Learning to Touch Again After the Pandemic

2020 has quite a year—a year marked by incredible surprises. I remember first reading about a virus that was spreading in the wet markets of Wuhan, China. It sounded horrible, but it was still distant. By late February, we had not yet been  advised to wear masks, but we were to cover our mouths when we coughed; don’t touch our face; don’t touch surfaces; wash our hands often, and do not touch each other. No handshakes, no hugs, and certainly no kisses. I remember one day I was rehearsing with my band. We often shook hands or hugged each other at the end of rehearsals. The movement was so automatic—reaching out to make physical contact as embodied beings. But suddenly we remembered to stop ourselves. “Whoops, the coronavirus!” we said. We had no idea what was coming; we could not imagine the magnitude of the tidal wave  that would soon crash down upon us. The virus had seemed so far away; at first a small article in the newspaper; then the front page. But still distant. Then the deaths began to mount. 

In my church—the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral—a very moving part of the service was the passing of the Peace. Standing in a large circle around the baptismal font, we milled around, hugging each other, sometimes kissing. It was a marvelously inclusive ritual in which people from all walks of life, from all classes, races, and life situations, were able to extend a sign of peace and fellowship through the body. The gamut of humanity could connect through the common bond of skin: CEOs, bankers, professors, the homeless, the addicted, students, the young and old; the healthy and infirm. But now we could not touch; we had to nod, wave, or extend “air hugs”. Hand sanitizer was everywhere.Then came the drastic exile: we could no longer meet in person anymore. We had to meet on Zoom, looking at each other in small boxes like the Hollywood Squares television show some of us remembered from earlier days. 

As the pandemic has worn on, the fear of contagion has grown, as has our physical isolation  We have to stand six feet apart. When we wear masks, we lose full sight of each others’ faces. We have to guess each others’ expressions. We live in the world of “social distance”— an oxymoron we navigate through the “virtual” world, which sometimes proves surprisingly effective, yet often taxing and unsatisfying.

What happens when human touch becomes toxic? When the bodies which connected us now force us to stay apart? When proximity brings danger instead of closeness? When singing which brought us pleasure now can transmit the droplets of possible illness and death? We have learned that when we speak and sing we are actually physically touching each other though the air at distances we could never have imagined.Touch, which is so important when we are sick or dying, is often no longer permitted. People cannot touch and hold their sick and dying. They must talk to them through glass partitions or windows. Love, once  so close and tactile, is now distant and disembodied. 

We are not, of course, the first in human history to experience the body as the bearer of death. Our ancestors suffered plagues, some more horrifying than ours. The Black Death of the Middle Ages killed sixty percent of Europe’s population. People stepped over each others’ bloated, retching bodies in the streets. But human suffering cannot be quantified. All plagues, no matter how different, leave an indelible scar on a generation.

Physical touch is but one of many losses this pandemic has brought, but it is a particularly powerful one. If reminds us how deeply connected we are in our material being. The virus has linked us all together in our common bodily vulnerability. It is the impersonal power of Nature over which we are struggling to gain control. When this pandemic is over, there is another force of Nature we must continue to face: the devastation we are wreaking on our planet and the resulting climate catastrophes. The planet is our collective Body. To say we are all connected is not some platitude. It is an inescapable physical reality.

In the face of the powerful forces of Nature that can destroy us—pandemics, the fires, floods, droughts and hurricanes arising from climate change—I choose to be hopeful that this time of contagion can wake us up to the reality that we are always embodied beings, inescapably connected. 

How grateful we will be when we can touch each other again! Not to fear that our bodies will spread contagion. The virus has shown us how intimately connected we are. Every touch and breath links us to each other. It also shows us how global our connection is. We have known this abstractly, but now that the virus has spread from one country to another with great rapidity, it is clearer than ever there are no borders that can keep others out. The  virus has linked us together, for better or worse. Right now Nature connects us in a malevolent way. But how much Nature also connects us in a positive way. We touch, we sing, we stand close together in groups of friends, families, parties, concerts, houses of worship, restaurants, bars, sporting events, and with new people we may date or develop a friendship with.

None of us is an island, as the poet John Donne reminds us. We are all part of the ocean of physical life. We will sink or swim together. We cannot quarantine ourselves from this reality. When this time of forced separation is passed, may we remember how much we missed human touch and presence. This pandemic—as horrible as it—may teach us how precious our physical connection is. With faces unmasked, and bodies again free to touch, we will enter a new chapter of our human history, forever changed, and—hopefully—more grateful and present to each other, both those we know and those we don’t know. We all share one skin, one body, one breath. May we remember this as we move out of this traumatic time into whatever the future may hold.

 What will it be like when—hopefully—this pandemic is over? Will we feel comfortable touching each other, standing close together, gathering in crowded places, singing together? Whenever a  vaccine finally allows us to move more freely in the world, will we experience a collective PTSD in which our muscle memory and psychic caution make our touching and gathering still feel risky and unsafe? Once it is safe I, for one, will be ready to reach out, to push past that barrier of distance and caution we have had to maintain for so many long months. How good it will be to touch again! I will appreciate it with new gratitude. May I give you a hug?

Phillip Bennett is a psychologist, Episcopal priest, and musician. He reside in Philadelphia.

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