The power of a hug - a way of saying 'you are not alone'
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Rev Steve Jones, rector of Littleham, Holy Trinity and Lympstone writes for the Journal
I wonder how closely you have observed people who have experienced a sudden trauma, and who are then approached by a person that they love and trust. The emotional and physical response is usually quite rapid.
Upon the distressed person’s face, you often see a wave of sudden relief, usually tied into a further profusion of tears.
Then, there is a rush to greet, a huge embrace, and more tears. You can see a lessened version of this same reaction in the International Arrivals hall at London Heathrow Airport.
Closely emotionally connected people who have not been in each other’s presence for some time, and who may live far apart from each other, are often overcome by the need to hug their loved ones.
So, why do human beings have that need to be physically extremely close to another person, in a platonic way?
I have three possible reasons to suggest. Firstly, in emotional terms, perhaps we sometimes just need to be close to a person who is, in that moment, stronger than us, allowing us to draw strength from them.
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Sometimes you just need the closeness of a family member or friend who has been a ‘rock’ at core times in your life. In normal times, offering limited and appropriate physical support can be part of my role at funerals, even if I do not have a close connection with the family. In that moment, I can be a source of strength for people when they need it the most. Secondly, in the Bible Christians are urged to bear each other’s burdens. The old adage is, ‘A burden shared is a burden halved’.
In Christian teaching, when someone near and dear to us is under the burden of stress or crisis, our job is to get under the load with them and help them carry the weight. Bearing that weight together may be symbolised by a hug.
So, giving a hug may not just be about offering one-time crisis support. Hugging someone regularly may be about giving ongoing help to a person in their whole life journey. Hugging, perhaps, is a non-verbal proclamation which says ‘I am with you on this journey. You are not alone.’
There is, I think, a third, spiritual sense in which hugging might be important to us. Within each human being, I believe, is a soul. As a Christian, I think that the soul is located there by God, and that each human soul bears the fingerprints of the God.
I have come to believe that when two human souls are in close proximity and in loving engagement, there occurs a divine resonance between them that acts to supernaturally strengthen both persons.
I witness that all the time in our church community, which is why appropriate physical embrace is a key part in the spiritual lives of many Christians. For all of us, when we hug one another, we can be strengthened by the stronger person, feelings of being alone in this world can dissipate, and we can receive a spiritual blessing, manifesting as a sense of well-being.
It may follow, therefore, that our suffering in these days of COVID is likely to be more challenging that it otherwise would be, due to our reduced ability to hug and be hugged.
To our surprise, the inability to be hugged may leave us with a notable deficit in our emotional bank accounts.
While there may not be much that we can do about wider hugging right now, we can regularly hug the ‘huggy’ people in our own family bubbles. Even your teenagers might need an extra hug in these difficult days!
And when the vaccine has been fully rolled-out, and we are returning to normal, our community will need to think carefully about how we encourage those in our town who may have been starved of vital physical contact for a very long time.