Touch. Solomon on The Moth.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Working for Speaking of Faith (soon-to-be Being) has ruined me. My life is invaded with connections that I otherwise would’ve been oblivious to. So vacations are never completely free of imaginative associations. Nevertheless, I’m thankful. It’s a gift.
A lazy Saturday afternoon. My two boys down for a nap. My wife writing. Me? Cleaning the kitchen. To enliven the mind while performing this domestic simplicity, I cue up a recent edition of The Moth podcast. And who should be the storyteller? Andrew Solomon — a former guest on "The Soul in Depression" who most recently took the stage with Krista at the New York Public Library.
In the audio above, he tells the remarkable story of Cambodian woman he met while doing research in that country. He wanted to understand what happens when an entire nation has been subjected to a trauma. This Cambodian woman had survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
In a resettlement camp, she started a group to help shattered women refugees rendered lifeless by the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime. As Solomon tells it, she developed three steps to bring these women back to society and help them rediscover their humanity. It’s the third step that struck me and reminded me of a Quaker’s story from 2003:
“‘I would teach them the third thing: which was to perform manicures and pedicures.’ … She said, ‘You know, the worst atrocity of all that was brought by the Khmer Rouge was that half the country turned against the other half of the country. And people who lived through that period knew that they couldn’t put anything in anyone else, and they completely lost the habit of looking anyone else in half in the eye.’
She said and ‘All of these women had been deprived for a long time of any occasion to indulge in the least bit of personal vanity. I brought them to my hut, and I built a special room that I would fill with steam. And it was a pleasure for them to feel beautiful. But what was really amazing for them was that, in this context, it was something that was at once very intimate and very impersonal. And they would start, because I was telling them how to do it and giving them some instruction, to handle each others’ fingers and each others’ toes. And it meant they were touching each other. And if I had told them to begin to hold each others’ hands or to have some kind of physical contact with other people, they would’ve shied away and they would have pulled back. They weren’t ready to do anything with anyone. But, in this context, they would touch each others’ fingers, touch each others’ toes, and then, because it was such a funny context, and because they felt so happy about the fact that they were, for a moment, feeling a little bit beautiful again, they would begin to laugh together. And they would begin to tell each other little bits of stories and things and that was the way that I taught them to trust again.’”
This idea of slowly finding and gently rediscovering one’s humanity through touch is powerful testimony. Testimony I had heard in another story by Parker Palmer, who also appeared in "The Soul in Depression":
"I’ll just tell that story quickly, because it’s such a great image for me. … There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.
What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”
If there’s one thing you do this weekend, take 15 minutes and listen to Andrew Solomon’s story. And, then, pay attention. Those connections are waiting for you to be made — and to be shared.
Now that I’m done with the dishes I think I’ll rub my wife’s feet. Well, maybe…