By Fr. Jim Swarthout
(Above photo courtesy of Tim Olk)
One of the simple and great pleasures in my life at this moment is holding hands. I’m the uncle of over 50 nieces and nephews. I held my newest niece’s hand the same morning I walked to the grave with and held the hand a retired firefighter’s wife whose husband passed. The sensation of this one-month-old hand created a feeling of unspeakable joy, where the hand the firefighter’s wife created memories of a life well-lived and tears of new beginnings. Even more to the point, these moments of hand-holding captured my heart, too.
There is something universally profound and comforting about the simple act of two people holding hands. This past month I was reading about the anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember being a small boy and watching the show with my family and I distinctly remember the Beatles singing, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a song that became the first of the group’s many number one hits in America. Like the very act of love that the song celebrates, the words and tune are as simple as they are memorable and the world loved it.
The fire service is full of expressions of brotherhood and sisterhood. The symbolic gesture of extending a hand to another member—perhaps in their time of darkness or greatest need—is an act of the greatest fraternal love and charity. We use the phrase “lend a hand” as an analogy for the sharing of a burden, whether it be in the physical labor of the fireground or in the shared psychological aftermath of the emergency scene. Extending a hand, then, to your fellow firefighter may be to provide comfort, helping alleviate a brother or sister’s turmoil from the experiences of the job.
Valentine’s Day is upon us and I have long thought it important on this day to honor and celebrate all varieties and expressions of love, not only romantic love. Why limit this day to just one expression of love when life is full of so many other beautiful experiences of love?
In light of this thought, I have been reflecting on my life, both past and present, and thinking about all of those with whom I have loved holding hands. As a priest, I have had the honor of holding hands with thousands of people as we prayed together. In my younger years as an athlete, I enjoyed “high-fiving” a teammate or competitor after an exciting performance, and it strikes me that giving someone a high five is an abbreviated form of holding hands. In fact, recently after a successful run and upon returning to the firehouse, we all seemed to line up as two teams after a ball game and high five each other! Even the everyday act of shaking hands with someone is a momentary act of holding hands.
Of course, there is something profound and special about holding hands with a son or daughter, wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, especially when in need of reassurance or when we share a strong emotion. Who have you loved to hold hands with through the years? Children? Lovers? Parents? Friends? What list would you create from your life? It’s inspiring and comforting to think of the many ways in which holding hands has provided reassurance and expressed love throughout our lives. Together our lists, if we were to share them, would indeed move us as we would come to awareness of the multitude of ways in which love is both expressed and experienced through the simple act of holding of hands.
After the Valentine’s flowers have wilted and the chocolates have been eaten you always have at your disposal a simple, delightful and reassuring gift that you can offer on any day— your hand. Happy Valentine’s Day to all of our readers and in the week ahead may you look around you in search of someone who would like to have you hold their hand.
Jim Swarthout is director of clergy and alumni relations for the Rosecrance Health Network, home of the Florian Program. The Rosecrance Florian Program is designed to address the complex biopsychosocial issues unique to the culture of firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers, and military.