One day I was standing on a crowded bus that was crawling slowly through the downtown Jerusalem traffic to the bus stop that was tantalizingly, but also frustratingly, close. Suddenly a man’s head was leaning on my shoulder. To my shock — I am a person who doesn’t usually like being touched unexpectedly or by strangers — I was totally okay with it. But if this had been the New York City subway I probably would have recoiled in anger and disgust.
Touch, as potential American presidential candidate Joe Biden is learning the hard way right now, is complicated. As humans we need it, even crave it. But there are few things more disturbing than being touched, even when it’s not sexual at all, when we don’t want it.
Culture is part of what makes it complicated. That’s what made the difference between the Jerusalem bus and the American subway for me. Touch means something different in this culture. Without thinking about it, my understanding of touch, as well as how much personal space there should be between me and the next person, changes the moment I step off the plane at Ben Gurion to return home. So, on that bus, I instinctively knew there was no aggression in this man’s actions. He was just lightheartedly acknowledging our shared experience of frustration at that crowded bus being so close and yet so far from our destination. And, I think also, there was a very Israeli message in it too — יהיה בסדר, גבר (It will be okay, brother), he was saying. Saying non-verbally.
Do we have to ask permission before we touch? The man on the bus didn’t. And it sounds like Joe Biden didn’t ask permission before he started rubbing the shoulders of Stephanie Carter, the wife of former Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, during her husband’s February 17, 2015 swearing-in ceremony. And she was, and still is, okay with it as she wrote in a recent Medium post.
But, unlike what some headlines about her statements are saying, Carter isn’t defending Biden against the accusations of others. She’s just saying that her experience — her story — is hers, and they have their stories that are theirs. All these stories are equally legitimate. Of Lucy Flores, who made headlines with her complaints about Biden kissing her on the back of the head in 2014 at a political event, Carter writes, “I absolutely support her right to speak her truth and she should be, like all women, believed. But her story is not mine. The Joe Biden in my picture is a close friend helping someone get through a big day, for which I will always be grateful. So, as the sole owner of my story, it is high time that I reclaim it — from strangers, Twitter, the pundits and the late-night hosts.”
Every situation — every relationship, every culture, every context — is different. How do we navigate this, especially in this #metoo age where the rules really have changed? (For an instruction in just how much, watch this Daily Show clip, which features Biden massaging Carter’s shoulders, from only four years ago; it shows how we could then just joke about acts of touching that now seem to be such a terrible transgression that they might merit ending a political career).
Asking permission is the gold standard for sure. “Can I give you a hug?” would work in most situations.
But what if you’re a spiritual caregiver — a chaplain — working on an Alzheimer’s unit with people who have only limited ability to communicate verbally, or if you’re working with a person who is just too overwhelmed by intense grief to interact verbally? I like to quote for my chaplaincy students what Nancy Pearce writes in her chapter on the healing power of touch in her excellent book on Alzheimer’s: “You can get a sense of [a person’s] openness to touch by holding your hand a few inches away from his hand or arm, for example — some place within his visual range and near a part of his body that he can move away from your hand, if he chooses — a functioning arm or hand, for example.”
That is, there are ways to ask permission without words. We can first make tentative moves before we go to a full hug or to rubbing somebody’s shoulders. We should be watching the other person’s reactions carefully in this tentative moment.
But we also have to keep in mind the power that we carry, especially if, like Biden, we are someone who carries fame or some other source of authority that might make the other person feel coerced by a question that seems clear and innocent to us. It’s not always easy for people to say no to you if that is the situation. Gender can also be a key factor in how people experience touch and coercion.
Inevitably, sometimes we will get it wrong. That is the time (are you listening, Mr. Biden?) to apologize. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to violate your boundaries. I just wanted to express my support for you, but I see I got it wrong. I hope you can forgive me.
Touch is too important to take out of our toolbox as spiritual caregivers. As Pearce writes, “Touch relaxes, reassures, comforts, helps to decrease stress and pain, decreases anxiety, leads to positive attitude changes and is associated with happiness and vitality. I have seen persons with dementia respond to touch in all of these positive ways. More importantly, I have found that touch is a powerful and efficient way for the person to experience connection — with you, with the moment, with his past and with the expanded field of energy — that realm we call the other side, heaven or spirit.”
The bottom line is that touch is only healing when it is welcome. I hope that is something that we can all learn in a deep way from this latest Biden story. But the lesson should not be to completely stop trying to connect, and heal, through touch. We should do as R. Yohanan did (Brachot 5b) when he visited his sick colleague — reach out a hand and ask if they will take it. Perhaps then we will indeed be able to follow his great example and lift up the ill one from suffering.