English Articles

Touched by touching

By Gerard Feller       vlag                                             

Self-centered culture

In the Western world, we live in a culture that is increasingly self-centered. Words like individualism, self-actualization and self-determination are typical for our touch-deprived society, in which the progressive rationality and diminution of contact is producing more and more insensitive and autistic-like people. Children are not looking for consolation anymore, but are crying in a corner, because they have unlearned to look for a lap or an arm for consolation.

They often have not been familiar with such a safe lap and the covering of a consoling arm around them. Children who have never been patted on the head or hugged, but continuously belittled and pushed aside, have the feeling that everything they do wrong is just a result of their existence! Children who have never been caressed and who are suffering from (inter)personal negligence or even abuse, will surely face the consequences of it in their later lives in the sense of fear for physical contact, often until late in their adulthood.

Larry Rosen, a psychologist who has been doing research for over 25 years on the consequences of social media, even claims that people who have more than 500 friends online, are more narcissistic and more contact-deprived in the real world than their counterparts who hardly have contact with social media. The more often people are logging in on the social media, the greater the risk they run of developing an anti-social personality, excessive consumption of alcohol, problems with concentration and the display of paranoid behavior.

As a compensation for physical contact, many children are pampered with expensive gifts or by the activation of all kinds of counsellors, for instance for the support of their homework, school coaching, expensive birthday parties, expensive special holidays etc.. Teachers are allowed to give pupils a hand at the most (this has to do with the fear of sexual abuse; see the below-mentioned). Also with older people we see less and less physical contact. They often lose their family members, friends, husband or wife, one by one. There is often no one left anymore who speaks on familiar and informal terms with them! It just doesn’t happen that someone caresses their arm, or puts an arm around them, out of love or friendship. All the touching they get is often just a professional touching. People who does not have physical contact anymore, will languish in many ways.


The sense of touching

We are born out of contact. Primarily a contact with our mother, connected by the umbilical cord. Later on, we develop contact with our parents, family, friends and acquaintances. The one hundred billion brain cells just have one goal: to make contact! The root of our need to make contact is the physical touch. In protection, connectedness, cherishing and nourishment, people need directly physical contact. While the need of physical contact remains, also the need of psychological contact, appreciation and recognition grows. Touching is the most direct form of contact.

Meanwhile, scholars agree that the right touch at the right time can reduce anxiety and stress hormones; it can strengthen the immune system, and skin contact leads to emotional security and support of the ability to communicate. There is a hormone called oxytocin, which, according to the Swedish professor in Physiology Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg, causes these wholesome effects. It is activated by touching one another. By the affectionate touches, the stress becomes less and the confidence increases. When you are touched, the other person is also touched. A touch can touch a person. It is an interaction. It is not a passive event. Touching demands attention, presence, tranquility.

A touch can sometimes do more than words. It invites people for a meeting. It is very simple but it demands a lot, for if you want to make contact with the other, you should first be in contact with yourself, with your own affectionateness, if you want the other to feel the affectionateness that you have. If there is affectionate contact between the toucher and the touched person, then it is a very direct contact, a connectedness which is experienced as closeness. Closeness can be experienced as something good, certainly when there is mention of anxiety, insecurity, pain and psychological need. An affectionate, attentive touch can be very confirmative. Also a lot can happen on a physical level at a touch, whereby there is mention of affectionate contact: it has influence on the tension, it regulates the muscle tension: a too high tension gets lower.


Touching in the Western culture

In our culture we have become used to identify a touch with sex, coercion or power. Just think of all the reports on sexual harassment which are very topical today (Hashtag [#] MeToo). After the deluge of sexual harassment in institutes, churches, sports world, show business, business life and government, the question is: “who or what follows?” People do not hear much about touching as a gesture of comfort, commitment and encouragement. In the Netherlands especially, ‘touching’ is a taboo.  Also in sexual relationships between a man and a woman, there is an intensive need for tenderness and intimacy. There is a need to be hugged. In an English research in this field, a woman confessed that she has such a need for a touch, which causes her to go to bed with a lot of men, while she actually just has the need to be cherished and cuddled. In the same research, women indicated what a touch and a hug meant to them. It was described as warmth, affectionateness, connectedness, closeness and support. The need for it was very great, especially with those who have little self-confidence.

There were those who longed for a touch but not for a hug, through fear of getting suffocated! A number of persons has a severe aversion to any physical contact. Sometimes as a result of an abuse in the past or maybe as a result of a repressed need for it. They thought touching is childish, immature, something to be ashamed of. On the other hand, the whole world is full of substitutes of apparent tenderness and love. In that way people are looking for possibilities in playing with soft toy animals, in touching children, playing with living animals like a dog or a cat. Or people search to caress themselves by getting addicted to masturbation. Think also of the endless phone calls with friends and acquaintances and activities on ‘social media’ as a substitute of the need for love and a touch. On a large scale, people are addicted to cell-phone services, the chat-room or sex telephone services. Still other means of substitutes are: searching for oral satisfaction in eating and or drinking or smoking. Also in physiotherapy the physical contact of massage is disappearing by the increasing ‘hands off’ policy.


