Spoiler alert: I miss being hugged. These last years, I’ve adjusted, redesigned, and redefined life as I found it yet, I’m not gonna lie, being hugged is a major miss. It’s one of those things that get lost in the storm and, it’s only when the winds die down and the skies clear that you see what left the building.
Amid the sunny day to day, we are often too busy to even notice how often we touch one another in one way or another. No, I’m not talking about big cinematic smooches or lift off your feet bear hugs. I’m thinking of those little touches on the shoulder, small of the back, the grab of a hand. Maybe you remember when familiar hands smoothed sunscreen on your back, or fastened a necklace you couldn’t reach. In those moments, few of us ever imagine that one day those moments would become a billboard in your memory.
It’s been said “Americans suffer from skin hunger”. When you realize more of us live alone than ever before and have more intimacy with our cell phones than each other, it makes sad sense. Our American culture makes us more restrained than countries like Greece, France, Spain and Italy, where they hug and kiss – a lot. Today’s culture also makes us cautious about touch, of it being misunderstood, being thought uninvited, or worse, harassment. Our restraint, our ‘aloneness’ have cost us the essence of human connection.
Remember that guy who offered free hugs on the street? Juan Mann, the founder of the “Free Hugs” movement, understood the innate impact of meaningful human contact. The very fact that our culture has given birth to professional cuddlers (yes, it’s a thing) who spread affection through workshops to the touch deprived, should give us pause. The Japanese even designed a chair, with soft, floppy arms that wrap you in a fluffy embrace as an answer to touch hungry souls. Sadly, that’s not an alternative fact.
“Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.” Charles Dickens
The power of touch has been written about, yearned for and is as old as life itself. Touching, and the need for it, is primal. When you are touch deprived, you’re a sitting duck for the shadows of fear, depression, and doubt. When Princess Diana visited AIDS patients, she held their hands, knowing touch was something that left the room at their diagnosis. We use hugs as a coming together after a misunderstanding. We take someone’s hand to let them know we understand or have their back. We are a very tactile species.
Our first awareness of touch is at the moment of birth. In both the animal and human world, a mother’s touch is a baby’s first nurturing. It’s easy to understand, then, how babies in orphanages, deprived of loving contact, often have a shorter life span. Children nesting in nuclear families aren’t guaranteed their fill of loving touch either if hugs, and overt confirmations of love, are in short supply. Those kids often act out and continue the cycle of lack in their own future family.
“Jon was an expert at affection. He gave the best hugs. The kind that made you feel completely enveloped in love and security. If hugging was a superpower my husband had it. While we were together physical touch was abundant. We were in constant contact: holding hands, leaning on each other shoulders, smacking each other’s butts as we walked by and of course… special married people cuddles. And then he was gone.” Erica Roman, from her blogpost “Surviving in a culture of affection deprivation”
I’ve always been a major hug machine, as both my kids and grands would attest, especially since my lip prints are nearly tattooed on their cheeks. I just might bottle those grand mini-humans soft arms around my neck as an antidote to touch-longing. Friends play a part, too, with marathon hello, goodbye and ‘just because’ hug outs. I’m lucky to give and get plenty. Still, to anyone missing a love partner, the hugs of your now missing main squeeze fall into another category altogether and there’s no magic fix for that.
Widowdom sucks. However, it does bring a lot of reluctant wisdom and this touch thing is one of them. Busy with the daily detritus, we take so many seemingly insignificant things for granted in this life until it’s rudely interrupted. Then, the very things we take for granted on our daily hamster wheel, are those we often miss most. The person who doled out those precious hugs, those touches, those little things that colored our life with tenderness is not making a return trip.
“The idea that when, through death, divorce or other circumstance, we live without a partner in old age, we can feel our skin longing, even aching for the touch of another person.” Ken Pyburn
A half million elderly people endure days on end without touching another human being. Think of that. I have only to visit my father in his assisted living to see that fact in technicolor. Once living large with husbands and wives, kids and dogs, each of these people now exist in solitary variations of dwindling existence, yearning for acknowledgement and bereft of the touch that once sparked animation.
So, we have choices to make. Yes, our perfect hugger (and mine had major talents in that department) was recalled. No refund; no replacement. The original model has been discontinued. Now what? Don’t look at me. I don’t have the answers. Some days, the brat in me doesn’t even want to. The ‘waaaaah’ takes over and I forget I’m one of the lucky ones. Sure I miss that irreplaceable touch every single day, but I was blessed with what I miss now. As Carol King in her song, “Now and Forever” wrote, “We are the lucky ones, some people never get to do, all we got to do.” Indeed.
“Touch has a memory.” John Keats
Gratitude won’t take our longing away but it might change the narrative. We can try to be for others what was given to us. Shake more hands. Make a connection. Extend yourself. Under that seemingly reticent person could be someone crying for affection. Ramp up your squeeze initiative. Even if you need to ask first, give it a shot. Most people, even if they are loathe to admit it, welcome a hug. BE that hugger. For all the touches we were given, pay it forward. There are no magic answers; just lot of needs.
Maybe today I need a massage.