Hugs and Social Distancing

We need hugs, and as we break out of our cocoons of social distancing, we need them – and fear them – more than ever.

Two koalas hugging with faces in opposite directions
Approved hugging method – just add masks! Photo by C.Valdez on Unsplash

I’m a tactile person by nature. From the time I was a toddler, I had my hands on – and in – everything! But I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on hugging, and was a teen before I really learned the practice and enjoyment of embracing a friend, or giving a neck hug to another, or even an arm-clasp to a stranger I wanted to welcome.

In this time of social distancing, the hugs are minimal and I’m craving touch. Yet we’re told by Anthony Fauci that even handshakes should be a thing of the past once isolation is over. (You can hear the podcast with the Wall Street Journal here, or read a nice summary from Time here.)

Personally, I theorize that some of the frustration with social distancing is the lack of touch it requires. Mammals need touch as infants for our minds and bodies to grow properly, and even as adults we need the hit of oxytocin that a soft touch releases in our brains. (For more on the importance of touch, some articles to get you started can be found here, here, and here.) The enormous increase of pet fostering and adoption since COVID-19 required isolation is part of our collective self-medication.

In watching some of the coverage of the protests and riots over the death of George Floyd and the and handling of the case, the picture that had me sobbing was the one where a black demonstrator and a white policeman were hugging.

Why?

More than any other gesture, a hug or embrace embodies trust, compassion, equality, empathy, belonging. It echoes the embrace of mother to infant, parent (or grandparent) and child, love between friends and lovers.

“But hugs make me uncomfortable,” you might say. And I will agree there is no woman over 30 (at the oldest) who has not had an uncomfortable experience with an unwanted hug. Many men, too. And if you grew up where hugs were reserved for children, I understand. Or maybe you got the dreaded pinched cheek from older relatives instead of hugs! (I had a few, and they never have made sense to me.)

To be clear, I’m not suggesting anyone be required to hug or otherwise touch anyone they aren’t comfortable with, whether it is Uncle Joe or Aunt Lucy or The Boss — and I include children in that “anyone”. We each have to decide for ourselves what we are and aren’t comfortable with, understanding that our comfort levels can and will change with time and circumstance. To require a child to unwillingly interact with an adult simply because they are a relative is bullying.

But we each can decide what we are comfortable with and seek ways to get that level of touch.

Tabby cat touching a paw to a human palm
We are hard-wired for soft touch. Photo by Jonas Vincent on Unsplash

There was a time when I was living alone and struggling with some deep issues. Even touch from those closest to me wasn’t always a great option. I couldn’t have a pet at the time, but I did have a teddy bear. He was given to me for my twenty-fifth birthday as a joke, but fifteen years later he was my great confidant and comfort.

And pets, of course, are great sources of unconditional love. But they are a great responsibility, too, so choose wisely.

Currently, as the first wave of stay-at-home is being lifted in my area, I’m still cautious. My husband isn’t always sure why I insist on a hug when he gets home, but he loves me and puts up with it. I wore a mask to get my hair cut and decided to let my color grow out to gray, but it was so nice to feel the massage of my scalp as she washed my hair (wearing gloves and a mask, too).

And when my good friend asked for a hug as we parted last week, I gave it to her, instead of the prior elbow bumps. We’ve both been careful in public, and we both needed that connection right then.

So, what to do going forward?

The idea of the casual or business handshake may fade away. Sure, a ritual of applying hand sanitizer and then shaking hands would be kind of cool, but Americans, at least, aren’t much for that kind of thing.

Sadly, I suspect the habit of hugging in Churches and other religious gatherings will decrease. I may be wrong; that is one arena where rituals can be fairly easy to establish, so it may morph into more sanitized handshaking and pats on the shoulder.

I had put this post to bed for the night, only to discover the next morning an article in the New York Times: “How to Hug During a Pandemic.” It’s a good read (with great illustrations), but if you aren’t a subscriber, the gist is that you can give and receive hugs if you follow certain guidelines, mainly:

  • Keep it short
  • Wear masks
  • Face away from one another so you don’t share “air space”.

That article with its illustrations is a must read for leaders and members of groups that like to hug.

Family gatherings are where I see a minefield of hugs/no hugs causing unnecessary rifts. Wash your own hands often, wear a mask if you can, and let the others do as they will. And there’s nothing wrong with a gentle but firm, “No.” You own yourself. And help your children understand their own and others’ boundaries.

One thing we all can do is make sure that we are more aware of those in our lives who might need a hug, or a touch, or a smile – whatever we can give in a safe and gentle manner.

Four people lined up in a group shoulder-to-shoulder hug
We need each other’s touch. Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I fervently hope that the hug isn’t completely banished. Rather, I hope this whole experience opens our eyes to how much we are interconnected with friends and strangers alike. In the big picture, we breathe the same air, we share the same planet. In the small picture, we have the same need to be loved, cherished, and to feel worthy of acceptance.

Whether you choose to hug or not, find a way to let someone you encounter today to know that they matter, and you care about them.

Grace, Peace and Hugs to you!

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