The human touch
What does it mean to reach out and touch someone now?
One of the best days of the year in our neighborhood is the day of the Charlotte Marathon. The marathon route comes within a couple blocks of our house, and every year there’s a big street party with a band and kids and dogs and food and beer at 9 in the morning.
Our section is around mile 18, a time when a lot of the runners are clearly hurting—hell, sometimes I get achy if I drive 18 miles. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but it seems like the runners get a little boost when they get to our area. We ring cowbells and hold up signs and cheer them on. They smile, or at least try to smile, assuming they’re not in a full body cramp.
This year, as the runners started passing through in clumps, a few kids lined up on both sides of the road and reached out to slap hands with the runners. It’s a perfectly normal thing … or at least it was in normal times. Now it’s a little startling to see strangers touch one another again.
We’re sort of stuck in this weird pandemic transition period. COVID is still very much with us—just ask the folks on the Majestic Princess. Most places have quit requiring masks and most people have quit wearing them. But we haven’t come together as a society to decide how we should greet one another these days. There’s a lot of moments when one person moves in with open arms and the other stiffens up and it feels like an awkward first date. You’ve got one guy reaching out for a handshake and the other doing a fistbump and then they both switch at the same time and everybody’s got jammed fingers.
I have realized during the pandemic that I’m a hugger. I didn’t know that until I went without a hug from so many for so long. I needed the little touch on the hand from somebody telling me a story. I needed the bro-hug from my buddies. I even needed the quick elbow to the ribs from somebody punctuating a terrible joke. Get it?
I’m convinced at this point that you can find a study to prove pretty much anything you want, but along these lines, there’s a study of NBA teams that showed the teams that touched one another the most during games tended to be more successful. This helps explain why a free-throw shooter gets five from his teammates even after he or she completely bricks a free throw.
Everybody’s different, and some people most definitely do not like to be touched. But touching is one of the fundamental ways humans communicate. It’s how we show friendship or respect or intimacy. It’s how we help understand one another and interpret the world around us. During the pandemic, when it comes to touch, we were walking around senseless.
I’m not sure what the CDC would say about those kids slapping hands with those sweaty runners, much less those runners slapping hands with those kids (you have no idea where those hands have been). I still get a little shiver when I see a bunch of bodies pressed together at a concert or a ballgame. To be close enough for skin on skin is to be close enough for breath on breath, and that’s still scary, and potentially dangerous. In the right setting, it’s also exhilarating and fulfilling and fun.
One thing these past few years have done to us, medically and otherwise, is make us more afraid of one another. Some days the whole world feels like a bad neighborhood. It’s draining just to get the little stuff done every day. Sometimes just a little touch from another human being is all it takes to charge the battery. I’d like to believe that those little kids helped those marathon runners. Maybe, in some small way, that bit of touch helped them get to the end of the race.
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