A few days ago, I was walking through Union Square and saw a cluster of people (two men, two women, multiple races, 20s or 30s) holding signs that said “FREE HUGS” in large, colorful letters.
Before even actively thinking about it, I knew I was heading straight for the people with the signs.
I walked towards a man with a bushy brown beard who asked, “Need a hug?”
I made a sound that was somewhere between an embarrassed chuckle and a nervous giggle and replied, “Yeah.” (Truth be told, I can really always use a hug.)
We hugged, I thanked him and wished him a great day, and he sent me on my way with a sticker.
Of course, I thought, noting the URL in tiny letters. Does anything simply come from the goodness of the heart? But then I looked up LightSourceTemple.org. If you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll notice what I noticed – the domain has expired. LightSourceTemple.org doesn’t exist.
So why give out free hugs? For a laugh? For fun? A dare? A cult initiation? Or because the world can be really hard and sometimes people just need hugs?
While I can’t answer what those four people in Union Square were aiming for, I can explain why I not only accepted the free hug, but also wanted it.
I believe very strongly that there is a lack of physical human connection in our society.
I’ve thought about this a lot but it struck me anew when I was recently in Israel with our eighth graders. After just a day away from school, in a completely different environment, open affection was acceptable and the norm. Even more illuminating, much of this behavior came from the Israeli staff who we met on the first day of our trip. It was perfectly fine to drape an arm over a colleague’s shoulder for no apparent reason. It was fine to say good morning with a kiss on the cheek. A touch to someone’s back was simply a way of saying hello.
We don’t do enough of that in the US.
While in Israel, I read Dacher Keltner’s Born to Be Good, which contains chapters on smile, laughter, touch, and love, among other things. He writes about oxytocin and its effects on our behavior, attitudes, and relationships. Humans need positive physical contact in order to bond, trust others, and feel happy. In more than one place in his book, Keltner blames the Puritans for the lack of lack of physical touch in American culture.
I mentioned the book during a conversation just before walking through Union Square and seeing the free hugs signs. A friend was talking about his frustration with the repressive nature of American society and how we don’t really permit deviating from the prescribed course of action (school, more school, job) to allow for authentic personal growth or exploration. Thinking of Keltner, I suggested use of the word “Puritanical” to describe typical American attitudes towards uncharted paths and lack of conformity to the few molds we have deemed acceptable.
All of this was on my mind when I walked through Union Square a couple days ago. Though the free hugs people don’t know it, they appeared with their signs at just the right time for me to say yes to their hug.
As a rule, I try to be as open with and responsive to others as I can. Accepting and being truly delighted by the free hug was just another way of trying to form a connection, however brief, with someone who was willing to be open, responsive, and vulnerable to those around him. Back in February, I sat down to talk to three men on a bench in Central Park for the same reason. When a college student who started a conversation with me at a nail salon last week asked if she could interview me for a school project, I gave her my phone number with true pleasure. I’m trying to make the world better, one positive interaction at a time.
We are all humans. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. If we can’t reach out and touch one another, what’s the point in living at all?