Human Touch

[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]

I re-read a science fiction novel published by Isaac Asimov in 1965 entitled The Naked Sun, due to its relevance for today. The story is about a planet of humans who live almost entirely separate from one another. Routinely, they “view” each other through a sophisticated technology of holographic imagery, a kind of Zoom on steroids. As a result, over the centuries, they developed an adverse reaction to any form of actual human contact. Those who are married tolerate physical contact for the sole purpose of procreation.

In the story, there is a particular character named Gladia, who is considered psychotic because she craves human contact. There is a scene at the end of the book, (Bantam books, pp. 257-258) where she allows herself to say goodbye to the protagonist, a human from Earth named Elijah Baley as follows:

Again a silent moment while they faced each other at ten paces.

Then Gladia cried suddenly, “Oh, Elijah, you’ll think it abandoned of me.”

“Think what abandoned?”

“May I touch you? I’ll never see you again, Elijah.”

“If you want to.”

Step by step, she came closer, her eyes glowing, yet looking apprehensive, too. She stopped three feet away, then slowly, as in a trance, she began to remove the glove on her right hand.

Baley started a restraining gesture. “Don’t be foolish, Gladia.”

“I’m not afraid,” said Gladia.

Her hand was bare. It trembled as she extended it.

And so did Baley’s as he took her hand in his. They remained so for one moment, her hand a shy thing, frightened as it rested in his. He opened his hand and hers escaped, darted suddenly and without warning toward his face until her fingertips rested featherlight upon his cheek for the barest moment.

She said, “Thank you, Elijah. Goodbye.”

He said, “Goodbye, Gladia,” and watched her leave.

Even the thought that a ship was waiting to take him back to Earth did not wipe out the sense of loss he felt at that moment.

Each day I go for a walk along Perry Creek here in Sioux City. When humans pass me, I move as far off the path as I can and tighten my mask. I wave and they almost always wave back, happy to see another human, but with no desire to touch or even get within a few feet. I confess that I am worried that extended periods of isolation will make me afraid of touching other humans, especially those whom I do not know well. Dr. Anthony Fauci, NAIAID Director has said that handshakes should be a thing of the past even after a reliable vaccine against COVID 19 is developed. Is there a danger that we will end up like Gladia, trembling and shocked at herself for taking off her glove and touching another human being?

I sincerely hope not. Human touch can of course be violent. There is even an expression “He put his hands on me,” which is a description of an assault. Odd expression. At the same time, human touch can be healing. I remember Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross saying that the minimum daily requirement of hugs is eleven. I am fortunate to be sheltering at home with my spouse of 40 years so we can hug each other. So many humans are all alone, without hugs, without human touch. What effect will this have in the long run?

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  • Alma Hatfield
    I share your perspective, Greg. This afternoon I Iistened to a brief interview on NPR with a doctor who commented about the need for that kind of physical contact in the form of hugs as being a necessary component of mental health. I suspect though that physical contact with any living thing, animals, trees, etc., would provide humans with some kind of valuable energy exchange. I think for those of us living alone, pets can provide a kind of substitute. My cat does his best to hug me, numerous times during the hours when I am home. When weather permits, even being able to walk barefoot on the Earth is exhilarating. I realize there are humans who dislike being touched, and when I know this, I am respectful of their wishes, but as a “toucher” myself…I am not one of them! I personally hope this time of isolation can safely end soon!