Monday, March 30, 2009

Free Hugs

By Pat Rossiter, YOUTH Forum Program Manager

There are people out there who hug. Huggers: the people who feel like the traditional clasping of hands, as a sign that you aren’t going to smash their head in with a rock or plunge a dagger in the neck, is simply not enough. They need an embrace.

I have been known to hug. I like them well enough but am I a hugger? I suppose that is a matter of degrees.

I recently attended True Colors LGBT Youth Conference, where it is fashionable to be a hugger. At least, it is so in theory. As a walked around I saw many kids whose awkwardness could not be more apparent. These were kids who, if given half a chance might jump out of their own body. You can likely remember being 14 years old and having a body that changed virtually every day; looking in the mirror at a face you didn’t recognize; clumsily dropping and tripping with hands and feet that were sizes to big. Now, imagine that teenaged body-image angst with the added delight of being gay or lesbian. Bad enough? Not yet! How about the transgender or inter-sexed kids? Their bodies are not merely unfamiliar, their bodies are the enemy.

So, plastered onto these bodies, in scrawled letters on some scavenged nametag, the phrase, “Free Hugs.” I had to wonder, what would one of these kids, already fragile from a short life of , in many cases, ridicule and self-loathing, do if a complete stranger were to hug them. I suppose it is the emotional equivalent of a roller coaster ride, where the anticipation and terrifying execution are a thrill, but in the end, you are pretty sure you will get off the ride at the end, puke in a garbage can and go on with your life. I decided not to make anybody puke.

I had a friend when I was stationed in Hawaii. Timmy-Mo we called him. He had the proud distinction of having, not once, not twice, but thrice being an E1 in the Marine Corps. After all, the Corps giveth and Corps taketh away and Timmy just couldn’t keep his chevrons. He tended to make “bad choices.” One of his habits was to hug. Not just a typical hug-slap-on-back-three-times-release man hug. No, Tim would hug…and then not let go. We all know there is an appropriate length of time for a hug. When he hugged, that time would come, then go and he would still be having a conversation with you in full embrace. This was Tim’s barometer I think. How you reacted to this would determine how his relationship with you might go.

A month or so after I met Tim for the first time, he gave me a hug. As we stood there, the clock started. One second, green light, everything is good. One and a half seconds, still ok. Two seconds , yellow light, starting to be uncomfortable. Two and a half seconds, something is terribly wrong. Three seconds, ABORT ABORT! Tim though, didn’t know who he was dealing with. He would hug just long enough for you to be uncomfortable, but then would let you go. The problem was, this time, I didn’t let him go. His arms relaxed and he started to move his body away. I held on. His arms fell to his side and he took a step back. I held on. He looked uncomfortable at the ceiling as I continued to chat. Finally he started to laugh and knew that he had been undone at his own game. I let him go, champion of the dueling huggers. We remain good friends. His barometer works.

No too long ago I met an Episcopal priest who I had gotten to know and become relatively close to. We shared an intense and trying experience. At the time for good-byes, I felt quite secure in offering a hug. This was returned with one of the creepiest things I have ever experienced, a “one arm hug.” OK, this is not a we-are-side-by-side-and-you-can’t-reach-around-with-your-other-arm one-armed-hug, this is an I-am-a-priest-and-I-don’t-want-to-be-accused-of-some-sexual-malfeasance one-armed-hug. When it was over, I felt dirty.

What kind of message does that send? Here’s what I got, loud and clear:

The priest had no real affection for me.

He assumed I was going to accuse him of something.

He was more interested in protecting himself than in providing comfort to others.

I can’t solely blame the priest for this; it was probably a policy from his Bishop. The irony is not lost on me however that the priest and likely the church are afraid to embrace the flock. And, if it is literal, it is probably figurative as well.

All that being said, am I a hugger? I still don’t know. Will I wear a sign? Hug you too long? Give you an ice-cold one-arm? Nope. But, if you ask, need some comfort and want the real thing. I’m here.

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