Keep in Touch

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 5, 2020

One of my earliest memories was of somebody saying to me, in a kindly tone, “MUSTN’T TOUCH!” I don’t recall anything else about the incident – but those words – and even that tone of voice – have lingered with me as a mild rebuke whenever I’ve been tempted to put a finger someplace where I knew it shouldn’t be.

All of our many “sense” words are connected with the idea of feeling. And you need not be a neurologist to know that of all our senses, the sense of touch is the most crucial to our survival as a species. After all, what would sex be without it?

And those widely-distributed touch-sensitive nerves are, of course, our bodies’ primary means of contact with the external world. Nobody knows more about that than blind people. But what, after all, does this sense of touch tell us? The most important question it answers is: “Is anything there?” If there is, it can provide us with much information about size, shape, texture, temperature, moistness, sharpness, hardness, density, and pliability.

But let’s not go too far here. Most of us have probably come upon the parable about the Blind Men and the Elephant. A group of blind men explore an elephant, having no advance idea what it is. One, feeling the trunk, thought it must be a thick snake. One, whose hand reached its ear, said it seemed like some kind of fan. A third, grasping its leg, thought the elephant was a pillar, like a tree-trunk. Yet another, feeling its side said that the elephant must be a wall, and finally the blind man at the tail was sure that the elephant was a rope.

This story, of course, is about much more than the limitations of our sense of touch. The elephant is cosmic reality, which we puny mortals can scarcely comprehend, except within the bounds of our own experience – which is bound to result in distortions and misapprehensions of the truth.

“Keeping in touch” is our metaphor for maintaining contact, which is itself only another metaphor for the same concept. In fact our very word “tact,” with all its implications of sensitivity to persons, places, and situations, has its origins in the concept of touch.

When Michelangelo, about five centuries ago, depicted God giving life to Adam (in his famous fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) it was the sense of touch which was the dominant symbol, with two hands reaching out towards each other, two fingers not yet quite touching. One of my own early illustrated epigrams was only four words long. It said “I HOPE YOU’RE FEELING” – and as an illustration, I could think of nothing more appropriate than a close-up rendering of those same two hands. (It may interest you to know that when my very literal-minded father first saw this message, he couldn’t understand it. His comment was “feeling what?” In a way, I could sympathize with this reaction, because, conventionally, those four words were always followed by at least one more word, such as “better,” to complete the thought. But my contribution, by leaving “feeling” dangling, was to give it a whole new meaning of its own.)

Which brings us back to the sense of Touch. Modern medicine and dentistry have developed means of de-sensitizing certain “local” areas of our body in order temporarily to deaden the sensation of pain. But it is not only pain which we cease to feel in those areas. They become totally numb, and the numbness can sometimes annoyingly take some time to wear off.

Our word “anesthesia” does not mean, as you might think “without pain.” It means “without feeling.” “Esthetics” relates to the whole concept of personal feelings, particularly with regard to pleasurable responses to art and beauty. One of the first modern anesthetics – nitrous oxide – does indeed not only suppress pain, but can also create a sense of hilarity – hence its sobriquet of “Laughing Gas.” When properly used in a medical or dental setting, it can allow the patient to remain conscious, while still suffering no painful feelings.

And then there is the handshake – an ancient form of greeting, with much symbolic value, beyond merely revealing the absence of a weapon. Today, however, with sanitation so potent an issue, we are unhappily conflicted between appreciating the warmth of a friendly grasp, and fearing possible contagion. Yes, it’s a touching dilemma. (Or, as the sport of fencing has taught us to say, “touché!”)


You might also be interested in...