Human Touch – Part One

friends hugPart One: Hold Me Close But Don’t Touch Me

I’m sure you’ve heard of the “cuddle phenomenon”. If you haven’t, let me give you a crash course, as it supports some recent theories and soul searching questions I have had about humans and our need for affection. Professional cuddling is now a thing – I kid you not. Here is a link to one of many sites where you can hire a strictly platonic snuggle companion: SnuggleBuddies

Basically, if you could use some human physical interaction, without the sexual pressure, you can hire a complete stranger to cuddle with – this is for real.

To be honest, this trend doesn’t surprise me at all, and I have some ideas as to why. But first, do you remember the Friends episode when Joey and Ross are caught napping on the couch together? Hilarious, right? It perfectly illustrates some of what I intend to communicate in the following thoughts.

freinds_nap

Traveling in other cultures, working with people, and personal life experiences have contributed to the swarming thoughts in my mind which can be summed up in the following questions:

Are we as a society too emotionally independent and socially awkward? 

Consider other cultures when compared to the US. Many Eastern and European cultures find it customary to greet one another with a strong embrace followed by a kiss on the cheek or lips. This form of affection is not just reserved for isolated intimate relationships. Even in the ancient Christian text (Rom. 16:16) there is a verse which says to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” It is no secret that over the years, our society has become more afraid of being touched and personal barriers seem to have increased. It isn’t so much that affectionate intimacy does not exist in our culture, but we have given everyone a personal bubble and any affection outside of a committed relationship is perceived as weird, awkward, or inappropriate. Ironically, the often used expression of “personal space” is a concept that is foreign to many non-Westerner’s. How did we become so closed off?

I live in a rural community where I see this independent need for personal space even greater than I visit more urban areas. Folks in our town would rather drive their personal cars than take a bus and may secretly judge you if you do choose to ride the bus. I once told someone I was taking the bus and they asked if everything was alright. No, I did not get a DUI. I had a car, but actually preferred taking a bus. Why is that weird? In larger cities, it is common to commute via public transit where personal space is not much of an option. In general, from my personal experience and observation, personal space still seems to be coveted more by Americans than other countries.

courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Several years ago, during one of my visits to Haiti, I noticed that men on their way to work would walk down the street holding hands. This is a part of the culture which is not only socially acceptable, but completely natural. Two friends, holding hands on their way to work. Women and children do this in our part of the world, but if men were to do this, we would automatically assume they are in a committed homosexual relationship. Of the many phobia’s and fears we have developed as a society, I think one we ought to talk about is our fear of getting too close.

holding hands

Humans need affection. Society, in some ways, seems to have perverted what this looks like. Perhaps we’ve allowed some things to taint our entire view of relationships and the pendulum has swung towards fear and isolation. Not all expressions of love and affection are sexual. We’ve created a culture of fear of getting too close and have turned our part of the world into individuals who fear rejection and being alone. I often wonder if we have forced individuals into a sexual stereotypes because they may not be exactly intended to be in a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but still have basic human needs which include human affection. Celibacy used to be a thing, and now that is portrayed as wrong. When we have created such narrow boarders around expectations and created a compartment based upon our own personal comforts and I ideals, we force more compartments to be created. Simply because, not everyone thinks like you or I. So we have placed negative thoughts onto innocent  interactions and turned them into being “inappropriate”. Not all human affection is inappropriate or sexual, but we have done a good job at creating a great divide. It also seems we assume that everyone is made for someone, when I happen to know some completely content singles. The pressure of media suggests that everyone should have someone, and if not, there might be something wrong with you or you are “different”.

We make basic social interactions awkward. Why do we do that? We stereotype.We are afraid of letting others get too close and worry what people might think way too much. And it’s about time we stop doing this. I’m not promoting an agenda or using this time and space to divulge my personal views on a particular hot topic which is causing even more division in our communities today. I’m simply saying that perhaps we sometimes go too far in assuming something and calling it what it isn’t until it becomes just that.

Are we so worried about what people think that we make too much of an effort to try and portray something different?

I visited a friend’s church in Portland not too long ago. It was a pretty culturally relevant non-denominational community. The pastor was covered in tattoos and it appeared as though everyone could’ve easily been cast in Portlandia. The music and vibe were great. I appreciated that they had a wall of mugs to cultivate a sense of feeling at home and taking care of the environment. For being known as a rather “hip” church, the people didn’t seem too overly pretentious and appeared genuine. Overall, it was a positive experience.

At one point during the pastor’s message, however, there was something that I don’t think was intended, but potentially gave a wrong impression. The pastor read a passage about a guy named John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples leaning on Jesus’ chest during a conversation which took place at the famous Last Supper. At which point, the pastor paused and said something like, “it wasn’t like that”, as if to insinuate a homophobic disclaimer. I’m going out on a limb here, but what a beautiful image of a friend and follower of Jesus being so close in companionship that this scene of John leaning against him was completely wholesome and without any impure motives.

