Rewriting the story of stranger danger

December 15, 2017 - 12.05 AM / Blog

There is a trend that is spreading around the world. But unlike man buns and $6 coffees, this trend is producing a truly positive sociological effect. Ok, ok…. man buns and artisanal coffees may also boost moral from time to time, but this new trend has the advantage of being accessible to everyone, being completely free, and has health benefits to boot.

This is something we can literally feel good about – because the new trend is free hugs.

For those of you who have not experienced this phenomenon in person, on the internet, or occasionally on the news, there is now a long trail of people who are taking to the streets with little signs that read ‘Free Hugs.’

Although the essential premise is the same from performance to performance, there are different intentions behind why people partake in this generous gesture.

In the wake of the Manchester terror attack, a man named Baktash Noori took to the streets with a sign that read “I’m Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?” As many people waited in line to participate, they proved that empathy can be a powerful tool in the face of terror.

Situations like the Machester attack can often be used as fuel for Islamophobic and other racist ideals, but this man with his simple cardboard sign showed that each human should be judged by their actions, and not by harmful labels.

Another Free Hugs anomaly is a young man named Ken Nwadike who is touring around America to give hugs in an effort to end violence. He has recently been showing up at political rallies and engaging with officers and pedestrians alike. He believes the only way to address the uprise in police brutality is to realize that there are human beings on both sides, and that each has the capacity for loving actions when given a chance to express them.

These performances, along with all the other free huggers, demonstrate an essential aspect of empathy – it belongs to everyone, and everyone deserves it.

I have been giving out my own free hugs for the past three years. During Humainologie’s inaugural Empathy Week in June 2017, I had the pleasure of spending three days giving out hugs to people. While I started bringing out my ‘Free Hugs’ sign as a way to spread awareness of mental health, this summer the theme I was helping spread was empathy.

Of all the amazing conversations I have while giving out hugs, there are particular ones that really pull my heartstrings. There are always those who come up to me and say that they’d love a hug, but they just got off work and are too dirty, or just had a cigarette and smell like smoke. If I can, I gently reinforce that I like to give hugs to anyone, and if they feel comfortable they are still welcome to have one.

We live in a society rife with rules about who is and isn’t worthy of love. We are conditioned to believe  compassion and empathy belong to those the most like “us.”

The true bravery in holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign is in challenging this notion of who belongs to “us.” This is achieved by standing before anyone who passes by, and indicating that the only precondition of sharing love, is that you want to be shared with.

Not everyone who passes by wants to be hugged. Some want a handshake, a picture for Instagram, or just to stop and chat for a while. But without the sign there would be no chance for these interactions to occur.

And if the hundreds of people who interact with me are any indication, there is a huge desire to simply be heard, to be embraced, and to be told that we are worthy. Even if it’s by a stranger.

Many scientific journals have made the connection between strong social ties and physical well being. One study published in The National Library of Medicine showed that people with strong social ties were less susceptible to the common cold, passed along the virus less frequently, and recovered more quickly when they did become ill.

In another study posted by Scientific American, a review of data gathered from 300,000 people across the globe, showed that low levels of social support can increase the risk of premature death more than commonly known factors like smoking or alcohol consumption.

While seeing someone giving out hugs may be perceived as a sweet but trite gesture, the consequences of these actions are significant.

You no longer need to be a doctor or a nurse to contribute to another human’s health. And although the benefits are unanimously agreed on, it can be really hard to advocate for these collective physical needs.

Therein lies the genius of the ‘Free Hugs’ sign. It makes an offering to others at the same time that it identifies a personal need. You cannot hug someone without also being hugged. And although people who hug me often thank me, I also offer my thanks in return.

Thank you for being vulnerable in a public space.

Thank you for taking a chance on a stranger.

And thank you for contributing to my health and well being.

The global problems we face can sometimes feel insurmountable. Feelings of hopelessness don’t often inspire action. But when we start to see the true impact of actions each of us can do any place, any time, with little effort, these are the foundations that empower us to believe we can help spread empathy a little farther every day.

Contributed by Polly Orr


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