A recent conversation with some friends around the immense effect that the lack of physical touch reminded me of a chapter in a book a wrote last year, Raising a Black Dog. The chapter plays off in India.
A handshake is possibly the most common form of greeting used worldwide, and yet this simple touch is actually, also the most subtle form of affection, subconsciously passing energy from one person to another. The downside to what is otherwise socially a very useful practice and likewise latently a very emotionally healthy practice, is that our hands carry the highest bacterial count on our bodies. They are, ironically, the perfect medium for spreading bacterial parasites and infections.
India’s people, especially men, as in Africa, will take any opportunity to shake your hand. Be it as a greeting, introduction, farewell, or just simply a feeble attempt to sell you something.
On rough count in one day, I shook a possible one-hundred-and-twenty odd hands. Naturally, I do try to sanitize after every single handshake. The thing is that hand-sanitizer can only prevent germs to a certain extent, and carrying a medical form of disinfectant could be taking it a step too far.
Over and above the hands we shake, ever considered how many things or objects we touch in a day? Out of interest’s sake and slight boredom, I once counted four-hundred-and-eighty things by 11:00 one morning, and that excluded certain parts of me.
The long and the short of it is, if you have any form of eczema, cut, bruise or scab, and you touch, scrape or scratch it, you run the risk of infection, especially in countries such as India, or, well, any big city for that matter. This became evident the morning I woke up with a stinging pain under my left ear. The lymph gland on the left side of my neck was swollen as big as a golf ball. So was the one on the right side of my groin.
My right ankle had a small scab from a blister earned while walking with running shoes instead of sandals. To my complete horror, a two inch diameter bag of nasty yellow pus had formed around it. This sent me darting to the mirror to see why my ear was in such pain. Folding my ear back to see, I could feel the skin tear open and a stream of yellow gunk pouring out of the wound. This reminded me of my MRSA infection from years earlier, and immediately sent off warning signals.
After using half a toilet roll to clean up the mess, I drained the pus from behind my left ear and on my right ankle, I made the painful walk to the first doctor I could find. He sat in the reception area, reading his newspaper. Before I could speak, he shouted, “five hundred rupees for me to help you!” I showed him my foot, and he replied with a wave of the hand, “I am not skin doctor. If you have another problem, you come to me.”
I eventually found some disinfectant and antiseptic cream at a “medical supply shop,” a flea-market style pharmacy without any qualified personnel, and where you could buy prescription medicine without a prescription.
After cleaning everything as best as I could and dressing everything with the cream, I made my way to the next town. By the time I arrived, five hours later, it looked ten times worse. By now I had also developed a fever and every move was painful.
The first “medical supply shop” I could find actually had a pharmacist. The short, stocky gentleman with handlebar mustache packaged a strong course of antibiotics, some pain medication and an array of other stuff, and by instruction, retired me to my room for the next forty-eight hours.
A loud knock on the door tossed me out of bed. It was Sanjay, the pharmacist. He had come to check on me. At that point I had not even realized I could walk without pain. The infection had subsided almost completely. The swelling had gone down and no more yellow bags of pus.
A few weeks later, not having shaken any hands since the event, I was feeling very detached from humanity, a bit quiet and slightly down. There could be no reason for me to feel this way. I was doing what I enjoyed most in a country that spoke to my soul. It suddenly dawned on me that I had not had any physical interaction with another human for quite a while.
It is easy to decide not to touch another person, but I realized that in reality we humans require physical interaction with other humans, or other living creatures. We need physical touch to retain a healthy state of mind. We are like monkeys, or monkeys are like us, choose your cliché. Fact is, without human touch we cannot survive healthily. We do not realize that something as simple as a handshake provides the affection we all require. Some pin it down to a purely mental phenomenon, others to the slight stimulation of pressure points in our hands, and yet others to the simple flow of energy between us.
The big question is, do you run the health risk of a possible infection by shaking hands, or the social risk of introducing another form of greeting, perhaps as the Spanish method, or do you run the risk of being unhappy due to the adverse effect the lack of affection would have on your mental health?
Is there a difference between the mental and the physical?