It was a 3-hour train ride. We didn’t put the armrest down between us, and for most of the ride, we casually leaned on each other.
“You know,” I said at some point… “I don’t have many friends I can be this cozy with.”
She said, “Me neither, sister,” and we rode on.
My friend Shanna and I had been in New York that weekend–for different reasons–and now we were taking the train down to D.C. together for a clergy conference. It’s one of those conferences specifically for the senior pastors of larger congregations, and let’s just say, when we go to these things there is not exactly a long line for the ladies room. Shanna and I live in the same town; we see each other pretty frequently. We hug a lot. Sometimes we link arms, or even briefly hold hands when emphasizing a point.
On that day, the point was this: it is exhausting to be us sometimes, and it is nice to have a sister to lean against on the train. We didn’t talk about it. We just did it. And it felt like the most normal thing in the world.
But as I said out loud, I don’t have many friends that I do this with, I got to thinking how this has not always been true.
In fact, when I was in high school, my girlfriends and I regularly walked down the hall between classes, arms linked or holding hands. We were utterly undeterred by the occasional adolescent remark about “lesbos.” (OMG, remember when people used to say lesbos?) Anyway, we’d be all, “whatever, we love each other, get out of my face.” It was wonderfully uncomplicated. We would watch a movie at somebody’s house, laying in a heap on the couch. Feet in each other’s laps, playing with hair, heads on shoulders… It’s just what we did.
And it wasn’t just girlfriends either. I have pictures of my high school choir–a very close-knit group–laying in a giant puppy pile on the music room floor. This was a regular occurrence. I will not pretend there was never any more-than-friends activity going on within that group… But for the most part, it was a purely platonic situation.
Why do we outgrow this? I don’t know. But we do. And it’s really too bad.
I’m guessing it’s a combination of things. For one, we are (hopefully) more sexually active as adults than we are as teenagers. When our need for physical touch is being met by an intimate partner, we increasingly equate touch with sex. So we get a lot less comfortable with the kinds of casual touch that meets those needs when we are younger.
Or, we have kids. And, for the love, kids want to be touching you ALL THE TIME. And so sometimes, we are so utterly saturated by their touching that we don’t want anybody else to touch us. Ever.
Factor in the reality that we stake much of our identity on being fiercely independent. I’m looking at the men here specifically, though women are guilty, too. We’re so programmed to not need anything from anyone, to never show vulnerability, that the act of clasping a hand or patting a back seems to take a herculean effort to pull us out of ourselves. Men–hug your bros. I promise it is ok, and we will not find you less manly. In fact, touching another dude shows a certain security with your masculinity. Points for that. Further points for breaking down the culture of toxic masculinity that implies touching is only for purposes of control and domination.There’s also the matter of our comfort level with our own bodies. Can we all just agree that, culturally speaking, we have A LOT of baggage about being okay in the skin we’re in. That has to affect how we see ourselves in relation to others, and how easily we can just “reach out and touch someone,” as the old AT&T commercials go. (OMG, remember when phone commercials used to be about long distance carriers? Lesbos and landlines… this whole post is making me nostalgic).
Anyway. Let’s also acknowledge that our whole culture is fraught with innuendo and over-sexed everything. We don’t want to be misunderstood so we just… keep our hands to ourselves?
I suppose in these days of #MeToo, rampant sexual misconduct and pandemic abuse of power, the drawing of these boundary lines is important. But still–must those lines be so overdrawn that we have to walk around in a bubble at all times? In many ways, it is more important than ever that we have people in our lives–and outside of our intimate partnerships–with whom we are comfortable in this fundamental way.
The physical and emotional benefits of physical touch are broad and varied. There are plenty of studies out there digging into the science of why it’s important, but the bottom line is, affection reduces anxiety; improves mood; and lowers your blood pressure. It’s kind of a no-brainer.
But more than any and all of this, touch connects us. It connects us to each other– overcoming the boundaries of a culture designed to make isolation the most convenient thing imaginable. And it connects us to the world we live in– a world that moves at a frantic pace and pushes us in opposite directions more than it pushes us together. A hug, an arm around the shoulder, the touch of another hand… what a powerful thing to bring us back to ourselves, to the moment, and to who we are in these imperfect bodies.
And sometimes, when it has been a hell of a week, for so many reasons; when there is so much behind, and so much down the track; when so many things are so hard and complicated; it is just so good to sit on a train and lean on a friend for a hot minute, and watch the world go by without you.