All of us crave connection, that feeling of being known, seen and appreciated, and one of the primary ways we have fulfilled this need throughout human history is through touch. Now, I’m not talking about “creepy” touch or “sexual” touch, but instead the simple, innocent physical interactions between people. It’s the shaking of hands, patting on the back or giving of friendly hugs.
These types of physical interactions are crucial for us as humans. Deprived of them, children suffer many developmental problems, and we are living in a world that is becoming more physically aloof as relationships evolve into the digital age.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a bit of the traumatic to change our ways of thinking or being. Let me tell you the story of Juan Mann.
An Australian native, Juan had been living in London until the day his world crashed down on him in 2004. Skipping the details, we find Juan disembarking a flight his flight home to Sydney with almost nothing but the troubles he carried. In his own words…
Standing there in the arrivals terminal, watching other passengers meeting their waiting friends and family, with open arms and smiling faces, hugging and laughing together, I wanted someone out there to be waiting for me. To be happy to see me. To smile at me. To hug me.
I must admit I’ve felt this somewhat at times in the past. I travel quite a bit for work, so the airport at times seems almost like a second home. As my “home base” airport is Salt Lake City International, the arrival terminal almost always has at least one large family and friend gathering waiting to welcome home a Mormon missionary with hugs and kisses. Walking through the gathering to get to baggage claim knowing no one is waiting to greet me, especially after a long, exhausting trip, can bring feelings of melancholy.
So, back to our story. What did Juan do?
He made a sign, went to the busiest pedestrian area he knew, and started to offer free hugs.
It took a little while for it to really get going, but eventually a lady tapped him on the shoulder. Her dog had died that morning, which coincidentally was the first anniversary of her daughter’s untimely death in a car accident. (Seriously, I know this sounds like a soap opera plot, but it actually happened that way.)
She needed a hug.
Obviously, some questioned his motives, and it was even banned by Australian police for a time until a petition campaign reached the 10,000 signatures necessary to convince them to waive the public liability insurance requirement that was the basis of the ban.
Juan has since retired from active participation as a hugger and spokesman, though he does run the official site. Needless to say, he has brought many a smile to the face of strangers. He’s made the world a better place by putting himself out there in a very human way.
Another more recent highlighting of the power of human touch is the Touching Strangers project (samples) by photographer Richard Renaldi. Started in 2007, this project explores the possibility for spontaneous and fleeting relationships between complete strangers. As awkward as it sounds, he takes two or three complete strangers, often simply pulled off the street, and poses them in ways we would typically reserve for our intimates: our friends and family.
While some of the photographs show the inherent awkwardness of the whole thing, for many a rather magical thing happens. As the shutter clicks, there seems to be a real, albeit possibly temporary, relationship between these people. The act of touching has somehow bonded them—creating empathy between them.
Go and hug someone today.