“I would give anything to have that kind of closeness and contact with someone…”
We don’t really touch each other very much in this society. Oh sure, bodies literally touching other bodies, that happens all the time (see urban mass transit for evidence). That isn’t what I’m talking about. What I’m referring to is actual physical, affectionate, warm, feeling, personal contact.
For example, even when people do touch each other, such as in exchanging a hug, many times a hug isn’t really much of a hug. There are many hugs that are “as if,” going through the motions without either party really being an engaged participant in the act. There are the one arm hugs, sideways hugs, patting hugs, distant hugs, (you know, the kind where two people keep their bodies so far apart they are hugging from different zip codes) and the ultra stiff hugs where muscles are kept way too tense to be eligible for an actual embrace to be the result of close proximity to another body. Seldom is it the emotionally present exchange of two not afraid to express affection, warmth, and feeling as their bodies draw near to each other.
Beyond our hugging that lacks embrace, we often “get together” without being really being present, so that making contact by other means is likewise unavailable to us. How often does eye contact accomplish an exchange of feelings and energies, versus, how often is a glance kept so brief so as to not be touched or elicit feeling?
Recently, I heard a successful, well-educated man speak about noticing romantic couples in public that are physically comfortable with each other, demonstrated by acts such as leaning upon one another while sitting together. He spoke of his longing for this sort of physical closeness and contact, and how much he would be willing to give up if only he could have this.
If one is hungry for contact, societal constrictions can lead people to believe romance is their best chance at finding reprieve from such deep longing and unmet need.
I have no criticism of romance per se, yet I think we are in trouble if this is perceived to be our only option for obtaining close contact and genuine affection.
Alexander Lowen is one of many who have written about the coldness we often unwittingly demonstrate toward children and their needs. Children who are still open enough to feel their longings for closeness, contact and connection, are sent off to go do their homework, chores, or play by themselves. While this is not the case in every home, many children get the message that it is “mature” to be able to be alone, while wanting to be close is “immature,” rejected, and something to be ashamed of. Often this message is communicated in subtleties, not direct, blatant messages.
Emotional health requires flexibility in being able to alternate back and forth between times of aloneness and times of connection with others. Yet in our efforts to foster strength, we have over-valued independence. This has actually accomplished the very opposite of the original goal in that we are weakened by the accumulation of unmet relational needs including affectionate closeness and contact.
Blindness to the cruelty that is innate in our own upbringing, and in our culture is commonplace. We have come to accept coldness as the norm in many situations in our society. Once we have become acclimated and deadened in these ways, the dangerous consequence can be turning away even from situations of extreme cruelty; we look the other way when we see that which ought to disturb us.
Children raised in environments lacking sufficient warmth early in life are prone to becoming adults that perpetrate on others what was done to them. Contempt is pervasive and readily accepted in our culture, even though at its root it is often one of the myriad ways used to mask the inner, unresolved pain. In one form or another, it has become acceptable to say: your pain and suffering is irrelevant to me, and you are to manage it on your own.
It is true that we all have limits, and even if it was possible, it would amount to self-cruelty to dismantle our every defense and seek to process the entirety of the world’s pain all at the same time. Our defenses serve us well and are necessary. It is the cultivation of a conscious selection process with regard to defenses that seems to be missing.
Far beyond an individual experience of unmet longing and pain, there is much more at stake. For those who envision a world where compassionate responses become more commonplace, I need to say that I don’t believe we can fully bring our compassion to life without being able to authentically be in contact with each other. This sense of shared human warmth, including, but not limited to, the warm embrace of letting down into the arms of another, is an essential part of keeping our humanity intact.