Findings on Social Interaction and Touch

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 20, 2015

Mark 1:40-45 ESV

Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him.” ~Mark 1:41 ESV

We have long said that church attendance and involvement are good for us.  It seems such is true in more ways than one.  We know that church attendance should be spiritually good for us.  And we may have conjectured that church attendance might be psychologically or emotionally good for us.  But have we ever entertained the possibility that church involvement might also be physically good for us?

I owe this morning’s sermon idea to two of our members, Dr. Paul Spray and Mr. Bill Dritt.  Dr. Spray passed on to me an article from the Mayo Clinic titled “Hold my Hand.”  And Bill Dritt mentioned in a conversation a study that their daughter, Paula, had shared on the relation between social interaction and getting sick.  Though totally unrelated, both of these articles were shared with me within a few days of one another, and both point toward a common theme and important truth.  I have learned over the years that when the same idea comes to me at the same time from different sources, maybe I should be careful to listen and then pass along what I hear.

In the Mayo Clinic’s  “Health Letter” article, “Hold my hand: The power of touch,” it is pointed out that “Multiple studies have shown that feeling isolated from others has a number of negative health effects, including accelerated aging, depression, cognitive decline and increased risk of heart disease.”1  On the other hand, the article notes the important role of companionship, especially when facing difficult circumstances.  “Connecting through touch or just being present in a quiet, mindful way can bridge the divide between individual—and unique—sorrows and provide immeasurable comfort,” the articles contends.

The article then goes on to point out the great importance of touch, and how that in infants, touch is more important than verbal interaction.  Other studies have shown how that in orphanages, for example, where babies are kept in cribs and are not touched or cuddled, they fail to thrive and end up having both physical and psychological problems that babies who are regularly touched and cuddled do not have.

The Mayo Clinic article notes how that “Touching between a couple can increase positive feelings about the relationship.”  And “hand-holding . . . with a spouse but even with a stranger” can relieve stress.  “A compassionate touch or presence can help to alleviate pain and discomfort.”  And “An arm around the shoulder of a family member or a friend in need of comfort” is so much more beneficial than an email.  The bottom line is nothing can take the place of the human touch!

Such reminded me of the story about Jesus that served as today’s reading, that is recorded by all three synoptic gospels.  According to the gospel writer Mark, Jesus began his ministry right off the bat exercising the healing touch.  In today’s story, it was a man with a dreaded skin disease who begged Jesus for healing.  In that day, a number of skin diseases were lumped under the umbrella of “leprosy.”  And Jesus did the forbidden, the unthinkable—he reached out and touched an untouchable!  Touching a leper was something you just didn’t do.  Not only might you contract the disease yourself, but the act itself made one ritually or religiously unclean.  But Jesus did it, time and again.  Was there something supernatural or miraculous about Jesus’ touch?  Or was there, way back then even, recognition of the fact that there is a sense of healing in the human touch?  Or perhaps a combination of the two?

A modern-day saint who, more than any other, perhaps, knew the power of the human touch was Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  This Albanian-born nun spent much of her life extending a loving, comforting touch to the poor, leprous outcasts of India.  Mother Teresa said, “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted . . .”  Now, it is doubtful that any of us will ever be in the situation to touch the poor, leprous outcasts of India or any other country in the way that Mother Teresa did.  But all of us have opportunities to exercise the comforting touch, nonetheless, and we just need to be cognizant of that fact and be careful and intentional to do so.  Our members who will be going on the Mission Trip in a few weeks will have a wonderful opportunity to extend a healing touch to some of the poorest of Nicaragua.   But we don’t have to travel to Central America to extend a healing touch.  Whenever we visit someone in the hospital or nursing home, an appropriate human touch can mean more than we might ever know.  Too often, hospital patients and those in nursing homes feel isolated; and sometimes because of their illness feel themselves to be “untouchable,” even.  Now, in some cases, when the patient has MRSA or C-Diff or some other highly contagious illness, we have to be cautious about the manner and extent of human contact.  But in most cases a handshake if the patient extends their hand, or a light pat on the shoulder or forearm, can convey a powerful feeling of acceptance, concern, love and well-being even.  So reaching out to touch someone appropriately, as Jesus did, can be a powerful gesture and can contribute to better physical health and emotional well-being.

And closely associated with touch is the power of social interactions.  In another article titled “Build Your Immunity!” Dr. Christiane Northrup states, “I’ve always believed that community equals immunity.  Many studies have shown that support from social and spiritual connections boosts immunity (and also provides protection against heart disease, mental illness, and many other health conditions.)”2

The Dritt’s daughter, Paula, was kind enough to call me to discuss a study in which volunteers allowed themselves to be exposed to the Rhino virus that causes the common cold.  These volunteers submitted to having the Rhino virus sprayed up their noses.  Then each of them was followed to see which ones got sick and which ones didn’t.  When the results were tabulated, it was found that those subjects who had at least three positive social interaction outlets—church, book club, bridge club, coffee group, etc.—did not get sick like the other subjects who were more or less alone or socially isolated.  Thus, the ramification was that having social ties and interaction with others is not only psychologically good for people, but physically good, holding physical health benefits as well.  As a pastor, I would have to say that being active in church can lead to a healthier life!

Perhaps one reason those who have multiple social interaction outlets tend to be healthier than those who are loners is they are happier and have a more positive attitude and outlook upon life.  A certain cancer patient connected to this congregation was recently told by doctors that those who are undergoing chemo treatments and who have a positive outlook tend to have better outcomes than those who don’t.  Having a close circle of social ties seems to contribute to such a positive attitude and outlook.

There is yet another story I have been following of late that has bearing upon today’s topic.  Maybe you have been following the story of the bones, the “remains of a previously unknown humanlike species [named ‘Homo naledi’],” discovered recently in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa.3  The bones are thought to represent “an early offshoot of humankind . . . raising questions about the origins of ritual burial and self-awareness.”  Such has been touted as extraordinary, spectacular, “likely the largest single discovery of early human remains in Africa.”  If estimations are correct, “the Homo naledi species is likely 2.5 million to 2.8 million years old.”4   One of the members of an international team that flew to South Africa in summer 2014 was Zach Throckmorton, professor at LMU.  “As the team studied the fossils, they determined that the individuals were deliberately placed in the chamber [about 100 yards from the cave entrance]—but not all put at the same time.”  The passageway to the bones is so small, they advertised for small scientists the world over who would be small enough to crawl through the tight spaces.  Ultimately, six small women were chosen for the task.  But the fact that the bones had to be carried so far through the narrow passage “means Homo naledi had the mental and behavioral capacity to do this repeatedly.”

But the point that really struck me, and that is pertinent for today’s sermon, is it “shows compassion is ancient. . .  Humans have been cooperating and caring for each other longer than we’ve been humans” Throckmorton said.4   Now, if all these findings prove to be true, it illustrates that the existence of human compassion, concern and care date back millions of years.  Could it be that compassion, care, and community concern is in our DNA?

  The bottom line is all of need appropriate human touch—holding hands, a warm hug, a pat on the shoulder or forearm; and all of us need social interaction and community support such as regular church attendance and involvement provides.  Our lives can be so much richer and healthier through appropriate touch and social interactions.  But we also have within us the power to change the lives of others for the better through appropriate touch and the concern and support we render in religious community.  May it be so for all of us.  Amen.

1, August 2015.   2Dr. Christiane Northrup, “Build Your Immunity!”  3Robert Lee Hotz, “Bones of Humanlike Species Discovered,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2015.  4MJ Slaby, “Historic find has ET tie,” Knoxville Neews Sentinel, September 11, 2015.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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