One morning last week, I sat in a shady sidewalk café in Ramat Gan and chatted comfortably with a former work colleague and friend whom I had not seen – nor had any contact with – for almost 20 years. We had moved to different cities, so that was a sort of excuse, but not really.
She had sounded genuinely joyful at hearing from me after such a long interval, and in the event the act of reconnecting felt as natural as picking up a thread that had been left awkwardly dangling and weaving it back into a meaningful pattern.
As we filled each other in on our lives during the past two decades, I reflected that the words “we fell out of touch” – and who has not uttered them? – are, perhaps, among the saddest said about people we were once close to; not as dramatic or painful as death, to be sure, but a severance nevertheless, a dryingup where once there was a flow of human connection.
My husband likes to say that “you can’t make new old friends,” and he’s right. In addition, old friends possess the unique ability to assure you that you yourself were, indeed, once young.
REFLECTING ON being in touch inevitably led me to the computer, whose functioning relies so much on our actual, physical touch. There’s no argument that this amazing, ever-evolving technology can keep us in touch with others in ways barely dreamed of not so long ago – the explosive incursion into our lives of social media such as Facebook being a prime example – but it has at the same time generated a whole different order of interpersonal relationships, including a dramatic expansion of the boundaries of what we understand as friendship.
In a post in Psychology Today, best-selling author Adam Grant noted that “someone recently called my brother-in-law a ‘dear friend,’ but didn’t bother to attend his wedding.” Judging from his own recent Facebook friend requests, he went on to say, “my ‘friends’ apparently include a person who ignored me in grad school, a second cousin’s high school classmate, a colleague’s mentee, a Pee Wee soccer teammate I vaguely remember, and some guy who sat at a table near me at a restaurant once.”
The disparity between these descriptions of casualness and the more intimate bond we think of ourselves as having with a friend drove Grant to formulate some rules for when it is “fair game” to use the term: “You’ve actually met in person,” and have the mutual trust that develops from meeting face-to-face.
“You know embarrassing things about each other that don’t show up in a Google search.” Self-disclosure – opening up and making oneself vulnerable – is one of the strongest drivers of close relationships.
“You can call each other without scheduling a conversation.
“You never discuss the weather... Friends don’t bother with small talk. They can go months without talking, and pick up as if they’ve never skipped a beat.
“You help each other without keeping score.” In professional relationships, Grant says, most people follow the norm of reciprocity; in friendships, the norm shifts from reciprocity to generosity.
“You’ve had meaningful experiences together.” If your relationship hasn’t involved mutual activities and shared memories, you’re probably not friends.
“You give the critical feedback that we don’t want to hear, but need to hear.” Friendships have the capacity to withstand criticism and bounce back from strain.
Or as musician Jonathan Davis put it more bluntly: “Real friends stab you in the front.”
According to American sociologist Nicholas A. Christakis, people on average have about 106 Facebook friends, “but only five or six real friends.”
Which, to me, feels like a more than sufficient number of people to keep in regular touch with.
THERE IS the language of words, and there is the language of touch, which comes powerfully into its own when words fail, or aren’t enough.
In a place where emotions run deep, in a shiva mourning house, for example, a hug or even touch of the hand can express compassion when words seem inadequate or trite.
Many people say they feel uncomfortable going to a shiva because they “don’t know what to say,” forgetting that there are other ways of communicating.
“I sometimes think that a moment of touching is the difference between complete, utter despair and the ability to carry on,” wrote author Eleanor Cameron.
EVEN WITHOUT the experts telling us so, we know instinctively that we crave the touch of other human beings and suffer when deprived of it.
In the early 1900s, leading pediatricians decided that parents were spoiling their children by holding and cuddling them too much. This led to a trend of “hands-off” parenting – and, within a few years, to a dramatic increase in infant deaths in seemingly healthy babies.
It soon became apparent that these infants’ “failure to thrive” stemmed from a lack of human contact via touch. Several studies of babies in orphanages have concluded that infants who suffered from touch deprivation achieved only half of the height normal for their age.
At the other end of the age spectrum, elderly inhabitants of old-age homes who weren’t touched enough were observed instinctively stroking their own arms, trying in this poignant manner to make up for the human contact they were not getting and so much needed.
I FIRST came across Temple Grandin in Oliver Sacks’s book An Anthroplogist on Mars (1995), in which he devoted a chapter to a day spent in the company of this highly gifted and successful professor of animal science, who is also autistic.
I am just now reading Grandin’s own very approachable book Thinking in Pictures, which presents a fascinating “inside narrative” of autism.
From Sacks’s book I was already familiar with Grandin’s innovative method of getting hugged, but in her book she elaborates on her “squeeze machine,” which she invented at the age of 18.
She explains that while many autistic children crave pressure stimulation, their oversensitive nervous systems mean they cannot tolerate being touched; however, it is much easier for a person with autism to tolerate touch if he or she initiates it.
She built her first hug machine on the pattern of a cattle squeeze chute she saw on her aunt’s ranch in Arizona, which she initially tried out on herself, with this result: “At first there were a few moments of sheer panic as I stiffened up and tried to pull away from the pressure, but I couldn’t get away because my head was locked in.
Five seconds later I felt a wave of relaxation, and about 30 minutes later I asked Aunt Ann to release me. For about an hour afterward, I felt very calm and serene.
My constant anxiety had diminished. This was the first time I had ever felt really comfortable in my own skin.”
SOMETIMES IT takes an extreme case like Grandin’s to drive home the importance of what we see as a simple action; for me, the word “touching” in the sense of moving or affecting has acquired a deeper significance.
I am also more aware of the importance of human touch, especially to those who may not be getting enough of it.
Temple Grandin doesn’t use a squeeze machine these days. She told Time magazine in 2010 that her machine had broken down two years earlier, and she never got around to fixing it because “I’m into hugging people now.”