A Touch of Human Kindness

There I was, in a hotel in San Francisco, lying in bed with my legs propped up on the headboard.   

It’s really not as naughty as you think. I had been walking around the city with my sisters all day.  My knees were swollen and painful.  I’d had meniscus repair surgery 4 weeks prior, and things weren’t healing well.  So I flopped on the bed, and raised my legs to help reduce the swelling.

That’s when my sister, Sonja, sat down beside me.  She had some magical cream for swelling and pain that she had packed for her own sore shoulder.  She gently started massaging it into my knee.  I instantly felt the pain start to disappear, but the relief was too quick to attribute to the cream.  It was her hands.  

Did I ever know that her hands were so tiny?  I had always been frustratingly aware of her tiny Cinderella feet and not being able to borrow her designer shoes.  But her hands?  Had I ever even touched her hands?  Sisters hug, we don’t shake hands.  When was the last time I had actually felt her hands purposefully touch me?  

I did what most people do when they feel awkward, I giggled.  I made fun of her miniature hands.  I giggled some more.  This was so weird: both being nurtured by my sister and my asinine giggling.  And then I relaxed, and tried really hard not to cry.  Why did thissuddenly feel so emotional?  Being physically cared for feels overwhelmingly divine.

I remember returning to Singapore for a visit, many years after living there, and catching up with my dearfriend Emily who was from the Philippines.  We were walking through the zoo with our kids, and she suddenly grabbed my hand in hers.  And held it!  And kept walking.  Whoa.  This was so awkward.  I was painfully aware that my hand was sweaty. But she didn’t even mind.  She just kept walking and holding my hand, smiling, chatting. Then she switched to walking arm and arm with me.  She was so happy to see me, and she couldn’t believe we were actually together again.  And this was a perfectly normal way for her to show her joy.  Once I got over the mild embarrassment, I felt proud, like “Look at me! I have a friend who loves me enough to hold hands with me!”   And when she randomly released me, I felt comfortably free in my own space again, and a teeny bit abandoned.

And then there’s my yoga instructor.  At the end of each class, as we’re lying on our mats in shavasana, Suzanne comes to each of us with a divinely fragrant oil and gently puts her hands on each of us.  With intention and loving energy, she lightly strokes the back of my neck, and then lets her hands lay heavy on my shoulders.  I can feel myself melting into my mat, while at the same time almost levitating from thevery bearable lightness of being.  

And then there’s Zenaida, who hugs so tight and so long, that things start to feel frozen in time.  It’s like she’s trying to connect her soul to mine.  She is full of love and won’t let go until she’s made sure to transfer a bit of her heart.  She’s also from the Philippines, so clearly, there’s a cultural wealth there!

Do you even remember the last time you were nurturingly touched? By that I mean touched with nothing expected in return.  My children are generous with their hugs, but do I initiate, or do they?  I hug my close friends when I greet them, but is it just out of habit? And don’t even get be started on my husband.  I know he tries valiantly to let a back rub be only a back rub, in spite of Brad Paisley’s reminder that his hand might get swatted.

I shake hands in professional situations, gently comfort a new mom with a reassuring hand on her forearm, I stroke the velveteen head of newborns, wipe the tears of a child.  I massaged my Aunt Gloria’s swollen hands as she was dying.  And she made such happy sounds.  She hadn’t spoken anything intelligible all day, but clearly said “I love you, too” after that.  My hands are constantly giving, and it fills my heart to do so.  But why has it taken me so long to realize that feeling nurtured in return makes me feel so valued and complete?

I guess there’s the awkward factor.  I’m not sure whyis it so weird to accept being nurtured. It can make you feel a bit vulnerable, maybe even “forced” to open up.  I think for me, I am very comfortable in my role as giver, but to receive makes me suddenly aware that I am not an island fortress.  I do have needs that only others can fill.  It feels vulnerable to admit that I can’t do it all.  I know we all crave human touch; newborns settle when held skin to skin, a frightened child gains courage when you hold their hand, a teenager’s angst melts away when you stroke their hair, a massage therapist can remove pain with their nurturing hands.  But for some reason, we limit the human touch we give and receive.  Of course, it’s the socially appropriate thing to do.  We can’t really launch a movement to start being touch-feely or anything.  That’s would freak out a lot of people. So what are we supposed to do?

There’s a quote that I love by Bobby Fischer: “Nothing is as healing as the human touch”. I think our world is desperately in need of healing, with countless souls yearning for connection. Each of us has the power to make a difference starting with letting the kindness that sits deep in your heart, emerge through your hands: a warm hug, an encouraging pat on the back, a reassuring caress on the arm.  We all need human touch.  We all need to be nurtured.  And it’s okay to giggle it bit when it feels both strangely uncomfortable and blessedly right to be cared for.   

Thank you Sonja, for inspiring this blog with your wee hands and enormous heart.

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3 comments for “A Touch of Human Kindness

  1. Shirley Knutson
    January 8, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Oh my goodness, the wisdom and kindness of this blog feels like blessing, and a desire to do better. To not be afraid to connect to other people.
    To not be afraid of emotions. At this very vulnerable time in our lives tears are never far away and I hate crying in front of people. But now I will try to sort out all these feelings and maybe become a more nurturing being, and not be afraid if tears spill over. Thank you!

  2. Karen
    January 8, 2020 at 11:22 pm

    This is beautiful. Thank you Tanja.

  3. Barbara Campbell
    January 9, 2020 at 2:52 am

    Thank you for these beautiful words straight from your generous heart!

    It’s just made me realize how lucky I am for this friend I have in my life. A couple years ago, I met an older man who fits the classic description of a hippy. Long white hair and a beard, clothes from Central America and the smell of patchouli that follows him everywhere. But apart from these exterior considerations, this person is probably the most generous soul I know. He carries in his pocket these business cards that only have 2 words printed on them : Free Hugs. He gives hugs to strangers on the street (after approval of course) and then hands them the card as a reminder that they too in return can give a free hug to someone who needs it, to form a huge “Hug chain”. Isn’t it sweet.

    You could almost say that he’s a “professional hugger”. He also has different types of hugs depending on the occasion. One of my favorite is the one he calls the “Full consciousness hug”. First of all, you can’t be in a hurry to receive this hug, because it requires a minimum of 20 to 30 seconds. So it starts out as a regular hug, and then you have to breath in sink with the other person for at least 3 breaths. So you take a long breath in, then breath out, seconde breath in, then breath out, third breath in, then out slowly. The result is astonishing. Time stands completely still. Other people might look at you funny, cause it makes them feel a bit uncomfortable to see abnormally long hugging between two friends. But you feel so at peace and grounded in the present moment, nothing else seems to matter. It’s very regenerative.

    Of course, regular hugs are great too. But if you have 20 seconds, I dare you to try this with a friend. Once you get past the awkwardness and self-consciousness, it’s an amazing feeling. Happy hugging my friend. xx

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