The pastor did not even need to imply or bring such negative attention to such a beautiful thing. If anything, he could have at least elaborated on the appropriateness of such a display of affection and how it is different than whatever it is he was trying so hard not to imply. He potentially made it worse be saying anything at all. I wonder if churches placed more energy into showing what real love could actually look like than fighting what they believe it’s not, if more folks would have a better appreciation for and openness to Jesus.

There is a depth and display of intimacy among humans historically and culturally which is not intended to be exclusively intimate or perverse. Perhaps we as a society have been driven so far in our fears and phobias that we have driven our society to stereotype, label and segregate into communities simply because we don’t feel comfortable with any form of affection that is not somehow sexual.

This entire concept strongly manifested in my soul a couple months ago when I unwillingly entered into one of the most painful and lonely journeys of my life. As life seems to happen, I wasn’t the only person struggling when a friend posted the following image on social media, and I totally identified with it.hug me

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about the challenges in our life than to just hug it out.

While I’ve had many friends and family members who have reached out to me in this season and wanting to talk, I remember thinking and feeling that I just needed to be held in my brokenness. Sometimes, I want to just stop talking about it and feel the warmth of another’s embrace. God surprises me sometimes. I can go seasons of what feels like dry desert doubt in my faith that there could be a God who actually cares about me specifically. Even when in those seasons I still try and “do my part” by praying and reaching out. And then there will be the right person at the right time who does the unexpected not having a clue, what I was needing, but they were used to fulfill that need.

I was at the mechanic shop about to drive my car off the lot, when I ran into a friend and former housemate. I see him randomly in the community a couple times a year, but we have not stayed in contact very well. When he asked how I was doing, I awkwardly shuffled my feet and eventually told him I was walking through a divorce while I looked down at the ground to fight back tears. He asked if he could pray for me, and I accepted. What happened next surprised me. I was expecting a 30 second blessing prayer that everything would “just” workout with very minimal contact. What I received was a full embrace at the mechanic shop which lasted well beyond the awkward threshold. It also happened to be one of the hottest record breaking days in the summer. Two grown men embracing, sweating, crying, and praying in front of a mechanic shop. I don’t even care right now what onlookers must have been thinking.

The next day I ran into a another friend of my parents who I have seen randomly throughout the years. I was at the local outdoor store. She is a cancer survivor, a lover of God and people and an absolute rock star. She doesn’t succumb to cultural expectations of personal space in public settings. I appreciate that about her.. She is also a “hugger”, which might make some people uncomfortable. I appreciate that about her too. I used to be more of a hugger. She always seems to run into me in a moment of need. I hope that I, too,  can be that person for others who struggle on their journey of life. With little information, she felt compelled to embrace me and pray for me.

In both instances, it was as if the same God who saw me in my distress,  whispered a clear directive into her and my other friend’s spirits to fulfill a long unmet need. When friends or family are going through difficult times, it can be easy to talk about it over and over. Professional therapists make decent money in listening, and there is healing in talking, but I have learned that there is also healing in the simplicity of human touch. My next post will be more specifically about how physical touch interacts with mental illness.

As I conclude part one of this topic of human’s need for affection, I invite you to join in the conversation me commenting below following my blog. This journey of discovering what it means to be human is painful and surprisingly beautiful. It requires strength, bravery and vulnerability. Please join in on the conversation and peace to your journey.

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A Lesson From Eric: My Almost Friend

Hey guys! This is a story about bullying I wrote on my old blog page a few years ago. It’s since been used in local classrooms to educate students about the effects of bullying. I’ve recently been asked to share it LIVE at a local story-telling gathering called “The Hearth” on October 9th at the Klamath County Library. I’ll try to post more info on my Facebook page and twitter as it approaches.

Due to the subject matter, perhaps you could share this with a young person you know who is preparing to go back to school in the coming weeks. This could help them to not just be a bystander of bullying.

skunk_jonathancopy

“I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shalt not be a perpetrator; thou shalt not be a victim; and thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander.”

                                                                                  — Yehuda Bauer, Israeli historian

There was a boy in my fifth grade class named Eric.

The school year had barely started and it didn’t take long to figure out who would be at the bottom of the pecking order. Although I had my share of being on the receiving end of bullying throughout my elementary years, nothing came remotely close to the type of bullying that was directed toward Eric.

He wore coke bottle glasses, old ratty clothes and messy hair before it was hip. He had no friends. He sat alone. He wandered the playground alone. The highlight of his day was when he would find a quarter on the ground so that he could play a video game at the local gas station after school.

The kids at school were cruel. They would constantly shove Eric out of the lunch line, making him go to the back. I saw some kids spit at him. Other times they would grab his glasses and throw them to the ground. One boy, named Brent, would hit Eric multiple times while a few other girls and boys laughed and encouraged the bullying. Most of us just stood there.

I seem to remember the teacher would keep an extra comb for him in her desk so that on the days his hair was really a mess, she would dismiss him to go to the bathroom and comb his hair. Even worse, he always smelled bad. It was the kind of stench that makes your eyes water. Some days were worse than others. One day, the teacher had the janitor take Eric out of class to be bathed. Once Eric was out of the room, the teacher apologized to the rest of the class for having to put up with his stench. With tears in her tired eyes, she rebuked anyone who laughed, explaining it wasn’t his fault. However, I remember times when she would give in to scorning him as well.

