus reaches out and touches the man and pronounces him ‘clean’.

One can only imagine the difference experiencing the Lord’s touch made to this man’s life.

As I read this week about the detrimental psychological impact of touch depravation - also known as skin hunger - that medical experts say many of us are enduring, due to the rules followed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, my mind went back over seven years to the day I sat by my mum’s hospital bed in the last minutes of her life.

As I prayed for her and read verses of Scripture that were full of divine hope, I recall that I held her hand; and I suddenly realised how important to her that simple physical expression of love might have been.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the importance of a loving touch in the gospels is provided by Jesus when, with a bowl of water, he kneels before the disciples and humbly washes their feet. Then he says to his followers in John 13:14 & 15, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”