The language of touch

Many of us may be familiar with the concept of nature versus nurture, which is a person’s genetic physical and personality traits (nature) versus the upbringing one received (nurture).

Jun 10, 2022

                                 Word In Progress Karen Michaela Tan

My 14-year-old asked how come, though I came from parents who were reticent about hugging and other physical gestures of affection, I turned out to be so tactile? I told her, “How you were brought up should not have to dictate how you want to continue growing, and the values you choose to espouse.”

Many of us may be familiar with the concept of nature versus nurture, which is a person’s genetic physical and personality traits (nature) versus the upbringing one received (nurture). This line of thinking says that certain things about a person are changeable and malleable, while others are more permanent or fixed.

This may mean an inherently quiet, introspective child may possibly continue to remain more of an observer, and less of a talker despite being immersed in speech and drama classes, and encouraged to join the debate team.

My nature is an effusive one. I have always been bold, brash and out-there. As a kid I had opinions when most Asian children weren’t supposed to. It may have been partly due to my mother. Respectable Chinese lady that she was, she was not unaware of the need to protect (not shelter, mind you), her overweight daughter from rude looks and unspoken judgement. I recall one time she said loudly enough for the onlooker to hear, “That person is staring at you. Stare back and see if they like it!” Of course I was mortified then. No fat kid wants to take down a judgmental adult. But the seeds were sown, and every time poor mum asked me exasperatedly why I had to be so tenacious about things, I would say that she put me down that path.

Her teaching me to stand up for myself also taught me that it was okay to ask for things I needed. And way back, one of the things I craved was physical affection. Brought up on the wholesomeness of American TV past, sit coms like Small Wonder, Family Ties and the Cosby Show made me crave the hugs I saw so freely given. Back then, all my stiff-lipped dad could muster was a pat on the head. Grandma would stroke my arm and hair when urging me to get up for school in the morning, but that was the extent of it. Though I know my parents heard me, it was not in them to be able to give me that which I craved. And so I had to make it happen myself.

I knew, even before I understood the chemical workings of oxytocin, that hugs were good. Not the stiff, unpracticed hugs of Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory, but the real, from-the-heart-out kind of hugs that envelop a person, and for the briefest of moments, provides a safe place for the one held. And so I put into the world what I sought to get out of it. I embraced the hurt, the grieving, the bereft and the broken. I held when people were too afraid to, and I found in that a minor charism.

In doing this I also discovered the tactility of Jesus. The Jews and the Chinese have a hands-off culture in common. They aren’t overly expressive people. There is a rigidness in them that stems not from coldness but propriety. A formal race, they are bound by patterns of decorum in life, work, and especially worship. That is why the oddity that is me, was drawn to the oddity that was Jesus in His time.

In a time of ritual sprinkling and ablutions, he was rubbing spit paste on a blind man’s eyes (John 9:6), sticking unwashed fingers into a deaf man’s ears (Mark 7:33), and touching lepers (Mark 1:41). Jesus got into each needy person’s physical space and gave them first a tactile encounter with Himself before He gave them healing.

Imagine if you can, an existence without any human contact whatsoever. Lepers in biblical times lived a wretched experience. Ostracised, they were not allowed to be within a certain proximity of public dwellings. Forced to live on the outskirts of any encampment or village, they were not able to work or trade because of the high transmissibility of leprosy. To come near someone was prohibited, so these outcasts lurked on the fringes of domesticity, poor in the economic sense, but more painfully, poor in spirit, from not having the benefit of human touch and affection.

Coming from a place of such emptiness, I can imagine it took very little for lepers to cry out to the passing Jesus for healing. Having lived in degradation for much of their lives, they did not think much of abasing themselves by calling out loudly for help from a person whom they thought could help them. And Jesus never said no, though He was well within His right to refuse.

Leprosy, in those superstitious times, was seen not only as a disease. Many believed that it was also spiritual punishment; an outward sign of rebuke for some sin committed by the leper or his ancestors. The Jewish word for leprosy is ‘tzaraat’ (or zara’at), meaning ‘skin disease’. However, ‘tzaraat’ also translates to ‘smite,’ meaning to come under God’s punishment or judgement. Who was to come between a leper and his God-imposed punishment? Only the Son of God.

Today there are very few active cases of Hansen’s disease, as leprosy is known medically. Medication allows the rare patients of this disease to live normally, during and after treatment. And yet, more than ever, our communities, Church and world is seeing a profusion of social lepers. People whose only infirmity is the lack of good decision making. Alcoholics who have lost everything in the downward spiral into drink dependency; substance abusers who self-medicate to dull inner pain; young people who cut and mutilate to mirror the anguish of fractured spirits.

The lepers of today are blemish-free. They live within the fabric of society, and yet, our backs continue to turn on them out of fear, lack of understanding, the inability to connect with a person in so much pain, for the unwarranted fear that their pain may transmit somehow to our much easier lives. These are the ones Jesus exhorts us to seek and find.

And when we find them, we are to embrace them. By Jesus’ example, we are not to address them from a safe distance, but rather, close the gap of the inequality of love, solidarity and belonging, and draw the sufferer into our communities of familial love and support.

While not all our Malaysian friends may be open to the physicality of an embrace, spiritual embraces will make the difference between someone being treated like an outcast, and being made to feel that their life has value, no matter how tragic or fractured their journeys have been.

The flipside about either a physical expression of love, or a spiritual one, is that it is impossible to bring change to someone without being changed yourself in the process. Just last week, after spending the night at her grandfather’s house, I watched as my taciturn father, that stiff, formal man who could not even hug me at graduation, take my teen into his arms and press a kiss on her head.

“Wow, Pops! I thought you didn’t hug?” My dad looked at me over her head and said, “Conversion is sometimes a long process. But it teaches us never to give up.”

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action. You can connect with her at:

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