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The Hands That Wouldn't Shake by Paul Dass, S.J.

We don’t shake hands anymore; we can’t and we shouldn’t. Why not?


We have to be extra careful, extra cautious. We have to lean away. Six feet apart is hardly the distance to reach; regardless of how far we lean in; regardless of our arm’s reach. The constraint is self-imposed. It is a withdrawal from within. The decision is on one’s own part.


The caution and the care, the self-imposed restraint and the decision on one’s own part to stay away go against the easy habit; that which we take for granted, that which we freely extend, that we assume with ready ease in the give and take of everyday life. There is a naturalness to it all – and so, it rides against nature.


But, does it so? There are human cultures that don’t shake hands at the first instance of a greeting or meeting. They simply don’t think it is natural. They have other ways to becoming present. Some bow deeply to each other; some others conjoin hands in prayer; some greet with a nose rub or kiss thrice the cheek; some will not extend the hand unless it is offered, in deference. The permutations are numberless.


Social distancing is necessary but it only invites the question. How long can we stay ‘apart’ from each other? How long can we conduct ordinary social intercourse without being proximately present to each other? Regardless of how we greet, we still require the proximate presence of each other to conduct the affairs of daily life. We still need, desire, and, would, otherwise, begin to feel frustrated, if not confused, when that unfettered access, the unfiltered medium, the unencumbered relay between selves is held back in abeyance. Regardless of how we greet – and the handshake or nose rub may just be particularly noxious at this time – the access, medium and relay of person to person, without encumbrance, filter or fetter, remain a pre-condition. Distancing is measured in terms of frustrated proximity. Distancing is delayed proximity. Distancing is social.


The hands that won’t shake anymore, or, just about any other form of human contact that might, otherwise, be physically contaminating, act in inverse proportionality to the human instinct for proximity and inclusion. The more enforced it becomes, the more it restrains the human soul. A holding back, for medical reasons alone, might be momentarily sensible; in fact, salutary, in virtue of its consideration for the wellbeing of others. But, in the longer term, might it become a new normalcy? Might it introduce new ways of legitimizing further the distances that already exist between people? Might it provide further justification for keep off others? Might it even raise higher barriers of social exclusivity? Might it lead the way to newer forms of social ostracism?


Many cultures and religions – in their varieties of caste, class, race and gender – have historically subsisted upon the idea of social preclusion or avoidance of others for reasons of social contamination, the elimination of which necessitated all sorts of ritual washings and purificatory rites. (In some such cases, even the shadow of a person, should it fall upon another, could be considered to ‘contaminate’; thus, simply and artfully justifying age-old decisions that sought to segregate and discriminate.) It’s contemptible, absurd.


Not willing to shake hands with others, under ordinary circumstances, would be considered absurd; a public display of disdain and standoffishness that runs counter to the human grain. But for those of us who shake hands to bridge borders, there is a further case to be had, to the ends of the earth. It is the cause of human community and human continuity for sake of the human promise. Should we, then, ready ourselves to go beyond shaking hands? Should we cross over the borders in order to continue holding those hands that we shake until that human promise is fulfilled?


*picture above from Mae La Camp (Thailand, 2008)

"Reflection 2 on the COVID-19 pandemic."

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