By Zubeida Mustafa
Since October 8 when the killer earthquake hit Azad Kashmir and northern Pakistan, the media has been full of images related to the tragedy. They tell a bigger story than a thousand written or spoken words. There are two pictures which are striking for their extraordinary touch of humanism. They are symbolic of what the human touch means to a person — young or old, man, woman or child.
One picture which was published a few days after the earthquake shows an army officer holding up with great affection a rescued infant who smiles warmly at his benefactor. Another picture which appeared more recently shows Queen Rania of Jordan shaking hands with an earthquake survivor in a hospital. Both are smiling. That is the magic of the human touch.
Medical science has now conclusively proved that when people shake hands or hug each other — that is, when they establish physical contact — it makes them feel good. Our grandmothers have known for a long time, even before the obstetricians and paediatricians said it, that cuddling a baby is absolutely essential for his emotional, physical and mental development. Conversely, a child who was not held and hugged in infancy very often suffers from psychological/emotional problems.
And if someone is feeling unwell, under stress or down in the dumps, a hug can work wonders. Try it and see. The principal of a private nursing college in Karachi, the only PhD in nursing in Pakistan, once recalled that when she was under training, the trainee nurses were instructed to always touch their patients gently on the forehead when asking them how they were feeling. She regretted that this very important rule was not strictly observed any more.
Not surprising then that it was a woman from Jordan who came all the way to Pakistan to touch an injured woman and bring a smile to her face. Did you notice that all our leaders who visited the injured in hospitals or went to console the survivors and never missed a photo op with them, were hardly ever seen extending a hand to give someone a reassuring pat or hug a traumatized person or cuddle a child in a state of shock. There were pictures of bigwigs standing next to the hospital bed looking at the earthquake victim or talking to the doctor in attendance. Three pictures have now appeared which can be described as exceptions. They are of the president, the prime minister and the first lady with children being held by them. That is encouraging. But don’t forget that the adults need emotional support, too.
Remember Princess Diana’s visit to Lahore and how she held the cancer-stricken children close to her? These gestures endeared her to the public simply because her ways had a healing effect on the ill children and brought a smile to their faces.
Touch is such an important element in human interaction that Virginia Satir, an eminent social scientist, remarked, “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
Isn’t it time we loosened up a bit? We don’t like to touch a stranger to comfort him if he is in distress. When it comes to smiling, we don’t even do that often enough. And for a stranger we happen to be face to face with, we reserve our grimmest expression. Perhaps each of us is too private a person and is afraid of connecting with others we do not know. Or has it something to do with the stratified society we live in?
But kind words are very often not enough. As some health workers from the Red Cross who worked in New Orleans after Hurricane Rita recall how people trying to be brave would invariably say, “Fine, thank you. The family is fine, too,” when asked how they were. But then the health worker would reach out and pat them on the shoulder, they would break down. They were the ones who needed help. They were invited to come and talk about their problems which were many. A typical scene would be that of a health nurse putting her arm around a woman and leading her to a quiet spot where they talked as the nurse held the woman’s hand. “They need to talk. They need someone to lean on for a little bit,” observes one mental health worker. Let us also provide that supportive hand and the shoulder to lean on for the earthquake survivors.n