The demonstration of love

In the meanwhile, it is also known among Christians that the greatest healing element with diseases and symptoms is: attention, care and commitment, which we call love. That is where the core of the whole problem lies essentially. Love is ‘cooling down’. The Christian families and the Church of Jesus Christ are pre-eminently a learning center to exercise and convey that love. How little comes of it in practice! In case of emergency, people do not seek loving care and commitment with friends or family members, in the first instance. They often look first for the professional, paid, helping hand of a (non-believing? /alternative?) Social worker.

The spirit of secularization and independence has ‘charmed’ the Church of Christ, so it seems. The source of all genuine love in Christ is still being preached, but not put into practice anymore! Which local church or assembly knows a flourishing form of pastoral care and demonstration of love, which also reach out to the outside, to a world in need? In the Bible the command has been given 508 times to love one another. Touching is also a taboo with many believers. The ‘holy kiss’ in the Bible is easily dismissed as culturally bound and time-bound by the emotionally disturbed Christian. Also in supporting the sick and dying people we are often ‘at our wits end’.

A poignant but clearly recognizable example is to be read in the Magazine ‘Medisch contact’. The physician mrs. De Vries Buitink tells about the deathbed of a French woman. She lived in the same French village and visited her daily for a moment. The mother of the dying was sitting in a corner of the ‘death-room’ staring at her only child who was dying there. “Take her both hands”, mrs De Vries said to her. The old lady went hesitantly to the bed. The sick looked at her and stammered: “Mother, mother, I feel so awful”. Those were her last words, it appeared later. A couple of hours thereafter, mrs. De Vries went back to her. Beside the bed of the dying was an empty chair. The grandmother was lying down next to a chair near the window.

The husband of the dying was hanging over the foot end of the bed and crying. The son was standing against the wall crying. The rest of the family and neighbors were waiting in the kitchen for the end. Nobody dared to sit on that empty chair, even when mrs. De Vries insisted on it. So, she herself went to sit on it and took the hands of the dying into her hands. When the woman was finally dead, the father and the son held each other in tears. The daughter fell down on the bed of her mother and burst into tears: “She is dead, she is dead”. But nobody dared to hold her hands during her last hours. Then a stranger did!


Ways of touching

People can touch one another in many ways. A handshake (duration, power, temperature, direction, intention) says a lot about a person. The social kiss becomes more and more a fashion. One single kiss is not enough anymore. People hug three times, at least if you want to call that kissing in the air a hug. At a representative touch, the touched person becomes ‘an object’. There is no equality anymore, but condescension.

Laura Reedijk Boersma renders some examples of her collected photographs in her booklet ‘The Aanraking’ (‘The Touch’) about touches/meetings. Like the French President who meets a well-known cook and grabs him by his upper arm and smiles. However, he is actually very conscious of the present photographers and is also trying to make himself loved by the people. The cook looks shy and feels honored. In some photographs you can also see some devoted, warm, sincere touching. That’s how Mrs. Reedijk calls the example of a photo in which the queen gives a kiss to an invalid boy who is lying in bed. So, the quality of every touch depends on the intention, the spirit in which people touch one another.

When a touch takes place between two equivalent persons, is it spontaneous or contrived and is it intended for that one particular person or for the bystanders? A lot of sensitivity is needed for touching a person. There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. There are for instance, different ways of crying. He who is in great sorrow and expresses it by crying silently, will often reject the touch at that moment. He needs to be given time and space to weep. On the contrary, the one who is crying out loud, often wants to be comforted by an arm over his shoulder or a hand on his arm. That kind of weeping is a signal for: Please comfort me! The psychiatrist Schutz rightly writes: embracing someone is often the worst thing you can do. He who embraces too quickly shows no respect for the pain of the other person. The pain should not be belittled with an arm over the shoulder or a premature kiss. That arm is often being shaken off, the kiss rejected, out of irritation, because people have not listened or kept silent long enough. Because not enough time had been given to talk, weep or wail.



Jesus the perfect ‘toucher’

John calls the acts of Jesus signs, which should be symbols of His spiritual life (Jn 2:11; 20:30). These signs were no sorceries, but they were in service of spiritual, moral purposes, and of His love. He was, like people call it nowadays, internally and externally, congruent. This serving love controlled His actions.

Take for example the touching of the sick. In those days a deaf-mute was more an object of dismay than compassion. Jesus approached people with a loving heart and a gentle touch (Mk 7:33). Jesus’ meaningful touching of the sick, and especially the blind and the mute, were fully focused on the other person. How much of a loving warmth must His hand have radiated to the dead little daughter that was lying on the bed? (Mk 5:41). In those days the touching of a dead person was still a matter of great uncleanness. In this view Jesus’ love had also overcome.