In the weeks that followed, I noticed how Eric’s mom treated him when she picked him up from school. I saw the bruises, the broken glasses. Eric was regularly late for school and then there were days he didn’t show up at all, even though everyone knew he wasn’t sick.

When he was home, he was neglected and abused. When he was at school he was bullied and harassed. There was no end to his mistreatment, humiliation, and torment. He was only 11 years old. So was I. What could I do?

In the spring, my best friend, Mark, had the idea to make an effort to befriend Eric. For nearly a week or so, our little group of four friends made it our mission to reach out to him. We invited him to sit with us, hangout with us on the playground, or just talk. But he rejected us. He was already so withdrawn and beaten down he didn’t trust anyone. He even said he believed our efforts to be friends with him were only to take advantage and humiliate him even more.

Where were we when he needed us before? The school year was nearly over. Why did we wait until now to reach out? Where were we when Brent would punch him in the stomach? Where were we when those girls shoved him out of the lunch line, making him go to the very back? Where were we the numerous times the sixth graders grabbed his glasses and threw them on the ground? And even worse, where was I? I was merely an innocent bystander. But the words “innocent” and “bystander” don’t go as well together as we would like.

The school year ended and I felt I had failed. Not at school, but at being a friend. I couldn’t wait until the following year where I could start the year befriending Eric. I even considered inviting him to my house during the summer, but I wrestled with the fact that mine and my friends’ efforts to befriend him earlier in the spring were rejected. Regardless, I decided the following year would be different.

Not long into the summer, my mom read a story in our local newspaper that piqued her interest. She asked me if I knew a boy named Eric who was my age. “Yeah, he was in my class…Why? What happened?” She read me the article about a family who was playing at a nearby lake and the boy named Eric had drowned. After bursting into tears, it took me quite a while before I could tell my mom everything about him and what our fifth grade year was like. I don’t know why I waited so long to tell her, and I’m not sure if I could bring myself to tell her everything I was feeling at the time. It was too much regret and remorse for an 11-year old to process. Even writing this and thinking of Eric makes my eyes fill with tears and my heart is in my throat.

Over the years I’ve thought to myself. “What if the last year of his life on this planet wasn’t so terrible?” “What if I had befriended him sooner?” “Why didn’t I intervene sooner?” “Why did this have to happen like this?” I even remember thinking the horrifying thought that maybe this was the best thing considering how awful his life must have been.

***

I recently attended a class reunion, which was organized by a good friend. It has been over twenty years since Eric’s tragic death. Even though I had moved to another school after my fifth grade year, my friend insisted I attended the reunion anyway. I agreed, with hesitance. It is a small school and a tough group who didn’t have much in common. Most of my remembrances were painful and uncomfortable. Some of the attendees had memories which carried on through high school, while some of us sat on the edge of our seats secretly considering an early exit strategy.

Until the reunion at a local pizzeria, I hadn’t talked to any of my friends or former classmates about Eric, but I couldn’t help but wonder after all of those years if anyone else carried the shame and regret that I had.

That evening, I sat across from a man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He explained how he had a rough life and was recently released from prison. The more he talked, the more familiar he became, but I still couldn’t place him.

Everything was going about as awkwardly as any class reunion when I finally asked, “Does anyone remember the kid in our fifth grade class…Eric?” The table went quiet. Everyone’s eyes grew bigger and a few even welled up with tears. And then a group of thirty-something’s began to share stories of how horrible they felt after that year. Some shared how they wish they would have stepped in. Then the biggest bully of all spoke up. Sitting directly across the table from me was Brent, who, while fighting back tears shared how often he had thought about how mean he was to Eric.

In fifth grade, it was easy to separate the bully from the bystander. But twenty years later, I didn’t feel that different from the guy across the table from me. Sure, he was the bully. He had made criminal choices that caused him to live many of his adult years in and out of jail. But in this moment, as our eyes locked and we shared about an eleven-year-old boy who was tormented, bullied, and picked on followed by a horribly tragic death, it didn’t matter who was the bully and who was the bystander. We felt the same regret about the situation. We both bared the scars of having somehow been a part of inflicting pain and injustice on a boy with a disheveled life and broken heart. We both grieved the loss of a young life that was taken too soon.

We all have an Eric in our lives. Either in our community, schools or workplaces, beautiful people like Eric are everywhere. Life has dealt them a difficult hand. They are abused, bullied, and victimized. How we respond to the Eric’s in our lives may not only bring light and life to their world, but change ours as well. Even if we aren’t the perpetrator of evil, being a bystander doesn’t make us innocent.

Although we all share scars of bullying and regret, we still have a life of pursuing justice before us. Now that we know better, we can do better. Our tongues have been said to have the power of life and death. Let us consider how we treat one another and how we respond to the injustices of this world. We can be the perpetrator, the bystander or the hero. Sometimes being the hero of the story is simply being a friend to the friendless. If you have nothing else to offer, your friendship can change someone’s entire world. Together, we can face the bullies on life’s playground and be the change we want to see.