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Lynn Hummel: Gestures can be powerful stuff

When my mother was living, and in the nursing home, I noticed that the nurses, aides and housekeeping staff, whenever they were close to her, touched her on the arm or shoulder when they walked by and called her by her name ― Val. They weren’t feeding her, giving her medicine, or making her room any cleaner, but they were caring for her by caring about her ― gestures only, but powerful stuff.

We don’t think much about gestures because most of them float below the radar ― almost not seen ― but each blip of a gesture carries a lift. Some are no more than a touch, a meeting of the eyes, a nod of recognition, a smile, a wink, a wave, a point, or a pat on the back. Wordless, but received and registered. These gestures are part of the silent language of love, respect, acceptance, caring, or simply recognition.

Some gestures require more ― a presence. Presence at a funeral, a wedding, an anniversary, a picnic, ballgame, play, or concert. The gesture is just showing up. Usually the presence is the message without anything needing to be said. The message is ― I care enough about you to be here ― received and registered.

Some require even more. When a presence is not possible, a card, a letter or call will carry a message, and even then the choice of words probably won’t matter. But who can forget even the smallest of compliments? The gesture is more of a message than the language.

Among those with the public trust, gestures, while still important, can be awkward. Presidents and governors, for example, know the importance of showing up at a place where there has been a major event or a crisis. Skeptics will sneer at these appearances as “photo ops,” and sometimes they are, but they are still necessary to demonstrate an attitude of caring.

Almost the most hurtful charge that can be leveled at any spouse, father, grandparent, sibling, relative, friend, governor, or president is that he didn’t care. Indifference ranks up there with hate on the scale of hurts.

But for those who don’t care ― the indifferent ― there are still a few gestures that recognize “no man is an island” but we are all civilized human beings living on the same planet. All are simple: “hello,” “goodbye,” “excuse me,” and “I’m sorry.”

There are gestures of hate and contempt too, but civilized people, including those who claim to be religious, don’t need them and don’t use them.