Meanings of Touch and Forgiveness: A Hermeneutic Phenomenological Inquiry
Ferch, Shann R., Counseling and Values
The author examines personal meanings ascribed to the experience of touch in the context of forgiveness. Data from in-depth interviews with 6 self-reported Christians were analyzed to determine themes in the meanings participants assigned to a forgiving touch.
Touch is an experience fundamental to humanity. From the enfolding touch experienced in the womb to the touch of another's hand before death, touch accompanies, reflects, and speaks to the reality of our lives. Touch is among the most meaningful ways we come to experience and know our world, and in the context of relationships touch can be a potent reflection of connection.
From the early work of Spitz (1965) and Harlow (1958) regarding the importance of touch, to the work of Bowlby (1997) on attachment, touch has received widespread attention in the scientific literature of the last century. Forgiveness, on the other hand, has only recently begun to be systematically explored. In the social sciences, few quantitative studies and even fewer qualitative studies have attempted to investigate the phenomenon of forgiveness in the context of significant familial relationships. (See McCullough, Sandage, & Worthington, 1997 and McCullough & Worthington, 1994 for reviews of forgiveness research.) Even more rare in present social science literature are investigations of the relationship between touch and forgiveness. The purpose of this study was to combine research on touch with research on forgiveness using the qualitative method, hermeneutic phenomenology (van Manen, 1990).
Both Plato, in the fourth century BC, and Aristotle, in the third century BC, described how touch differs from the other senses. Each philosopher stated that with the other senses a specific organ conveys the sense to us (for example, eyes for sight, ears for hearing); yet with touch there is no specifically correlated organ. In De Anima, Aristotle (trans. 1941) stated "we are unable to clearly detect in the case of touch what the single subject is which ... corresponds to sound in the case of hearing" (p. 25). Aristotle did not see flesh as the organ of touch. Rather, he saw it as the medium of touch, implying that the organ of touch is neither the skin nor the flesh, but something that lies deep within us, perhaps the soul or the heart. Aristotle stated "the soul is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is the tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms" (p. 98).
Frederick II, emperor of Germany (1194-1250 A.D.), conducted the first known experiments on the significance of touch. Frederick II wanted to find out what language a child would speak as an adult if no one spoke to the child beforehand. In his desire to learn, he discovered tragically, the importance of touch in the childhood years.
[H]e bade foster mothers and nurses to suckle the children, to bathe and wash them, but in no way to prattle with them, for he wanted to learn whether they would speak the Hebrew language, which was the oldest, or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perhaps the language of their parents, of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain because the children all died. For they could not live without the petting and joyful faces and loving words of their foster mothers. (Salimbene, 13th century; in Montagu, 1986, pp. 102-103)
The animal studies of Frank (1957) and Harlow (1958) increased our understanding of the significance of touch. Frank found that rats that were handled gently were able to metabolize food better, were less susceptible to invasive surgical shock than other rats, and were gentle animals, in general. Rats that were not handled gently were more excitable and fearful. Harlow, in a seminal experiment on the significance of touch, exposed the need for young mammals to experience touch from the beginning of life. He found that when baby monkeys were raised in a bare wire-mesh cage, the monkeys survived with difficulty or did not survive at all. …