Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ Hugs

On the Nature of the Hug

To me, the act of giving somebody a hug has always seemed ambiguous and frightening. What is the motivation behind hugging another? Are hugs genuine demonstrations of affection, or are they just crass attempts to grab another's flesh?

Don't laugh. There is definitely a dirty element of sexuality inherent in the process of embracing another. When two people hug, there is intense body-to-body contact happening. How far removed is the supposedly innocent act of "greeting" somebody else from sordid sexual writhings? Not very, especially if the intentions of the huggers are unwholesome to begin with.

And yet, hugs do possess an air of innocence completely lacking from mushier forms of showing affection, such as kisses and nose-rubs. Parents hug their children. Children hug a variety of things both alive and otherwise -- everything from dolls and pets to their peers. Old friends who have not seen each other for years will often greet each other with a hug, as will those who are departing with the knowledge that they may not see each other again in the near future. In my mind, the definitive image of a hug has to be the Shel Silverstein illustration of two stick figures embracing each other, wide innocent smiles on their faces. (What? You have never heard of Shel Silverstein? Quit wasting your time with this Web garbage. Get to a library and immerse yourself in some excellent literature, like Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree. Now. That wasn't a request.) Surely sexuality is not the only motivation for embracing another. I think that there are other aspects of humanity at work here, aspects that touch upon what it means to be human.

First of all, there is the aspect of touch itself. Although the hug appeals to other senses as well -- the scent of another's body, the thump-thump of a beating heart, the sound of a voice -- I think that the sensations associated with hugs are primarily those of touch. When we hug something, we can truly believe that it exists in front of us. The sense of deception inherent in the other senses doesn't exist when touching something. We can fooled into seeing and hearing things that don't exist. Many foods mimic tastes we know and love with potent chemical soups. But touching -- and hugging -- something else is an almost-sure sign that it is real, which is vitally important in our modern world of delusions and illusions. We humans tend to understand the concrete better than the abstract; being cradled by a pair of arms is a certain sign that we are wanted, that we belong. Although, to be sure, a pair of arms can be made to lie, lips are trained in that deceitful art; I have an unfortunate tendency to trust a warm embrace over all of the smiling "I love you"s in the world.

Belonging is another vital aspect of the hug. Human beings are social animals: although we can survive alone, we thrive when surrounded by people with whom we feel we fit in. Part of us craves physical contact as part of the bonding experience. Babies who are not nurtured by their parents, who are not touched and hugged and cared for by their mothers, do not develop these bonds. Although I have no fancy studies to back me up, I believe that they grow up unhappier than peers who are nurtured, who are loved. How are we any different from babies? I don't think we are.

Even social outcasts like myself crave physical attention sometimes. I have found myself hugging pillows and stuffed toys and refrigerators when overcome by fits of lonliness; my rationale is that half a hug is better than no hug at all. Besides, the presence of these inanimate objects comforts me. Even though these inanimate objects care for me as little as the rest of the world, I can pretend. That makes all of the difference.

I suspect that possible insights as to why hugs can affect us so deeply lie in the body language used to carry out the gesture. To me, a hug signifies both possession and protection. In wrapping our arms around the object to be held and drawing it closer to our body, we are telling the world that the object we are embracing belongs to us. In addition, we are showing that we want to protect the object being hugged. How? For one thing, in drawing the hugee closer, we are letting it invade our personal space, which we are usually loath to do. This can almost be seen as a sacrifice, since we are agreeing to lower our own personal defences in order to accomodate another. As well, when we are giving a hug, we form a ring with our arms. It's like we are shielding the object, that we are willing to be struck by whatever shrapnel the world decides to hurl at us in order to protect something we care about. Perhaps that is just a lot of psychobabble, but it seems like an important part of what makes the hug special, at least to me.

I wish that I had something witty and profound to say at the end of this spiel, but I don't. Perhaps it is because hugs are not verbal or literary, but almost purely emotional gestures. As far as I know, they are safe and clean ways of expressing one's affection. I don't think that people transmit horrible venereal diseases like AIDS or genital warts or pregnancy via hugs. I still don't know whether hugs are naughty or nice, but perhaps that is part of what makes them so alluring.