Fear of Hugging

After Brooke’s intervention, I began to seek physical contact more and more from my friends. It was a balm, a blessing to my heart and soul, and something I desperately craved. In turn, hugging someone became a way for me to bless them—to lay on hands and whisper a prayer for their heart—and let them know that someone cared about them. When the concept of fear is introduced as a limit to physical contact, I wonder at the motivation behind that fear.

A girl with whom I was once acquainted shared the following concern with me: she hesitated to hug others because she feared they would get the wrong impression about her. Particularly if the contact would involve a guy, she was afraid that she would make them think she was romantically interested in them, and so she withheld. I can’t really fault her for this reasoning—it is a poor reflection on those who mistook her in the past, rather than on her personally—but it did sadden me. If people, particularly Christians, are interpreting the act of hugging as a romantic one, then we have a problem.

This problem, this fear of physical intimacy and openness with friends, has so many causes and so many impacts that it is difficult to discuss clearly. Allow me to resort to headings for the sake of clarity.

Problem 1: A fundamental understanding of what a hug is and is not

I tend to think of a hug as similar to the holy kiss mentioned in the New Testament of the Christian bible. It is a greeting, a connection, and an indication of a deeper relationship than a mere glance or smile can convey. We are part of a family, and therefore we should hug. Hugging helps communicate our familial relationship.

Hugging doesn’t just communicate relationship though–if that was its only purpose, we could just as easily wear name tags, or branded t-shirts, or just tell people, “Hey, you and I go to church together and therefore are part of the body of Christ and subsequently are similar to family.” Hugging communicates all this to the heart, to a person’s very soul, so they know it. It can be a means of communicating more clearly.

It is not, therefore, a sign of romantic intentions. A holy kiss is not a french kiss, just as a hug (even full body from the front–side hugs feel insincere and shallow and communicate nothing) is not like… I don’t know, giving someone a Valentine’s Day card, or sleeping together, or groping them. It is platonic, and we shouldn’t hug people intending it to be anything other than that, nor should it be interpreted otherwise.

Problem 2: A fear of conveying romantic intentions

If we fear physical contact because it may communicate a message we do not intend, then we need to learn how to communicate our intentions more clearly. You should already know whether you are romantically interested in someone or not. I tend to think that once you’ve made up your mind you are interested, you ought to come out and let them know (unless, of course, they are already in a relationship or have made it known they are not interested, in which case the point is moot–just treat them normally). Regardless, you control your own communication and means thereof, and hugging shouldn’t be a means of communicating romantic intent, as I’ll cover in the next section.

Problem 3: A fear of the interpretation of romantic intentions

Even if we do not intend to communicate romantic intent, the other person might interpret such. My friend, who was afraid to give the wrong impression to someone, ostensibly didn’t want to be a stumbling block to a member of the opposite sex, but I wonder if she really refused to engage for their sake or for her own.

Fear is never a worthwhile motivation, for it taints all that it touches, and in this case I think it was misplaced. You don’t fear that your brother or sister will interpret romantic and subsequently incestuous intentions from a hug, so why should your friend? The only reason is because that friend doesn’t know you well. If you have hidden away your true feelings so much that they might believe you have romantic intentions, then a problem exists in the relationship that must be dealt with openly and honestly. And if the problem has arisen through garbled communications (I have known many women who have no romantic interest in a man, but flirt nonetheless), then we need to re-examine our own words and actions to figure out where the misunderstanding originated.

We only have two choices: we can either let our fear keep us from blessing others, or we can share ourselves openly enough that the other person, in this case, knows that we only have pure intentions. Of course, that sentence is structured such to make the latter the only acceptable answer, which it is. We need to get over ourselves and build more intimate relationships.

Hugging Defined

The image of Christians as puritanical zealots who fear all physical contact is both humourous and regrettable. It is humourous because of how unBiblical the concept of physical coldness is when viewed against examples like David and Jonathan, and regrettable because of how often its tenants are upheld or even encouraged by Christians.

Let’s pull back a bit and define physical contact for the sake of this conversation. For now, I would like to discuss it in the context of hugging: a simple physical embrace between two people. I put hugging on par with a Holy Kiss, elevating it somewhat above a handshake but not something that reaches the familiar level of an outright smooch. Its meaning changes depending on how fervent the hug is, its length and intensity, and the two people sharing the contact, but in general it’s fairly benign. I think that gives us a decent starting place for discussing physical contact between Christians in general.

Due to my experience, I can only define hugging in negative terms, which is to say that I cannot outright state what it is. Rather, I must state that which it is not, and allow the whitespace to highlight its shape and form. And while this may seem like an absurd concept, I suspect that I am not alone in this. I have met a number of people who seem to have misinterpreted either the aim or the execution of hugging and in so doing have perverted its definition.

In this sense, I think the correlation of a hug to the Holy Kiss is important. Hugging is not a sexual activity, nor a licentious one, but it is to be shared between two individuals who share a common understanding. Without that common understanding, its meaning and importance are lost.

  • Hugging is not sexual, nor is it romantic. It is something shared between friends and family.
  • Hugging is not greedy or self-serving, but an act of connection between two people, serving both.
  • Hugging is not a universal greeting, appropriate in all situations.
  • However, hugging is not reserved or rare–it ought to be practiced far more than we do now.
  • Hugging is a gift, a balm, and a blessing. It is a way of saying to someone, “You are not alone.”
  • Hugging is not a demand.

As I started to try and understand hugging for myself, at least enough to write this list, it reminded me of 1 Corinthians 13:

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  8Love never fails.

This passage is a bulwark against which we can test the love we see around us. If the “love” we are seeing does not match this, it is not love. If what we are experiencing is not these things, it is not love. Similarly, hugging is those things above, and many more that I can’t think of right now. If it becomes sexual, you’ve transitioned from hugging to groping or grinding. If it is greedy, you are no longer hugging, but grasping and clinging. If it is not a gift, it is a theft.

If people are calling something hugging that does not meet the above definitions (which I’ll be talking about tomorrow), their definition has become confused and mistaken. This has a serious impact on their life, relationships, and ability to connect with others, and is something that they must address and set aright.