Inner Life: The Need for Touch

I don’t remember where I read it, but some time after John Lennon’s death, I saw a reminiscence by Paul McCartney. Sir Paul was recalling his last meeting with John. It was years after they had forgiven each other for the disagreements that led to the breakup of the Beatles and the bitterness of the first few years after that. When they met, the story goes, John gave Paul a big hug and said, “Touching is good.” A warm conversation about family followed.

There are so many accounts of that last meeting, and potential dates, that this particular story may well be apocryphal. (McCartney has done little to clear things up.) But that’s not the point. John was right. Touching is good. But there seems to be a dearth of it these days; touching seems to have fallen into some disrepute. And when has the world needed its tender benefits more?

Of course, willingness and responsiveness to touch vary by family, and more deeply, by person. Touch is the fundamental contact, the one we recall most viscerally from our earliest, precognitive days on Earth. It can be an invitation, an intervention, or an invasion, depending on who, when, where and how. Touch can be lighthearted or infused with meaning; friendly or sexual, loving or brutal. It can be welcomed or misinterpreted, with a whole spectrum of possibilities in between.

When the student is ready, the fuzzy teacher will appear. Angus, part-time Zen master and full-time dog.

When the student is ready, the fuzzy teacher will appear. Angus, part-time Zen master and full-time dog.

But the touch of comfort, of intimacy appropriate to the relationship…did you ever turn around and wonder where it went? Growing up, I was not part of a particularly demonstrative family — but if I felt a want of touch, I never knew it at the time. It was not withheld when I was a child. Now, in my own family, we are much more tactile than I remember being when I was growing up. This includes my 12-year-old son, which surprises me. The boy still likes to give hugs to his Dad, and certainly to his Mom. I dread the day when that becomes uncool, just as I rued the day about eight years ago when I reached down to tousle his curly hair and felt, for the first time, that it was no longer baby-soft.


There are people who prefer not to be touched, and that is their right. I feel sorry for them, but I do not second-guess them. Their reasons may be very deep and difficult to overcome. Even I can be a bit jumpy when touched, although I don’t dislike it; I just have a longer get-to-know period than some people. And in certain cultures, it’s just not done publicly or familiarly, except within a small, intimate circle: when I am in Japan, the personal space barrier may well be closer, but unannounced, informal touching is not allowed. History matters too. There is evidence that in western European cultures, and even American life, in the 19th century, it was not considered unusual for male friends to walk arm in arm or shoulder to shoulder.

If people touch each other less now, it may be because we tend to be in a hurry more often. Few people would deny that a welcome touch is comforting, soothing, sometimes exciting, perhaps longed for. But you have to take time to feel it; the magic of a touch cannot be rushed.

I was reminded of this the other day by our resident Zen master, also known as Angus, our Goldendoodle dog. As with many a flop-eared breed, the humid weather and playing by the pool causes moisture to collect around his ears, and one or the other can get a smelly infection from time to time. The treatment is ear drops; he has to be kept calm for a few minutes after I put them in so that he doesn’t shake his head and expel the medicine.

I accomplish this by laying him on his side, putting the drops in, closing his ear flap, and then stroking his fur at least 100 times as I lay facing him. Only takes a few minutes. But Angus blisses out immediately, relaxing and savoring every motion of my hand, undistracted by spreadsheets, schedules, or schemes. He looks me in the eye, gratefully. When it is over, he plants a lick on my nose. We both leave the floor happier, more serene.

As usual, it takes an unpretentious creature such as a dog, or a child, to reinforce a simple but potent lesson. Time for touch is time well spent.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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2 thoughts on “Inner Life: The Need for Touch

  1. Helen Cherry says:

    Time for touch is indeed well spent 😉 Nice piece..

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