Saturday, August 21, 2010

Face Touching

In the movie, “Life as a House” a divorced man who is also estranged from his son lies in the hospital room. The nurse touches his forehead briefly and he sighs deeply.

“I haven’t been touched in years,” the sick man says.

The nurse thinks about it a little and then softly strokes his forehead and face for just a moment. He sighs again and takes hold of her hand. She backs up in alarm.

“I’m sorry,” she said, acknowledging that she (they) had crossed a boundary in some way. She left quickly.

The scene resonated with me because within the last year I’ve gotten bolder about touching people’s faces. When they lay sick in the hospital, I place my palm on their foreheads like I’m taking their temperature. At a time of grief, when I’m hugging someone, I’ll sometimes pat her cheek or the back of his head.

Another time, I was on my knees in front of a woman sitting in a hospital waiting room while her son was fighting for his life. I held her hand and placed my forehead on it.

It’s intimate without being too invasive. I don’t do it often or lightly and I try to gauge how the person takes it. It has never been easy trying to find that balance between offering tender support and crossing the line of appropriateness.

Face and head touching is quite powerful. I think that’s why people open up to their barbers and hairdressers. In church we use it for baptism and anointing. The Pentecostals touch the people on the forehead so they’ll be “slain in the spirit.”

I don’t believe in that Pentecostal practice, but I wonder if that isn’t what the scripture is getting at when it speaks of laying hands on someone. There really is something about physical touch that brings one’s spirit close to another.

Face touching is my way of reaching past the loneliness, especially during times of great sickness or distress.


  1. I really enjoyed that film. It's fascinating how much we need physical contact of any kind. I seem to recall studies where they treated babies differently giving attention to some and ignoring others.

    I like seeing some miserable looking person and seeing how they change when I greet them and smile at them.

    Another good post.

  2. Mike, I'm still surprised at the effect a warm greeting, as well as a touch, can change someone.

    Thanks for being one of those who change people

  3. And thanks to you too, for being the compassionate person you are.

  4. Part of the problem is these darn personal bubbles we've all put up to protect ourselves.

    I remember in my growing up days my mom telling me not to let anyone touch me. But she never really explained what that meant. She always said to protect myself. It's a good thing I was never actually abused because I would have considered it my fault....

    But, what I'm trying to say, is that we're assaulted by the tv and news about sexual abuse and it really makes people put up a huge bubble. That simple, physical contact can do so much for someone hurting so bad.

    I'm so glad you're there to burst bubbles and help people become human and to know they're loved.

    And BTW, there is an extra charge at the strip joint for getting past the bubble. Your job would be to enforce the rule....

  5. Sistermoon, we're all a little too cautious, aren't we. I try not to invade people's space. It's more like checking to see if they're receptive.

    I've known people who were too skittish to be touched--I used to know one woman who would make a wide birth around me when she walked past.

    Regarding the rule at the strip club, I probably have them guessing. I mean, what kind of guy reaches out to touch a strippers... face?

  6. I thought of this post today when our 3 month old puppy greeted me by gently just touching her nose to my face. It's primal, I think. Dogs and some other animals (horses) often greet with a nose to nose touch. We tend to use hand touches, don't we, but a touch to the face is much more intimate. ~K

  7. K, it wasn't too long ago that my wife was telling me about this characteristic of animals, including our dog. I had not consciously made the connection.