The ‘radiation’ of Jesus has always been one of compassion, love and mercy. His gentleness and kindness caused that parents brought their children to Him, so that He could touch them (Mat. 18:12). A sunny warmness had led Him in all His ways, and although Judas would betray Him with a kiss, He blamed Simon the Pharisee for not giving Him a kiss (Lk 7:45). The ancient oriental way to associate a greeting with a kiss, became a Christian habit (Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 1 Pet. 5:14). Jesus as a powerful personality, was also a very sensitive man. He had a delicate soul. When Lazarus died, He saw how Mary and the Jews who were with her, were mourning. He was very moved… and Jesus too started weeping (Jn 11:35). He also cried at the thought of the fall of Jerusalem (Lk 19:41). When He saw the widow walking behind the coffin of her only son (Lk 7:13) He had great compassion with her, which He also did with the people that followed Him in the wilderness when He noticed that they had not much food to eat. When He was speaking seriously about the end times and the great threats, the sorrow moved Him when He thought of the women who in those times of hardship would be in labor or had to nurse their baby during their escape from Jerusalem (Mat. 24:19, 20). And how must Jesus have felt when ‘completely strange’ children loved to be hugged by Him (Mk. 10:16). He was not only concerned about others, but also about His own destiny: “The foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but the Son of men had nowhere to lay His head” (Mat. 8:20).

In the garden of Gethsemane He said to His disciples: “Remain here and keep watch with Me” (Mat. 26:38). With Him we find nowhere in Scripture some suppression of His own emotional life or any kind of stoic insensitivity.

He was sure that He was going to rise three days after His death, but that did not stop Him in His human soul from feeling and wrestling through the great pain and bitterness.



The much-discussed love in the Church of God must also have a practical dimension. Christ desires to touch people tenderly by the hands of the believers and wants to be ‘physically’ close to them. He also wants to use our body to embrace, hug, caress and touch people. Everybody can reach out to it, exercise it and develop it in faith, not in a counterfeit relatedness, but in liberty, driven by the compassion, freedom and love of the Holy Spirit. Of course there are conditions attached to this way of touching in the intimacy of the pastoral care.

Also in pastoral care there are enough examples of abuse.

In psychiatry there is even a prohibition of physical contact with clients, often because of the valid sense of fear that careless application of touching may cause abuse, aggression, manipulation and violence. Touching is a delicate deed which has to do with among others gender and age. Important conditions for touching are: the permission of the person that is touched, the dialogue with the person and colleagues, adapted to the response of the person and tailored to his need, in full transparency, announced or initiated, with respect and warmth with a positive attitude, clear and calm. Furthermore, take a moment for the feelings/perception of the person and of you yourself, selflessly: by discerning your own interest from the interest of the touched person and with a respectful treatment during a functional touch, for example in the (informal) care such as washing, dressing and changing.

This all with paying attention to your own limits as a toucher. It is obvious that when you as a baby and child, were raised affectively in your development and education, these skills of touching are almost natural, while others need to develop and learn it.

Sometimes, it can also be a task of some, often older, spiritually mature sisters, who are functioning in a pastoral team and can touch people in a loving way.

In the past, the Foundation ‘Psycho-Pastoral Care’ provided a training to become a ‘wailing woman’. The naming of wailing women is to be found in the Bible portion of Jeremiah 9:17. It was their duty to help people to express and process their grievances. Especially for people with psychological problems, it is of great importance that they can express their grief to someone who is willing to listen, who has an open heart, with a comforting presence, so that the grief can be also put down in words in prayer.

To unburden your heart in this way in God’s sight, gives room, which is needed to able to breathe again. Nowadays, psycho-pastoral care is still provided in Christian counseling practices or by pastoral counselors who have to give account to the church authority or elders.

Both are needed, professional help and help on a voluntary and unpaid basis as well. However, we should be aware that: it (what exactly) is a principle to which every Christian should pay attention. There must be much more insightful teaching about how to touch others from the love of Christ, in a comforting, serving and often ‘healing’ way. The love of Christ is not only a matter of our personal relationship with God, but above all, He gives us the grace so that His Divine love in our humanness can reach out to others.



1Corinthians 13:4-8:

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. LOVE NEVER FAILS!



By Gerard Feller

An update of the article: Onze contactarme maatschappij. (Our contact/touch-deprived society). (Promise 1992)

Translated by Ursula Moestapa



The used literature:

- Laura Reedijk Boersma, De Aanraking. Ambo-Baarn 1979 
- A. Scheffen, Lichaamstaal en menselijke relaties
- Nelissen/Bloemendaal 1978 
- Mort sans phrases. Medisch contact, 10 juni 1977 
- Desmond Morris, Intiem gedrag, Man watching, London 1977
- dr. H Musaph, Huidcontact. Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde 49, 1974 
- Julius Fast, De taal van het lichaam. Amsterdam 1978 
- W. Gaylin, De zorgzame mens. Baarn 1978


- https://stichting-promise.nl/bijbelstudies-bemoedigend/het-volmaakte-emotionele-leven-van-jezus.htm

- https://forum.viva.nl/psyche/contactarm/list_messages/276443

- Wibe Veenbaas en Piet Weisfelt, Hoe raak ik aan?  Phoenix Opleidingen Utrecht

- Marijke Sluijter, Aanraken een levensbehoefte. Uitgeverij S.W.P BV, sept 2017

- https://www.volkskrant.nl/magazine/knuffelen-als-primaire-levensbehoefte~a849700/ 


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