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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Among the costs of the pandemic, a loss of human contact

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

We were sitting on my back deck, drinks in hand, 6 feet apart, when one of my best friends told me: He and his wife were having a baby!

What fantastic news. An affirmation of life in this doom-shadowed season. When he told me I was thrilled for him and his wife and all their diaper-changing, sleep- deprived joy to come, and I was thrilled for myself, too, at the chance I will have to bob this kid on my knee at some future moment and to watch him grow for years.

Six feet apart. Drinking our drinks.

Right in the spot where there should have been a hug.

Then I visited, also on a deck, a friend who is ill, though fighting it mightily. When we said goodbye, we stayed apart. Same thing happens whenever I see my best friends and favorite people, at the store or out somewhere in town.

A space, where there used to be a hug.

Among the uncountable costs of the pandemic – at least for those trying to follow the guidelines – is the loss of embracing those we love but don’t live with. The quick hug hello, the one-armed side-hug, the back slapper, the how-long’s-it-been, the three-drinks-I-love-you-man bear hug … gone.

In their place, absences. A hundred little absences, adding up.

The handshake is also gone, and maybe for good. But the handshake is more promiscuous and less personal – we’ll shake hands with anybody – and so less meaningful. I could imagine it simply fading away as a social convention, but who knows: the points in our interactions where a handshake would ordinarily go are also absences, brief caesuras in the pattern of our relationships that leaves us more isolated.

It costs us something, the loss of human touch. We’re made to touch other people, and that touch – or the lack of it – helps to shape our lives from the moment we’re born. Many of us are fortunate to have families, and so it is not as if we have lost those connections altogether.

But the longer the pandemic goes on, the more urgent these absences feel. I watched the Spokane Arts awards ceremony over the weekend, sitting at home in the same chair and looking at the same computer where I spend so much damn time lately.

The ceremony was fantastic, an ingenious workaround for the limitations of the moment, and a lot of great artists were honored, people who help to make this city such a good place to live. I really enjoyed it.

But I also remembered last year’s awards. The Lucky You Lounge was packed, the food and drink were great, the performances fun and inspiring, and there were friends greeting each other everywhere, hugging, shaking hands, making literal, physical contact.

We need that.

The pandemic, and the things we are doing to contain it, come with drastic costs. Millions have lost their jobs. The disruption of schools – for all the yeoman’s work that educators have done – threatens to leave some kids behind, educationally and socially. The deepening rift over science in public policy, driven by the most cynical, stupid, irresponsible, corrupt leadership any of us have ever seen from the White House, threatens to poison public life for years.

All of which is to say nothing of the Americans who have died, a number that is now on the verge of surpassing the size of Spokane’s population. Think of it: A Spokane’s worth of dead Americans, while the president says the disease “affects virtually nobody.”

The costs are enormous, and will be long-lasting. In that context, the hug is not such a big deal, perhaps.

But maybe it’s bigger than we realize. The University of Miami Health System has a Touch Research Institute, and it has found, as have others, that hugs help release neurotransmitters that make us happy: oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. That helps lower our heart rate, reduce stress hormones, increasing a sensation of pleasure – a wide range of responses that, over time, can help improve heart health, prevent weight gain and help you live longer.

Hugs do this, and so does massage. People can even achieve some of the beneficial effects of the hug by self-touch – moving and stretching their own skin, according to Tiffany Field, director of the institute.

Field told an interviewer with the website To the Best of Our Knowledge that “The positive effects – the healthy effects of touch – come from moving the skin. That stimulates the pressure receptors under the skin, which send messages to the brain – mainly to the vagus nerve, which has branches in virtually every part of the body – that slow the nervous system down. So you get decreases in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones. You get changes in the brain waves to theta activity, or relaxation waves. You also increase the natural killer cells, which ward off viral cells, bacterial cells, and cancer cells.”

Like many scientific explanations, that is fascinating while not truly capturing the human value of the subject at hand. Hugs and human contact tether us to others, build community, affirm physically, even if only in a small way, what we know to be deeply, powerfully true – that we need each other, that we thrive on connections, and that we form and sustain those connections one small, warm gesture at a time.

We can manage these difficult days and come out the other side, as hard as it sometimes seems.

But when we get there, we’re going to need a whole lot of hugs.

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