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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Human Contact

By Felicity McInnes

All humans need physical contact. Physical touch has been linked to all kinds of health benefits, from relieving depression, stress, anxiety and pain, to actually healing a person physically. Premature babies grow and thrive better when regularly touched, while it has been found that a baby left untouched will become very sick, or even die.

Growing up, I never had any problems absorbing the love of my family through physical contact. There were always siblings to be hugged and babies to be held. We would cuddle, wrestle and kiss.

This all changed when I left home for the convent. This very strict convent had all kinds of rules limiting communication, from a rule of silence, to separate rooms (or "cells") for the sisters to sleep in, to barriers between sisters in their pews, to a huge gate barring the sisters from the public. There were rules for everything, and most of them seem to have been designed to make each sister as invisible as possible.

I actually didn't mind being silent. I understood that to foster a prayerful environment, there had to be rules (even though I broke them often). I saw the individual cells as a privilege (I couldn't remember the last time I had a room just for me!). I didn't even mind the huge bars between me and the public, making me look like an animal on display.

What I found myself missing was human touch. Whether it was by accident or design, the sisters did not touch each other. No hugs, no touching hands or shoulders, nothing. I would go to bed at night and yearn even for the brief hug and kiss I used to get from my parents before bed. I didn't want much. Just a hug. And I never got one.

Eventually I realised the only time that the sisters ever touched was during Mass. The priest would invite us to exchange the Sign of Peace. Where most people would shake hands or kiss, we had a ritual. The junior nun would put her hands together in the gesture of prayer, and the senior nun would put her hands over them. Then both nuns would bow their heads as they exchanged the words: 

"Peace be with you." 

"And also with you."

It was all rather stylised. And it certainly didn't make me feel very loved. I felt lonely.

I left the convent, and in time, travelled across the country to Perth, Western Australia. Again, I found myself very lonely. This time, however, I was lucky enough to be part of a church community where physical touch was welcome. I remember going to prayer gatherings, where I had made friends with a little girl named Bridget. She used to ask permission from her mum, and run over to me to sit in my lap, hugging me while everyone sang.

This little girl made me feel so loved. I don't think she ever realised that often when I held her, I had tears in my eyes. The unconditional love, expressed through a hug, made me feel better when everything else in my life seemed to be going wrong.

Today, I have an inexhaustible source of comfort from my husband, who never seems fazed when I demand a hug. Sometimes I wonder if he knows why I prize our hugs so much, that because I had been deprived of human contact, I now crave touch. It probably doesn't matter. Graham gives amazing hugs, and I am able to just relax and enjoy the moments I spend in his arms.

My littlest sister Gemma-Rose is known in our family as the best kisser and hugger. I remember reading a story of my mother's where Gemma-Rose protested that she was dissatisfied with this role. She wanted to be bigger and have more responsibilities. I only wish I could let her know just how important her role really is, that everyone would find themselves sad and lonely without her enthusiastic hugs and smacking kisses.

Yes, Gemma-Rose has the most important role in the family. Because cuddles are all about sharing love, and that is the most important job of all.

Please share more of Felicity's posts at her blog, Felicity's Felicity


  1. Felicity
    wow, what a voice you have! I'll be thinking about this all night now.

  2. Erin, thank you! I must attribute my writing style to my mum, who taught me how to write well.

    People don't think a lot about the sense of touch, except in negative ways, I find. It was interesting for me to realise that during my time in the convent, what I missed most was being touched.

    Please, if you find my posts at all interesting, feel free to have a look at my blog. I try to update every couple of days, so there will always be something new to read!