Recently I watched footage of a Syrian baby being rescued from intensive care during bombing raids on a hospital. I was horrified. The attack was brutal and the bravery of the medical rescue teams was remarkable. But, in the journey that followed, the wide eyed tiny baby was handled like an emergency package to be taken to the safety of the waiting ambulance, handed to the next outstretched hands and finally delivered into a brightly lit and chaotic hospital. Full marks for bravery and care, but every sinew in my body wanted to reach out to the almost naked baby, look into his wide-open eyes and gently reassure him with a soft stroke on his skin. I watched his dark eyes staring at the bright lights whilst the horror and noise of the sirens and bombings and the madness of the war raged around him. One small touch of reassurance was what he desperately needed.
Thank God most of us never know the horror of war but there are many of our neighbours who do find the world a difficult place. So, I’ve made a resolution – I’m not going to be afraid ‘to give people a hand’, even if it’s only a gentle reassuring touch on the shoulder for someone who is worried or distressed. Giving people the space to let their emotions out should be our first reaction. But then, there is often a moment when you can reach out and (if it’s appropriate) gently touch their hand and lovingly stroke it. What a difference this can make. How many unspoken words are in that simple, caring gesture?
We all need this close skin on skin connection with each other. I love it when my grandchildren come into bed for a cuddle, but I know that probably won’t last. I am also aware of how we are slowly being deprived of this basic human need. I’m conscious of how the importance of touching old people, children, the frail, the vulnerable and very sick has been eroded by over-zealous vigilantes. And, despite the good efforts of countless wonderful carers and nurses, the comfort and kindness of a kindly touch is often, sadly, absent. It’s almost as if an edict has gone out ensuring there are no opportunities to ‘transgress boundaries’, take advantage of, or upset people.
Oh, give me strength! As someone who was at the forefront of bringing child sexual abuse into the light of day with my films in the 1980’s I am very aware of the hidden dangers. So often, holding someone’s hand is just what they need, and we should be prepared to respond to this. I’m increasingly aware of how many older people – many in institutions and residential homes – are being deprived of something as ‘sensible’ as a touch.
A friend said to me recently “No one has touched me for so long. No one has held my hand, stroked my head or cuddled me. I really miss being touched”
We are born with senses that are active and need stimuli: Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste and Touch. These senses help us to navigate and enjoy life and avoid pitfalls and danger. We see the world around us, faces of loved ones and familiar places, we hear everyday noises – doorbells, motorbikes and birdsong, we smell the sea and freshly baked bread, we taste lemons and grimace and lick ice cream and smile.
Touch has distinct sensations that come from pressure, temperature, vibration and pain. We enjoy the feeling of sand running through our fingers, we love sliding our fingers on silk material and we relax when we stroke our pets. These sensations are communicated to the brain through specialised neurons in the skin and we react. Touch is thought to be the first sense that humans develop, but it’s not just used to interact with the world. Research at Yale University suggests that not only is it fundamental to human communication, bonding and health but importantly it allows compassion to be conveyed from one human to another. The sense of touch needs to be celebrated, enjoyed and valued. We need it more than ever in this stressful world.
I remember whenever my children fell and bruised their knees when they were small, the first thing they wanted was for me to hold them and ‘kiss it better’. That was the magic that always seemed to do the trick. That poor wee baby in Syria needed that touch. I may not be able to affect a child thousands of miles away, but I’ve decided I can be more aware of the people around me who have ‘lost touch’; the old friend in residential care, the colleague who is struggling alone with bad news, the teenager who is being bullied. If a simple touch will help to make them feel better, then surely that’s not too hard for any of us to do. To me it makes absolute sense.