A Quiet Sanctuary in a World Gone Bonkers

Drowning in words, overwhelmed by thoughtless tweets and angry posts, consumed by conjecture that spins out of control as the day unwinds, deafened by TV “news reporters” who no longer even try to differentiate between hard truth, allegations, guesses and opinions… That’s communication today. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk… Say, tell, opine, assert, claim, blather… Not much time for listening. Not much interest in reflection. Noise.

How amazing, then, to be plunged into the world of communication by touch. Tactile talk. Messaging via proximity. Shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek, arm in arm, chest to chest – hugging!

That’s right, communication by hug! It wasn’t my idea, but I thought it was an interesting one when I was offered the job of the “hugging grandma.” All I had to do was attend the nation’s largest annual behavioral health conference, stand in the expo hall for two days, and hug as many people as possible. For every hug I gave, the healthcare company paying me would donate one dollar to a most revered charity, Mental Health First Aid. Their goal was $2000, which meant my goal was 2000 hugs.

And we did it – with 45 minutes to spare. It was grueling. At the end of the first day (ten hours), with a mere 800 hugs to my name, my neck and shoulders were aching, and my voice was cracking. At the end of the second day (eight hours), I was pretty much washed up. All I could do was soak in a hot bath and lie on the couch. It was hard work to hug 2000 people in 18 hours over two days.

But it was good work. And people liked it. And you know what? As hard as it was to keep doing all that upper body exercise, as much makeup as I got smeared on the shoulders of my white shirt, as hoarse as I became from saying over and over, “Come on and give Grandma a hug,” I walked away from that conference uplifted, satisfied and happy – if exhausted.

Maybe there’s something to those claims about the science of hugging: It releases oxytocin, causing huggers to bond. It causes a therapeutic relaxing effect in the muscles of the huggers. It causes the release of endorphins which can relieve pain. It allows exchange of feelings which produce understanding and empathy. It releases dopamine, boosting mood and relieving depression. It can reduce the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. It seems to possibly boost the immune system, as frequent huggers appear to have fewer symptoms of illness. It can reduce fear and worry (which is why very small children hug teddy bears and stuffed animals). And studies show that hugging can decrease heart rate and blood pressure.

I learned some other things about hugging in my intense two-day hug fest. I found that people really did enjoy the hug. And several said, “I needed that.” Some did the rock-side-to-side thing, while others just stood still and clung appreciatively to another human body. One gentleman kissed me on the cheek, and a very large young man, about the size and shape of a refrigerator, picked me up and dangled me two feet above the floor. I had grandma-to-grandma hugs, and grandma-to-grandpa hugs and grandma-to-doctor hugs – you name it, I hugged it.

I soon discovered that I could quite reliably identify enthusiastic, unabashed huggers from afar. They seemed unable to resist the invitation for a hug. A small percentage of the group, on the other hand, claimed they were “not huggers” and simply wouldn’t open their arms. Young men were, as a group, the most difficult targets; they were generally shy and reluctant and had to be reminded that I am, after all, just a grandma. A few older men blushed with embarrassment at the mere suggestion and hurried away. Women were, as a rule, more reliable targets for the hug invitation, and black women were, as a group, the most enthusiastic and happy huggers.

Because I was at a behavioral health conference, I was surrounded by caregivers, but I am quite certain it was the social workers who never, ever said no. I was amazed at how many social workers were enthusiastically hugging me back.

Hugging people let me open doors I might not have opened otherwise. I was able to tell many, many young women how beautiful they are, how fresh and flawless their skin is, how darling their hair, how refreshing their smile. I wasn’t afraid to ask a woman my age why she was wearing that particular head cover to the conference. I knew she’d tell me she’d had chemo and her hair had fallen out, and I thought it might be nice for her to tell someone her story. (It was her third bout with breast cancer, I learned, but she hugged strongly and smiled brightly.) I hugged a man who was clearly in terrible pain. When he told me he “needed that,” I asked him what was wrong. He said he’d just “thrown his back out” and was headed to Urgent Care.

And you know what else? I remembered the people I’d hugged! I recognized them as they walked by the next day – even before they gave me that knowing smile. Each one of those 2000 hugs, however brief, made an impression on me.

And I was happy to notice that I wanted to hug everyone: male or female, black or white or brown, Asian or Latino, fat or thin, old or young, well dressed or frowzy looking, short or tall, smiling or serious. It was a good way to spend two days. No national coverage of impulsive, irresponsible tweets. No blathering TV personalities saying the same thing over and over (including mispronouncing “a” and substituting “may” for “might” and claiming “the reason is is”). No panels of guests talking over each other’s voices and guessing at whether a crime might have been committed, evidence might surface or someone might be asked to step down. (Of course they never say “might”; they all say “may.”) Every hug was a quiet, intensely personal interaction that nourished each of us in some way – without words. It was a brief sanctuary in a world gone absolutely bonkers with words.  

I gave 2000 hugs. And I got 2000 hugs.

Maybe tomorrow you might want to turn off the devices and try some tactile talk yourself.