3.13.2009

The Hug Manifesto: Hold On for Dear Life

Hugs have a warm, fuzzy reputation. But they have a serious and powerful side, too. A well-placed hug can defuse strong emotions, bridge differences, and remind us that we are alive and valuable.

Holding On

A few years ago I took part in on-call crisis “care teams,” which intervened to support survivors of crises such as crimes, accidents, or suicides. Our training taught us to be present with someone as they experienced shock, horror, sorrow, and grief. Mostly, we listened or sat in silence to literally “be there” for them. Many times, we held people as they cried.

Sometimes opening my arms to these virtual strangers was the first thing I did after I introduced myself. That hug offered the person in crisis something to hold on to during a moment of extreme instability.

Being in the presence of someone in crisis can feel exceedingly awkward. A natural response is to fumble for some magic phrase to ease this person’s burden. We try to say something—anything—to fill heavy, dark silences and to help ourselves feel less powerless. Frequently, we just want to get out of there.

I suggest that we reach out instead. Recognize that while it’s impossible to remove somebody’s pain, a hug can ground and validate everyone involved, even if only for a moment. The physical contact serves as both a reality check and a sign that somebody cares.

Reaching Across the Divide

As a gesture of caring, hugs can alleviate personal pain and isolation in non-crisis circumstances, too. Consider, for example, how our society tends to marginalize or isolate groups like the elderly, disabled, developmentally challenged, chronically ill, and people with mental health concerns like depression. These are people who need affection and care the most, yet receive the least. Perhaps it’s difficult for us to acknowledge people who inhabit the very pain and challenges that we fear.

But these conditions are not contagious. We can’t let fear of difference or infirmity keep us distanced from one another. Instead, a hug reminds us of our common need for validation and acceptance.

I would extend this concept to other kinds of distancing. For one, I think we mistakenly assume that someone who frowns, seems “tough,” or is radically different from us wouldn’t want a hug. Similarly, the thought of hugging might seem ludicrous in the midst of a conflict or argument. Yet offer a smile or a hug and you may be surprised at how the barriers melt away.

Strength In Softness

A great example of this comes from my Dad, who mentioned to me that he hugs his fellow Vietnam veterans. I liked the idea, because war veterans are a group that might not initiate hugs on their own. Aside from being trained to conceal vulnerability, it’s also common for combat vets to suffer from grief, survival guilt, and traumatic memories. Sometimes they “numb” their emotions to protect themselves from feeling that pain. Unfortunately, that can block positive emotions, too.

Since my Dad’s comment, I’ve added hugs to my expression of thanks when I meet a veteran who displays a tough exterior. And, of course, I make it a point to hug my favorite veteran (my Dad) every chance I get.

My Hug Manifesto

I suggest that hugs are one small way to practice open-minded inclusion. When I feel awkward in the presence of someone who arouses my fears of rejection, mortality, or the unknown, I consider it an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and push my growing edge.

Yes, it’s scary to be in the presence of pain or the unfamiliar. Yet when my natural impulse is to shut down or escape, I try to remember that making contact can ease the tension and reassure everyone involved. When I offer a hug, I make myself vulnerable because I take the risk of reaching out first. This bestows and invites trust. It conveys goodwill.

According to the popular statement by family therapist Virginia Satir, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” According to her criteria, many of us don’t get the hugs we need to survive. But I tend to agree with her philosophy. Because once we make hugging a habit, we do more than survive. We grow.

Hug Wisely

Throughout my counseling training, I examined the ethics of touch closely. So I must emphasize that the kind of hugging that I encourage assumes a healthy respect for ethical and individual boundaries. In order to create a positive, compassionate experience, please secure permission before you hug (and see the Hugs for Health Foundation’s Rules for Safe Hugging).

I don’t believe hugs will save the world from hunger, war, or the scourge of deadly disease. But I do believe in the power of hugs. Any loving, peaceful act is a step in the right direction.

Next time: Embrace Your Spiritual Side (Hugs for Deeper Connection)

1 comment:

Sharon and Mike Williams said...

I'm glad I have been a recipient and "returner" of your hug manifesto. Keep up the good work and inspiring me to be more there.

sfw