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The Skin We Are In

Is it our skin that is the heart, the start, of it? We sad, funny, scared, fearful little creatures are cursed from the moment of our birth with a sense of how fragile that barrier between us and eternal dissolution is. Is it any wonder we are so fearful, so protective of self, when we stumble through life a miscellany of bones and veins and nerves and liquids and muscle held tentatively in shape by such an inconsequential, insecure little carry case; the skin we are in.

Perhaps that’s why to be accused of being thin skinned is so damning, so demeaning. “Why you can’t even hold yourself together!” we are taunted. Perhaps it’s why we fear, revile and admire in equal measure the ‘thick skinned’. It’s a prerequisite for success in the battlefields of life – school, university, work – we are repeatedly told. Only in the private sphere, in our most intimate moments, are we permitted to freely admit, to embrace, our thin skinned true natures.

Hand clasping hand we stroke our own skin urgently at times of distress, summoning the parents hand that soothed us, that magically made it all better at least for a moment.

All rational thought briefly suspended we lay our hand on the arm of a dying loved one, as if through touch itself every ounce of the love we simply can no longer summon words to communicate will pierce that quiet, soft, distance the dying wrap around themselves.

We lie quietly in the darkness stroking the skin of our lover, as if to brush it away and reveal the heart beneath.

We crouch by their beds and reverently stroke the perfect milky skin of our sleeping toddlers, marvelling that this could be of us.

We lift our newborn instinctively to our face and inhale the sweet smell of their skin, caressing it with our cheeks as if fearing our rough hands would damage that miraculous barrier, that tremulous surface that shapes and gives form to love.

The skin we are in, the skin they are in, our fragile containers unite and separate us simultaneously. In those moments, few though they might in the face of the apparently pressing need to be busy doing as society endlessly demands of us for reasons often hard to discern still less rationalise, in those intimate moments our dual natures seem perfectly balanced. We talk of a tender touch, yet tender can mean to gently show love or to feel pained. We can embrace them both when we face our vulnerability, accept both when we face our fragility.

Yet away from these intimate, touching, moments our thick/thin skins are the front line in our struggles with self and other. Our fragility becomes a shameful thing to hide at all costs. We surround ourselves with layer upon of layer of hardened, deadened skin. We acquire uniforms and poses and labels and words and tribes with which to distance ourself from others. We define ourselves against more often than beside ‘the other’.

And of course the thicker the skin between us and them, the fewer and fewer the opportunities to reach out, to touch. For most of us the skin we are in becomes the self built jail cell we spend our public lives crouching in. But for some that jail cell gets darker and darker and ‘the other’ further and further away, till one day they find themselves so distant and afraid and unable to be in their own skin comfortably that touch turns to assault.

There is a reason those in peril at the hands of others so often instinctively throw their hands pleadingly towards the assailant. For as that terrifyingly distant, frighteningly close being makes clear their intent, the urge to reach out and touch is overpowering. As if somehow touching them might save us, might break through those dead, hard layers of skin to that tremulous surface below.

It is the most basic, primary form of human communication we have and it uses the one communication medium we have with us constantly from the second we are born to the second we die – our skin. We worry so much about words, about media. Perhaps we need to worry a little more about the skin we are in, the skin they are in.

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