One of my friends started an organization called World Next Door (www.WorldNextDoor.org) as a way to awaken ordinary people to global issues such as poverty, social injustice and AIDS. He and his team travel across the globe and recently stayed in Haiti. While there, he posted this as his Facebook status:
Slept at the orphanage last night. Those kids are PRECIOUS! But they broke my heart too. They didn’t even know how to hug!
I stared at that last sentence. How? How could a child not know how to hug? What kind of life must you live to lack the knowledge of something that seems so intuitive? Someone comes toward you with open arms and you wrap your arms around them in return.
Unless no one has ever come toward you with open arms.
I have struggled to envision when and how my friend first understood that these children did not know what it meant to give or receive a hug. Did he teach them how to wrap their arms around his body? Did their bodies melt into his at this new sensation? Did it feel foreign or did they welcome the warmth that comes from such contact?
Studies show, and have shown for literally centuries, that the lack of touch is fatal. Babies die if they are not touched. I could cite source after source of the benefits to touch and even more to the bonding that all humans need to become healthy and secure. But my intent is not to spout off statistics or facts pertaining to human contact. I simply need to wrestle with the notion that there are people – children, no less – that do not experience what we all so desperately need. And what many of us so desperately want.
I’m one of those people who needs and wants to be touched. I am what some deem touchy-feelly. When I go through long seasons without significant touch, I literally feel like I may wither up and die. It’s as if part of my soul dries up because that part of me, the part that longs to touch and be touched, has no place to go, to be watered and nurtured. But how ridiculous I must sound in light of orphans who don’t have a frame of reference for the act of hugging in their young lives.
Since we moved into the city, I have noticed a shopping cart that sits in a parking lot a few blocks from our home. It may move from one day to another, but I see it somewhere within the same block each time I pass. If you’ve seen The Soloist, maybe you can picture the overflowing contents of this “borrowed” grocery cart, and how important it is to the homeless man who has gathered these seemingly random items. Today, my friend and I walked by two such carts and I stopped to take a picture. We laughed at the “Do Not Enter” sign that stuck out the top of the cart and wondered why the person needed a hubcap or the oil tiki torch we saw in the pile.
When we stopped in Walgreens, I asked the clerk if she knew the story behind the cart. She told us about the little man who pushes it here and there, and sometimes comes into Walgreens to chat. I found myself wondering when he had last been hugged.
Tonight as I held my son, I thought of the little man finding a place to park his cart for the night before laying down next to a dumpster or under a tree to get some sleep. I wondered if he was sleeping today as we passed and instead wanders the streets at night, searching for more treasures to fill his cart. I find myself wanting to find him. Wanting to look into his face. To reach out my hand to touch his. I’m not trying to save him or rescue him but if touch is so vital to our well-being, how tragic that this man has most likely gone without healthy touch perhaps for days, months, years. Sure that’s an assumption, but one I believe may not be far-fetched.
I recently had a massage. When I walked out of the spa, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. It was sheer pleasure to have every muscle in my body worked out under skilled and therapeutic hands. I consider that massage a total luxury. I said I “needed” it – for my mental, physical and emotional health. Really? I’ll admit, it was a great way to take care of myself in a stressful time in my life. But I cringe when I think of the money I spent on a 90 minute massage – to be pampered and indulged, when there are children who are never even held in the arms of a gentle caretaker.
I’m challenged by my friend’s experience in Haiti. I wish I could hop on a plane tonight and get to those orphans. I would not sleep until every last one had been held. But I’m not going to Haiti tonight. I’m staying right here. And here is a good place to be. Because here has a lot of broken and needy people. They may look different from those orphans but their desire is one I believe to be planted at the center of all our souls. The desire to be seen, wanted, and loved. What better way to do that than through my hand or my arms reaching out to another human being?
So thank you, Barry, for doing what you set out to do. To awaken people like me to the brokenness and need for God’s love and grace in all corners of the world. You have inspired me to go tenaciously about this city with my eyes, ears, mind and most importantly, my heart open to give the most basic need that I can give: touch.