Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Psychology of Human Touch

Good Sunday evening.

I am in high spirits tonight because, despite the usual exhaustion that accompanies parenting two young kids who dirty their clothes, don't bathe themselves, & are constantly invited to birthday parties, tomorrow is President's Day . . . meaning I have packed no lunches today, graded nothing, planned nothing, & will be in sweatpants all day tomorrow. Bless the presidents & their special day.

A few noteworthy things happened last week. I got a haircut, so there's that. The children enjoyed their respective Valentine's Day parties; for Reagan, insulin flowed freely all day. On Friday, my parents & my in-laws journeyed to school to witness Henry's Valentine's Day program, after which Henry left school with my mom for a day-o-fun that went like this:

While Henry was enjoying his day with Nana, Reagan & I left school & picked Trey up at the eye doctor's office. He was unable to drive because his eyes were dilated, so we got some ice cream & then moseyed on over & gave him a ride home. The three of us arrived home, dumped all the school bags in the house, fed the dog, & then headed to my parents' house to retrieve Henry. 

I'm inundating you with these lame details to say this: while my parents watched the kids, Trey & I ate dinner at Log Cabin in Ruston, home of my very favorite fajita nachos. But oh. Wait. Friday night I was feeling bold. I ordered their BBQ nachos (minus the pulled pork because, as you longtime readers know, I do not eat pork). I think I like the BBQ nachos more than the fajita nachos. Stay tuned for more on this development. 

It is admittedly a terrible time for me to discover new & fabulous nachos because I am, as of about noon today, drastically cutting carbs from my life. I'd like to drop a few pounds, & I also feel it's just time for a good detox. Carbs are addictive, & I find myself craving things lately, craving things so much I consider doing ridiculous things like driving into town for a shake late at night or ordering BBQ nachos to-go & sitting in my car eating them all by myself while listening to the Eagles. So anyway, pray for me & my family & my students as I begin this detox process. 

So, onto the matter at hand. I haven't earned a degree in psychology since last I blogged, so don't take what you're about to read as gospel. I'm sharing some thoughts I think are important based on what I've observed as a mom, a teacher, & a member of the human race who generally has the same needs as all you fine people.

Last week one of my students spoke in chapel at school. She stood before her teachers & peers & shared some harrowing details from her past. In her closing remarks, she made a statement that stuck with me with such an insistent permanency that here I sit, still thinking about what she said & typing away. 

The young lady I've referenced experienced physical abuse as a child, & as is so often the case, the abuse was sexual in nature. After sharing her journey to Christ with us, in her closing remarks she made what she likely thought was a throwaway comment about hugging. I am paraphrasing, but she basically encouraged her peers not to see her differently or treat her any differently, adding with a laugh that she's not a big hugger. Ah, of course you're not, I thought. 

Her words took me back to a most fascinating conversation I had last year about this time with my AP class. We'd just finished reading C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters & were making our way through Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. We spent one Friday discussing, among other things, dress codes & appropriate physical touch in dating relationships. Yes, yes we did. 

After this discussion I spent the weekend putting together some notes. Some of what I'm sharing now is taken from those notes. At present, my AP students are reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, & they are making comments similar to those I heard from last year's AP group. The novel is sectioned into three parts. In Book I, the reader is introduced to Winston Smith. Winston has a variety of interesting dreams in Book I, & one dream in particular always alarms students. 

Winston inhabits a world in which he is repressed in every way a person can be repressed. He has no outlet via which he can exercise what are normal human desires, such as the desire to express himself, to create art, to explore the physical world around him, to love & be loved by another. His every move is regulated, serious efforts are underway to regulate his thoughts, & thus his repressed desires often manifest themselves via his dreams. I say all this to say that when students ask, "Um, what's up with Winston's dream? What is his problem?" I always come to Winston's defense. His problem is that his God-breathed humanity is being thwarted & twisted in bizarre ways, & history (& all Dystopian literature) tells us this has disastrous consequences. 

Last year, I didn't plan to teach Nineteen Eighty-Four on the heels of The Screwtape Letters for strategic reasons, but it turns out this works well. In sections of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis addresses basic human needs, the fact that God, via the family, provides a healthy way to satisfy these needs, & the fact Satan uses our needs for his purposes. The Screwtape Letters is a great read for teenagers, but it's also a great read for parents. Take note: if you don't meet your children's needs, Satan is at the ready to suggest alternatives that will only lead to pain & destruction. God knows what we need because He created us, but Satan also knows what we need. 

God designed us to need each other. He immediately gave Eve to Adam. Even between people who share a functional, healthy sexual relationship, not all touch they share is sexual. Children, who have no sexual desire, most clearly manifest the need we have to be held/touched because they literally cry for it when they crave it. Even when their physiological needs have been met, meaning they're not hungry, tired, or sitting in a soiled diaper, babies will cry until someone holds them. I could here insert a long & fascinating commentary on breastfeeding, but I will resist that urge. 

Inadequate (or inappropriate) physical touch can potentially lead to violence in children (& adults) & can potentially stunt their ability to trust others & form healthy relationships because people need to learn to build non-sexual intimacy before leaping into the sexual arena. A wealth of research suggests there are numerous benefits to children & students whose parents & teachers touch them (in healthy ways, obviously). It builds trust & has a positive impact on self-esteem, for starters. 

