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A little of that human touch

Most of the imperfections we bring to our relationships can be repaired and need simply 'a little touchup and a little paint.'
By Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
Winter 2008 11.1.08

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Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa

Bruce Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa, November 2008. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The great Catholic social activist Dorothy Day often spoke of what she called the “long loneliness”—that deep, inner emptiness within us that only love can fill. Prior to his marriage to Julianne Phillips in 1985, Bruce Springsteen had seemed at times to be searching almost feverishly to find that one total and committed relationship that would help him transcend his sense of utter aloneness and personal isolation. While he was still unmarried well into his thirties, his “freedom” had its costs. Because Springsteen was spending more and more time alone in the studio, his circle of friends was growing progressively smaller. If he was ever going to “settle down” (whatever that meant, given the peripatetic life he led as a world celebrity) and father children, it would have to be sometime soon. As one of his songs on Tunnel of Love stated, “When you’re alone you ain’t nothing but alone.” Increasingly, Springsteen came to discern that aloneness, in and of itself, does not equal freedom. One could have “the fortunes of heaven in diamonds and gold,” as well as that entire delectable catalogue of earthly pleasures and honors enumerated in “Ain’t Got You.” But without the one thing that was missing—that deepest of human relationships—one could still be a forlorn soul.

But if, as Augustine said, to know another person deeply is to know God, then letting that other inside oneself is also the most profound step on the road to self-knowledge. Allowing someone inside one’s psychic and emotional boundaries is never easy, and can be a profound challenge for one who has kept the self walled off for as long, perhaps, as Springsteen had.

Given the pace of intimacy in the modern world, often the first line of defense to be broached between two people is the physical. Often in a culture of narcissism, where the body is commercialized and sexuality trivialized, the penetration of the physical boundary becomes an end in itself, an act of “conquest” as it were. However, in the generation of genuine intimacy—intimacy between two complete beings, in all aspects of their personhood—the physical meeting serves not as an end but as a means, as the bridge toward this deeper knowing.

Among some African tribes, it is said that all people experience “two hungers.” The first is for food and those things that sustain life; the second (and greater) is for a sense of purpose and meaning and intimacy. As Bruce himself had sung back in 1979, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

But often some physical means is needed to feed this deeper hunger of the heart. We yearn to be rescued from this “world without pity”—this world grown too fast and cold and inhumane—through that genuine “human touch”: by a touching of hands, a communion of physical beings, a sharing of deepest selves. The sparks which this deep personal communion can generate can illuminate our spirits and set these pent-up hearts of ours to beating once again.

This is no meeting of saints, certainly. No one of us is anybody’s “bargain”; we all come into relationships with a full array of scrapes and dents, issues and hurts; we’re all broken in some way. But most of our faults and imperfections aren’t fatal; they can be repaired and need simply “a little touchup and a little paint”—a little self-care or a little attention from the hands of one we care about.

In continuing to avoid the depths and challenges of such intimate relationships, we cling for dear life to that “safety [we] prize.” We seek to maintain full control over how we spend our days and live our lives. But ultimately, playing it safe and maintaining our aloofness disengages us from life. We grow hard and cold—dehumanized. We become “pretenders,” pretending to live according to the script we have written in our heads rather than really living, while all the while, real life—with all its “risk and pain” but with all of its genuine love, too—slips away and passes us by.

Often, however, propelled by our loneliness perhaps, we finally stop waiting for supernatural, miraculous intervention and make our move toward another. There will be no manna falling from heaven, no miracle of wine and blood this time. We’re going to find “no miracles here,” Springsteen sings. Nothing will change unless we break out of our self-imposed isolation and reach out to the other.

Then, in reaching out, we’ll discover that it’s “just you and me tonight”: the two of us against the world, in a sense, but the two of us also joined in this life, together—“riders on this train” which is this world, which is this life. In the human touch we exchange with each other, our arms and bodies and lives become intertwined with one another. We cling together and give each other something to which to cling; we provide for each other some support and comfort to get us through this life.


Excerpted with permission from The Gospel according to Bruce Springsteen: Rock and Redemption, from Asbury Park to Magic. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), © Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz

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