What can a sense of touch tell us about what it is to live with Covid-19?
Lou Stoppard, in a recent article in the Life section of FTWeekend, focused on the ‘magic of touch’ and how much it is missed. Simple tactile acts – a hug or a handshake – that pre-Covid-19 effortlessly punctuated human relations — are frequently cited as much missed human interactions. They seem to be all too present by their absence.
We are navigating, each in our own way, an indeterminate transition in which we wish to see a return to some semblance of ‘normal’ — yet we also realise that we are not free of running the risk of being infected or infecting others. Touch provides a route through which we discover the world and connect with it. It is both one of the most prosaic and most sublime ways to connect with another person; now that ability is curtailed. But we might also ask if that ability could take on new forms. Might we touch or be touched in different ways?
Touch, its presence and absence, has long been governed by rules. With social distancing, we have a new set of rules that govern what is safe and not safe to touch. As lockdown is eased rather than altogether lifted, we live with the additional uncertainty of how much we can touch safely.
Simple physical acts become problematic, a choice tinged with risk. So one area to explore, if we live with continued uncertainty, is what that state produces:
- What choices are we given, or do we create for ourselves?
- How much do we feel denied, or do we grow more accepting?
- What new possibilities open-up?
- How much are we agents or victims of change?
Our Lunchtime Talk also began to explore what might now be meant by a ‘Tavistock Touch’. What kind of influences can we discern in the contribution that the Tavistock Institute makes in its multiple interactions with systems and organisations? What unconscious forces have come to the surface because of the disruption caused by Covid-19? What can we draw, and what are we drawing from the Tavistock tradition that has particular relevance and salience to our understanding of contemporary challenges?
In the face of the pandemic, we are gradually beginning to redefine what it means to ‘touch’. As offices closed and working became homebound, the Tavistock Institute adjusted to a different way of working, shifting from the physical realm to the virtual. This Lunchtime Talk, for example, was the third talk that we hosted via Zoom, as opposed to the usual format of being held in person at our London-based office. Whilst the concept of hosting our Lunchtime Talks online was at first daunting, it quickly evolved into something invigorating – especially during these times.
However, it was this Lunchtime Talk that challenged our preconceptions on ‘touch’. Here, from across the globe, people from different backgrounds and with varying relationships to Tavistock thinking gathered in one place, connected by their desire to ‘touch.’ Although we were unable to touch physically, the participants were eager to share their experiences, both personal and work-related, on how they were coping without these simple acts. Nevertheless, this act of poignant interconnectedness, despite the screens and technology, was a way of touching in itself.
As the pandemic continues and we are in varying states of indefinite lockdown, it is these moments of virtual touch that enable us to keep going. We are brought closer to those in different time zones, linked by a shared feeling or interest, in a way that was not so possible before. The exploration of the ‘Tavistock Touch’ revealed that although we must grieve the absence of touch during this time, we should not be completely despondent.
Instead, we discover new forms of intimacy, even though it may be behind a screen, a collective experience unites us. It is far from a perfect way to connect, though it allows us to re-evaluate what it means to work with ourselves and with others. Soon, we will physically touch and be touched again. But in the meantime, we can come together to share ideas and understandings on how we may be touched in different ways.
Lucian Hudson and Lucy Walker
For further reading on the power of touch:
The body as mediator: the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty entwines us, via our own beating, pulsing, living bodies, in the lives of others