On Sunday, a heavy horse pressed his nose against the palm of my hand, and snuffled a bit. It was a moment that I found both affecting and affirming. Mammals do a lot of communicating through touch, and use touch as a part of social bonding. Most mammals are willing to touch and be touched as part of encountering and interacting with each other. Non-human mammals cheerfully extend this courtesy to humans, but we often aren’t very good at it. As mammals who have decided that we are separate from the animals, we don’t really do much touching in the normal scheme of things. Not by other mammal standards.
When it comes to humans, the question of who is allowed to touch who, and when, is complicated, rule-laden and tends us towards non-contact. Unlike other mammals we don’t touch to communicate with each other, most of the time. And yet, there’s a great deal of information to be gleaned from whether, or how a person touches you. Touch can express kindness and affection. It can also be an expression of control, or power over. It can be withheld as a form of punishment, or as an expression of unacceptability.
Professional humans who work with animals use touch to soothe and reassure. Professional humans who work with humans do not use touch beyond what the role demands and we are collectively pretty clear that on the whole, touching in a professional context is inappropriate. Even if the other person is crying and obviously in great distress.
Most mammals seem able to embody what they’re feeling and act upon it. I have an animal body, but I have no real idea how to embody anything. I can use words, which create a distance between what I feel and whoever I might be offering it to. I can and will talk calmly about how I feel, but I find it unspeakably difficult to rock up as a mammal and let my body speak for me. I am always surprised when anyone, any other living mammal, chooses to touch me. Be that a horse, or a person. I find it easier to know what to do with the creatures, because I don’t think they judge me on the same terms. So long as I am not afraid of them and move gently, they are likely to accept me. I’ve never really worked out what the rules are for people.
Maybe it is simply that, as I am more inherently afraid of humans than most other creatures that the mammal response to fearfulness plays out just the same as it would with a dog or cat. Is it my own fear that causes other people’s hackles to rise sometimes?
I’ve been round this line of thought before, always coming back to Mary Oliver’s lines about letting the soft animal of your body love what it loves, and wondering how that could be so simple and so painfully difficult all at the same time.