The world is unfortunately full of people whose need for physical touch was neglected when they were young, or the only touch they experienced was of a disciplinary or sexual nature. Evil exists, & thus children must sadly be taught the difference in "good" touch & "bad" touch. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis highlights this as one of the many ways Satan takes what is good (loving human touch) & twists it to serve his purposes. When you factor in children & young adults who view adults with skepticism thanks to the neglect or abuse they experienced at the hands of an adult & well-meaning adults who fear accusations of abuse of some sort, we have become a hands-off society; this fact always makes me think of Winston Smith. 

Distracted, busy parents, teachers who are also busy & may fear accusations & lawsuits, & the digital world in which we live are conspiring to deprive kids of the basic need they have to be held, to be touched, to share a physical connection with another human. An excellent gauge of a culture is the way a culture views touch. We preach individualism, we value our personal space, & we shove electronic devices in children's hands. In a thousand ways, our culture discourages human touch. Our world is not identical to Winston's, but there are similarities. When humans are denied healthy, normal touch, things usually get ugly (cue Winston's aforementioned disturbing dream). Violent behavior, unhealthy sexual behavior, or some conflation of the two often results (see: Christian Grey). 

Winston spends much of his time in physical isolation; he lives alone, & he is not allowed to talk freely with his coworkers. The Party allows Winston no normal, healthy outlet for sexual desire. When he briefly escapes the clutches of The Party, the reader realizes that Winston has been so physically & psychologically warped he doesn't know how to have a normal relationship when the chance presents itself. 

C.S. Lewis's commentary on relationships in The Screwtape Letters is fantastic. He recognizes the folly in attempting to deny or repress what are normal desires. Humans have a knack for taking that which God intended for good & twisting it. Consider that the reproductive question is always addressed in Dystopian literature (think The Giver in addition to Nineteen Eighty-Four). Usually the solution to the reproductive issue is to attempt to remove the humanity from it, meaning all joy, all pleasure, all emotion. To what do these things point? Joy, pleasure, emotion . . . they all point directly to Him with whom they originate, God. God is never welcome in Dystopian worlds, & familial bonds are discouraged or somehow warped. To whom does the family unit point? The bond between parent & child? To God, of course. 

In addition to its commentary on the importance of language, one of my favorite messages from Nineteen Eighty-Four is that you cannot regulate the humanity out of humans. What is the whole point of the New Testament? That the law is no good; it is incompatible with the human condition. I think C.S. Lewis would agree. 

I say all this to say this, to echo Leo Buscaglia's comments that are quoted above: Sometimes it is said of a misbehaving child that he, "Didn't get enough hugs when he was young." There is maybe some truth to that. Sometimes when Henry is whining for me to, "way with him," at night, I think about all this. He loves for me to lay with him &, "wub my arm."

When they're young, they will spell out their needs for you. As they age, they ask for things in different, sometimes confusing, sometimes passive-aggressive ways, but the need is still the same: hug me, connect with me, affirm my humanity, please reach out to me, I feel desperately alone.

Wednesday morning I listened to my student share her heart in chapel; Wednesday afternoon I learned of yet another school shooting. I have two kids, & they dominate my life, as they should. They are my priority, but I have always tried to make myself available to students even if only for ten or twenty minutes when they need to talk. It is unbelievable how many of them need to talk. I know Satan attacks us individually where we are weak, but I am convinced he targets institutions as well, namely churches & the family unit.

Consider how many lives, how many souls, Satan might claim by destroying just one family. He doesn't have to drag every young person to hell by convincing them to destroy their life with alcohol or drugs; if he can convince a father of four to ignore his kids, to beat his kids, or simply to walk away, there is considerable destruction left in his wake.

I am not so naive as to think a hug is all a young person needs when they're plagued by years of abuse or neglect, when they're clinically depressed & maybe even suicidal. It can't hurt though. What I hear from students, no matter the specifics of their circumstances, is I am alone. They may be surrounded by people every day, rubbing shoulders with classmates in the hall, disciplined by teachers, & yelled at by parents, but at the end of the day they crawl in bed alone, & they feel desperately alone because they can't remember the last time anyone touched them lovingly.

We were designed for one another; Christians needs their brothers & sisters in Christ, children need their parents, wives need their husbands. There are people who, through no fault of their own, have no one in their life who regularly hugs their neck. This is hard for me to fathom; I have two kids who want kisses & hugs every night. I have a son who searches for excuses to crawl in bed with me at night (I never kick him out). He curls into me, & he immediately goes back to sleep. Sometimes I listen to the deep, peaceful rhythm of his breathing before I nod back off. He spends most of his day away from me, & I hate that. Without consciously realizing it, he tries to make up for lost time at night, & I am fine with that. I am more than fine with that.

This is perhaps the longest advertisement for the hug that ever there has been, but I do think it's important. I know it's important; if you don't believe me, read Nineteen Eighty-Four, or come run interference for me circa two am & explain to Henry why he needs to return to his bed.

Hug your loved ones today & every day. Consider a few others you could add to your hug list. If you're off tomorrow, enjoy President's Day. If you're not off tomorrow, please don't call or text me before ten am. 


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