It is fascinating when we begin to listen to what we say in common figures of speech. Many of these phrases have reference to physical sensing. We reference sight when we say, “Oh, I see!” We mean we understand something, which invokes a different kind of seeing that does not involve our physical eyes. We can sense a plea for help without using our physical ears. We can feel touched by a kind word or sympathetic expression on someone’s face without using physical touch through our skin. There are many inner, intangible experiences we have in ways related to the physical sense world. It is as though the physical avenue of sensing is lifted up to a higher, more subtle level where our inner lives are activated in their own exploration of an interior world of feelings. It is well-validated when the physical senses are offered satisfying, reassuring sensations on the outside of the body, the feelings within our inner landscape feel reassured and nourished, too.
We all need touch. The sensation of touch is one of the first and most important experiences a human being has in feeling the uterine contractions during birth. This squeezing massages and tones up the baby’s system to get ready to take on the world of light, sound, temperature, smell, and taste. Babies feel calmed by being swaddled—wrapped up really tightly and snuggly in a blanket, so they can feel a secure boundary enclosing them. Rudolf Steiner described with touch we have not only a physical encounter with the outer world but also, and more importantly, an inner experience within which affirms for us where the world stops and where our own selves begin. Feeling the boundary of our skin makes us feel secure. A child once verbalized this to me. I was applying a band aid to his small, bleeding wound. The child said (in so many words), “Oh, good! Now all my good stuff is safe inside me. It won’t run out.” The barrier of the band aid offered repair to the shield of security. Our skin holds together the reassurance of our physical wholeness. Feeling physically whole, we translate that into emotional wholeness. We need regular, reassuring reminders through touch that our whole-nesses are intact.
In our extraordinary time of COVID-19, our usual opportunity for sensory experience is deprived, especially in the domain of touch. This is a problem. If left unacknowledged and unattended, it becomes a kind of sensory starvation. This deprivation can result in rough, aggressive behaviors, and wildness on the one hand. If unsatisfied for too long, the starving person withdraws and begins to fade away. If the usual sources for touch such as active, physical, colliding play with other children, hugs from teachers and friends, and the usual bumping and encountering with classmates are missing, the caring grownups in the children’s private, home lives have to get playful, get physical, and get rowdy if the appetite for touch is big. We have to give an intentional enriched touch diet to our children to keep them happily in their skin.
Think of all the ways we touch in our families. We know our children’s tolerance for touch and will gauge the intensity of our play accordingly. Rough-housing is potent sensory food. Lots of touch, squeezing, rolling, colliding, pressing, hugging, massaging, and so on open the doors to getting wound up so the child can wind down with a feeling of satisfaction. Here I am. I feel myself. I am all in one piece. I am whole. I feel secure and satisfied. At bath time, washing the child with a firm scrub of the wash cloth is an opportunity. Drying the child off vigorously with a towel after the bath is another great one. Our children let us know where their thresholds lie between what feels good and what is too much. We adjust accordingly.
Something which may seem surprising is to learn firm touch—oftentimes firmer than we would guess—is more comforting and reassuring than light touch. We can experiment on ourselves to confirm this. Start at your shoulder and slowly squeeze with your other hand all the way down the arm to the hand and fingers. Do this one time rather softly and gently. Then repeat this with firmer pressure. Most people find the firmer pressure more satisfying and relaxing than the softer touch. Keep increasing pressure until you find your own level of pressure that feels good. Partners can do this for each other. Adults need touch, too.
To take this a step further, we can make a sandwich of family members stacking on the floor with cushions or pillows in between us, the last grownup on top applying body pressure to everyone below. Everyone can get a good squashing with a lot of laughter filling the air as well.
Appreciating firm, squeezing touch is true for children, too. Years ago a teacher in our school was away from the class for several weeks. The young, inexperienced assistant was left with the class. The afternoons were bedlam. I went into to help and was astonished by two boys I knew well, wrestling at the back of the room in a most indecorous way. My teacher’s ire flared up and commanded they stop the wrestling right that minute. They complied, but no one was happy.
The next day I returned after thinking about this situation. My wiser self knew the boys were not trying to be disruptive. The deprivation of their beloved teacher was leaving everyone feeling insecure and untethered. The reassurance of his hand shake, the touch of his gaze, the warmth of his voice were all missing. The children were touch-deprived in all these subtle ways.
I approached the boys differently this day. I invited them to come into the hallway with me, assuring them they were not in trouble. I sat them each down on a chair and, one after the other, I gave them a firm squeeze treatment on their limbs, even down to squeezing fingers and toes. We had barely begun when the first little boy said, “This is what I have been waiting for!” and then puddled down into his chair with a relaxed body and look of contentment and calm on his face. His wrestling partner showed the same relieved response.
In this time, we are all deprived, grownups as well. We need to be able to touch and to be touched. We will all be changed in ways we cannot predict by this big disruption to our lives. We can bolster each other up, however, by being attentive to touch and to nourishing our other senses, too. We can touch with the warmth and invitation in voice. We can appreciate and reassure with the touch of our eyes. We can nourish our hearing with music—real human voice in singing, especially. We can touch one another’s hearts in reading stories of the goodness people share in trying times. All these things can lift us as we make these heavy times merrier through our touching companionship with one another.