Touch Me – The Endangered Species of Intimacy
Every Sunday, I eagerly turn to the NY Times magazine column “Diagnosis”. It’s like a mini-medical whodunit, with doctors racing against the clock to solve a mysterious health ailment that defies quick capture. Doctors look up old cases, bring in experts, examine habits, and grill family members. Often, however, it is some small overlooked quotidian fact that unlocks the cure. Something simple and small, yet incredibly powerful. One of my favorite cases in recent years involved an elderly woman who defied a battalion of doctors and specialists in unpacking her illness. White coat after white coat examined the data, ran the numbers, and ordered more tests. Still nothing. Finally, one doctor came into her room, and took her hand in his. He immediately noticed its clamminess, and how very cold it was. This tactile information revealed critical symptoms that allowed him to diagnose her, and set her on a return to health. The simple act of touch – which had been completely overlooked – saved her life.
Today, there is a huge outcry about the dearth of true intimacy in our lives. Over the past month, a raft of editorials and essays decry our digital culture, and point out a growing hunger for the simple act of touch. This weekend alone saw two pieces in the New York Times: Courtney Maum’s Opinion essay piece: Please Touch Me as well as a reporter’s trend piece on ‘Cow Therapy’, a new movement encouraging human interaction with a warm bovine body as a means of soothing and receiving critical skin on skin contact. The Atlantic recently published a piece: Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex? and Paula Cocazza of The Guardian asks “Are We Living Through A Crisis of Touch?”
What gives? In her essay, Maum mused about the extreme lengths people are going to engender some form of human contact – and worries that intimacy, like any muscle, is something that needs to be flexed in order to still work. Her question distills down to one real concern: If we lose the practice of touch, are we losing the capacity for true human intimacy? It certainly does seem like we are moving farther and farther away from those moments where the physical act of being close trumps all the clumsy words and half formed DMs that now serve as the main arteries of relationships.
But, I think we are missing the point. While touch is certainly a sense that seems to be fast disappearing in our ghostly screen-lit lives, it is only one of the senses that is being endangered. We no longer connect with people IRL, and so we don’t hear their unique patois, or smell their personal fingerprint of scent. Real intimacy is an act of all the senses. To be truly seen by another is to have that person take your full measure– the expression of your face, the way your pulse quickens in the blue artery running along your neck, the metronome of your breathing. Connection, at its deepest, requires time, vulnerability and attention – the most precious of all resources today. We hear what is unspoken; we see what needs to be seen. We taste the emotional air surrounding the subject. Just like a mother knows her child by his gait and his movements from far away, we learn the secret language of another human through time and observation. Intimacy is a full contact sport that requires a significant investment of every sense of the viewer. When we decry the loss of touch as a gateway to intimacy, I think we are mourning the loss of ALL of the pieces that must be in place to allow touch to happen. To touch someone, we must be with them. We must intuit their desire or need to be touched. We must be open to their response to that touch. And then, through the portal of skin-to-skin contact, we can listen and truly hear on a level far deeper than what might be conveyed through a Gif on our phones.
The world was all aquiver when psychologist Mary Len Caton shared the work of the eminent social scientist Arthur Aron and his 36 questions that can make anyone fall in love.
Aron’s work posited that any two people could fall in love if they invested the time and effort to make their way through a series of increasingly intimate questions during a specific period of time. The most frightening element of the experiment, however, was not the ‘Truth or Dare’ type persona reveal segment. What titillated (and terrified) readers the most was the end challenge. Participants were required to spend 4 minutes gazing into each other’s eyes. Four minutes…unbroken…. seeing each other.
Canton, who participated in her own version of this experience, shared this revelation:
“The real crux of the moment was not that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me.”
It is an act of real vulnerability to step into this ring. When you read through the acres of thinking and study on the death of intimacy, many of the roads of thought lead to this fear of being emotionally naked and incredibly vulnerable. And, with so many digital way stations offering up alternatives and time hacks to other forms of connection and climax, why take the risk?
Maybe what we are craving is not to be so much touched as it is to be known. Intimacy, in the Bible, is referred to as ‘knowing each other.’ True intimacy is the act of engaging all of our senses, over time, to know another. Perhaps, as Maum suggests, in the future we will indeed have regular check-ins via wrist monitors to determine if we have had adequate skin-on-skin contact that day, or that we will obtain our daily dose of physical interaction through the form of ‘touch deprivation check-in spots’. But, overlooking the irony of those ideas, isn’t that is a bit like hoping that, in the future, we will be able to warm ourselves somehow with the smoke of a distant fire? Perhaps what humans need instead are places and spaces to be with each other, fully and wholly, in the same time and the same space. Who knows… it might just save a life…Or maybe… A whole species.
The Doors: Yeah! Come on, come on, come on, come on Now touch me, baby Can’t you see that I am not afraid?
For a look at Amnesty International’s incredibly moving experiment, using Dr. Aron’s work to unite immigrants of disparate origins, watch the video below ( have tissues handy!):