No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
I recently got to hug two people who aren’t related to me, and whom I haven’t been able to hug since January.
It was wonderful.
On the scale of huggers — with 1 being “Back off and don’t touch me” and 10 being “Let me give you a great big bear hug” — I’m probably a solid 7, if not an 8. (That said, I’m pretty good at reading body language, so if you’re not a hugger, don’t worry, you have nothing to fear from me.) It means that the last few months have been rough, what with handshakes, let alone hugs, being right out.
Indeed, there have been times when I’ve had to almost physically restrain myself from giving someone a hug, it’s such an instinctive thing for me to do with so many people I know. That’s why those two hugs at the weekend meant so much; I didn’t realize quite how much I’d missed that contact until I got it back again, however briefly.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rules about physical distancing, self-isolation, and lockdowns, there were plenty of lighthearted comments on social media about how people who consider themselves loners or introverts were fine with these rules, because that’s how they are anyway. I’m not a betting person, but if I were, I’d wager a hefty sum that many of these people are coming to realize that they need basic human contact — including the occasional hug — just as much as anyone.
Which is to say that John Donne had it pegged back in 1624, when he wrote the words at the head of this piece. Human beings are social animals, and we crave contact with others: face-to-face, in-person contact, not via screens, and for most of us that means some element of physical touch. Remember that scene in Poltergeist, where the little girl sees someone (or something) through the static on the TV screen? Her instinct is to reach out and try to touch whoever (or whatever) she can see.
There’s another moment, in the 1959 film Carve Her Name With Pride, where two British spies who have been caught by the Germans during World War II are being taken by train to what is likely to be their deaths. Chained to the wall on opposite sides of a freight car, they can talk to each other, but it is not enough. Slowly, painfully, they manoeuvre themselves to the furthest extent of their manacles, which allows them to reach out and fleetingly touch hands. Despite — or perhaps because of — the hopelessness of their circumstances, they each craved a moment of physical contact with another human being.
And hugs are a universal, incredibly eloquent language. If you encounter someone who does not speak your language, and give them a hug, both of you will know what that hug is saying. Joy or sorrow, love or friendship, celebration or commiseration, triumph or loss, solidarity or solace: hugs can express all of that and more without a word being spoken or understood.
No one is an island, isolated and completely self-sufficient. “We’re stronger together” is a phrase that has been bandied about rather a lot recently, and we’ve seen how true it is. It’s been hard at times to be strong together while we had to stay apart, and we still have a long way to go, but the journey will be a bit easier if we can hold hands, reach out and touch someone, give or receive the occasional hug.
We’re all still navigating our way through the pandemic, and I’m not advocating that we throw caution to the winds and start embracing others with reckless abandon. But it’s good to know that we can, if we’re very careful, begin to restore and rebuild those physical connections with others that seem so small but mean so much.