Consenting to tentative touches that lift and linger

There is a lot of conversation in our world today around the idea of consent, and rightly so, as centuries of misogyny, patriarchy, and just general lack of empathy, have resulted in people being abused. But today, as I was sitting in our University chapel service, I was emotionally moved by the lyrics of a song that we collectively sang.  The lyrics are unimportant, what is important, is that for reasons beyond my understanding at the moment, I was moved to tears. As I reflect on this sacred moment, it reminded me of all the moments that I have protested being conditioned to respond emotionally in church. On balance, there is no doubt that my emotions were routinely manipulated at church. In fact, I just read an article today about how “Rapture anxiety” can take a lifetime from which to recover. Harmful manipulation does happen frequently in a church context, as I have detailed in sharing some of my own experiences. 

Yet all of us, at times of our choosing, consent to opening ourselves up to emotional experiences. I think about all of the books I’ve read, or movies or television shows that I’ve watched that have caused me to cry, or laugh, or have some other deep emotional, even visceral response. The key of course, is consent, or having the maturity to understand that what is happening to me is something that I welcome and even invite. 

I suppose the point of my musings here is that there is appropriateness to inviting and indulging in emotional experiences. These experiences are important to my overall mental health and wellbeing, and when it comes to the most important aspects or people in my life they should be fully engaged. But never absent my mind, or my consent. This is especially important when it comes to religion and other powerful influences and institutions that literally leverage power over my life. 

But the need to be touched, both physically and emotionally shouldn’t be something to be avoided. I believe our society would be a better place if families and individuals learned the art of vulnerability. How would our world be different if we could openly express an emotional need in the way that we expressed our physical needs? Author David J. Linden writes of this quintessential human need in his book Touch: The Science of the Hand, Heart, and Mind, “Touch is not optional for human development. We have the longest childhoods of any animal  -there is no other creature whose five-year-old offspring cannot live independently. If our long childhoods are not filled with touch, particularly loving, interpersonal touch, the consequences are dramatic.”

 Linden goes on to point out that touch is so crucial to our human development that studies have indicated that “Severely touch-deprived infants and preemies have a broad range of developmental problems, ranging from impared growth, increased vomiting, and compromised immune system function to slowed cognitive and motor development and the emergence of attachment disorders.” In fact, children explore the world primarily through touch. This is why toddlers have to be told repeatedly, “Don’t touch that!” Children interact with their world in a progression of senses from touch to sight to sound. Whereas adults after a lifetime of correction have a progression of sight to sound to touch. Perhaps there is something to be gained from our primal instincts as children? 

Jesus did say that in order to experience the Kingdom of God we should all become as little children. Given the excesses of my Pentecostal upbringing, I’m often tempted to avoid any spiritual experience remotely emotional. But this is as unhealthy as limiting my spiritual experiences to exclusively emotional ones. I am an emotional creature. The world is full of experiences designed to elicit and evoke emotional responses. To repress and deny these experiences dishonors the God who made me an emotional person. 

Both my heart and head are channels through which God speaks, and are also the means by which I interact and love all of those who bear His image. Understanding this, my expressions of worship shouldn’t be limited to Sunday morning expressions of standing in a crowd singing hymns to a disembodied God, but should also include the hug I give to those others avoid. Worship should also include holding my children and grandchildren, kissing my aging mother on the cheek. Even the awkward hugs I give my adult siblings and saying the words “I love you.” This is worship. In the words of Dr. Linden, “Interpersonal touch is a crucial form of social glue. It can bind sexual partners into lasting couples. It reinforces bonds between siblings. It connects people in the community and in the workplace, fostering emotions of gratitude, sympathy, and trust.” 

I came across this poem by Thomas Hardy entitled Old Furniture. In these verses, Hardy articulates the importance of gently tending to those we love with intentional touch and devotion.

“I know not how it may be with others

Who sit amid relics of householdry

That date from the days of their mothers’ mothers,

But well I know how it is with me


I see the hands of the generations

That owned each shiny familiar thing

In play on its knobs and indentations,

And with its ancient fashioning

Still dallying:

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,

As in a mirror a candleflame

Shows images of itself, each frailer

As it recedes, though the eye may frame

Its shape the same.

On the clock‘s dull dial a foggy finger,

Moving to set the minutes right

With tentative touches that lift and linger

In the wont of a moth on a summer night,

Creeps to my sight.

On this old viol, too, fingers are dancing –

As whilom – just over the strings by the nut,

The tip of a bow receding, advancing

In airy quivers, as if it would cut

The plaintive gut.

And I see a face by that box for tinder,

Glowing forth in fits from the dark,

And fading again, as the linten cinder

Kindles to red at the flinty spark,

Or goes out stark.

Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,

The world has no use for one to-day

Who eyes things thus – no aim pursuing!

He should not continue in this stay,

But sink away.”

May we all consist of giving and receiving touch. 

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