“If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is.” Those words are sung by Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Growing research suggests that Grizabella is onto something. We need touch to thrive. Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, says, “…touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health." I speak, of course, of healthy, non-aggressive touch--the pat on the back, the squeeze of the arm, the handshake.
And hugs! Hugs are amazing, aren’t they? Have you ever been hugged by someone who puts their whole body and soul into making you feel loved and accepted? It’s a powerful experience. I know many good huggers, but two stand out as exceptional. First was my cousin Alvin. Everything about the experience, from the warm smile that preceded it to the way in which he pulled me close and held me, let me know that I was, indeed, someone very special.
Alvin has passed away, but I get to enjoy an extraordinary hug every Sunday when I’m in church and my friend Ray and I meet. There is no doubt in my mind that Ray's hug is as loving as it is powerful. We both agree it’s the best part of the morning, and an excellent way to pass the peace.
I was reminded of the importance of touch today as I went with our confirmation class to Friends of the Homeless shelter in Springfield with a group from Holy Cross Church’s Sandwich Ministry. Every week this faithful group makes sandwiches to distribute to the homeless of the city. In the twelve years of the program they have made and distributed over 295,000 sandwiches. They also distribute blankets, underwear, clothes, and toiletries.
After the sandwiches were distributed outside, we went indoors where tables were arranged, and bags of underwear were sorted according to size and gender. Then the door was opened, and the grateful men and women came in to collect these essentials. At first I was watching our kids, seeing how they were doing with handing out these donations (quite well). Then I turned to look at the door where Cathy and Will from Holy Cross were greeting every single soul coming through the door with a broad smile, a hug, and a “God bless you.”
The residents were young and old, male and female. Some wore heavy jackets. Some were in tee shirts. Some smiled brightly. Some looked at the ground. Some looked ill. Some looked quite fit. No matter what they looked like or how they acted, each one was blessed and hugged by someone who looked into their eyes and smiled, someone who saw beyond their outward appearance, someone who didn’t look at them as “homeless” but as human beings worthy of being recognized.
Cathy has been doing this for several years. It was clear that she knew many of the residents as she asked for updates on their health or family. She said she began to hug everyone after she found out that the rules of the shelter forbade touching among the residents. Her hug and Will’s might be the only physical touch they received in the week. Some residents had been there for years. Imagine all that time with one touch a week.
Touching another person, even if it’s only a handshake or a pat on the back, seems such simple and ordinary thing, but to be deprived of it can be devastating. I feel blessed to have met Cathy and Will, to have witnessed their selfless sharing and to have gotten a hug from them. Grizabella was right.