Friday, February 3, 2012

Hugged Upon: A Social Commentary

Yesterday I went to Mass before going to work. It was only a weekday Mass, even if it was the feast of the Presentation, so the church was mostly empty. One of the things about this parish that I don’t particularly care for is that at the sign of peace, everyone leaves their pew and walks all over the church to shake hands with everyone. It’s not wrong, as far as I can tell, but it rather distracts from the real focus of the Mass. After all, at this point in the liturgy, the Host is consecrated and Jesus is sacramentally present on the altar. That is the focal point of the entire universe! It’s not really the time for a social event.

However, as I said, I don’t think it is wrong, and I certainly don’t think those who do it mean any disrespect by it so I did what I usually do. I shook hands with and asked God’s peace upon those in my immediate vicinity, and any others who wandered over from other parts of the church, and then turned back to the altar to get back to the Mass. Upon turning back, however, I saw someone moving towards me from the front of the church. She was a largish lady, in her fifties I would guess, with a look of intense focus on her round face. She had me in her sights, so I prepared to shake hands with her as well, but as she bore down on me (she had to cover enough ground that I had time to size her up) her arms stretched out wide. My thoughts were not coherent, but they could be translated, “That looks like… but no it couldn’t be… but it really… no…”

Then she said loud enough to be heard through the building, continuing to advance at a high rate of speed, “Can I get a hug?”

She was close enough to be breaking the comfort zone, you know that little personal bubble area in front of you where someone is just too close for conversational purposes? As she broke it I retreated half a step back into my pew, and held out my hand, mumbling something stunned and lame under my breath. I didn’t register her reaction, except that she shook and walked back to the front of the church. In retrospect, I suppose it might have embarrassed her a bit to be so obviously rejected. She’s fortunate I didn’t have time to collect my thoughts or I would have just said “No” in the driest, most end-of-story tone I could muster. No doubt many would consider my reaction rude enough as it was. I wish I knew how she viewed it, since at the moment she represented a mindset almost entirely alien to me and I would like to understand it better.

Since I couldn’t figure out her reaction, I spent part of my drive into post this morning trying to analyze mine. I was surprised, not only by her action, but by the fierceness and strength of my reaction. It took a while for me to bring my thoughts back into the realm of charity. You see, I hate being hugged upon by strangers. I don’t even like having my space invaded (with some exceptions), and my initial reaction is always defensive, but when someone I don’t know tries to hug me (it happens very rarely) my first instinct is to shove them back, create some space, and just say “Whoah, hold on. Back off, I don’t know you.”

She obviously had no such reservations, and I had to question my reaction. After all, she just wanted a hug, right? Aren’t we supposed to love one another? Well, that wasn’t a very loving thing to do, now was it? Isn’t that what the sign of peace is all about, showing the love of Jesus? Doesn’t Saint Paul tell us to greet each other with a holy kiss?

I suppose she must have decided I just didn’t like hugs or something, and it was this supposition that gave me an insight into why my reaction is always so strong. You see the fact is I actually don’t hate hugs. I love them in fact. I hug the heck (literally) out of people I know well, family and really close friends. In going through the list I realized that there are people that I love well enough to take a bullet for, but I would never hug. Most of my patients have been like that. Even that lady in the church, I certainly wouldn’t say I didn’t want to have some charity for her. But a hug is still unthinkable, even repulsive. It isn’t the person that repulses me, but the act of hugging someone I don’t know.

And right there is the crux of the matter. There are some people who say that a hug or a kiss is a statement of love, and therefore to be expected between Christians united in the Love of Jesus. After all, you don’t have to know the person to know that Jesus loves them. Very true, and yet that doesn’t call forth the hugging instinct in me. To me, hugging is not so much the language of love, as a language of intimacy, to one degree or another. Love may be possible without knowing the person. Intimacy is not. Charity is guaranteed, or should be, simply on the basis of the shared love of God. One of the results of charity is that it should encourage us to seek to know the people that God loves so much, but it does not change the fact that we are human. We don’t know people right away. It takes time and patience to get to know a person, and this “knowledge” is not simply awareness of facts about that person. It is a matter of trust, a mutual exchange of part of the soul of each. It is a mystery how one person can “know” another at all, but one thing I do know: intimacy exists only in relationship. There must be giving and receiving, gift and regift over and over again. The longer this has been going on the deeper that intimacy becomes. If it hasn’t happened at all, there is no intimacy. You don’t know that person.

This is what “knowing someone” means to me. So I realized that it isn’t because I hate hugs that I recoiled so profoundly from that lady’s well-meaning gesture. It is because I love the act of hugging rather jealously. I want it to have some meaning, not just be a flippant thing we throw around to whomever happens to be within arm’s reach. It seems dishonest. It is lying with your body, pretending that something is there which isn’t there at all. Like a man who vows undying love on the first date, it means nothing.

I guess this is just one symptom of my overall critique of our culture’s approach to social interaction. We tend to be so very friendly and open and “frank” and we tell people just exactly what is going on in our minds. Our heartbreaks are emblazoned on the shifting sands of our facebook walls, there to be pawed over by the crowds for the few hours or minutes or seconds it takes to work its way to the bottom of the feed. Our every thought, emotion, action, and relationship must be dragged out into the cyber streets and vivisected. And what of those thoughts so casually thrown around on twitter? Did that thought even have time to grow up before I stuck it out there? What happens when you put the hops in the still, and then pour out the juice before it has time to ferment, let alone age? Can we even think for more than 140 characters at one time anymore?

I applaud the willingness we have to lay our cards out. The ability to be vulnerable is a prerequisite for relationship, but I wonder. Do we really gain anything by it? Have we increased the breadth of our attachments, but sacrificed the depths? If you try to be intimate with everyone, you end up losing the ability to be truly intimate with anyone. That seems to me something too precious to give up.

One Real Hug is worth about five and a half bazillion fake ones.


  1. I feel the same way about the prevalence of casual hugging. Personal space is seriously underrated.

  2. This is wonderful! I very much agree... :)