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February 17, 2016

Free Hugs—How the Movement Changed Me.

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This past December I spent an unseasonably balmy Sunday afternoon on The National Mall in Washington D.C. giving out Free Hugs with three friends.

For those who are not familiar with it, Free Hugs is a social movement that began in Australia in 2004 by a man who had been feeling depressed and lonely as a result of numerous personal difficulties. When he received a hug from a stranger it touched him profoundly, and he began offering hugs to others.

From that simple beginning a worldwide movement was launched to offer hugs to strangers in public places, no strings attached.

Prior to December, I had been curious to hear about the experiences of a friend who was organizing these events locally, but I wasn’t interested in participating. I thought it was very cool, but something for other people, totally outside of the realm of possibility for me. Hugging strangers so publicly felt a little too scary, a little too “out there.”

However, I am continuously exploring my inner world to let go of beliefs that are limiting me and keeping me from being a more positive presence in the world. One belief I discovered around this time was the idea that some activities are beyond my reach. I based this belief on, among other things, the fact that my two best friends had traveled abroad in high school and college, but I was not allowed to.

On such flimsy evidence a story was unconsciously created about what I am and am not capable of and what is appropriate for me. I did not explore this belief with the intention of being able to do some hugging. I did not know what the outcome would be and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Free Hugs suddenly seemed like something I wanted to try.

I felt a bit nervous on the drive there, kind of like that feeling of waiting for a minor medical procedure that I know will be good for me, but I’m not thrilled to be undergoing. I displayed my Free Hugs-sign a bit tentatively at first, as if I wasn’t sure if I should be making such an offer.

After experiencing few hugs and the positive mood that began to spread, however, it felt perfectly natural to be embracing people I didn’t know and being a tourist attraction of sorts, as so many people were taking photos or simply enjoying taking it in.

Our little group met people from all over the world, including a woman from Kyrgyzstan who later sent me a video of each of us doing a sort of spinning hug with her friend from Germany (who had obviously jumped wholeheartedly into the experience.) Another woman stopped her car so she could get out for hugs. A taxi driver reached out his window for fist bumps. I even embraced a very enthusiastic poodle and a Flat Stanley.

Post-hugs we walked across the street to a refreshment kiosk for some water and snacks. The woman working there told us that she had been watching us all afternoon and she wanted in on it, too. It was a bit of a challenge, but we each stretched through the window to give and receive our final hugs of the day.

Afterwards, I assumed that I had experienced an enjoyable afternoon sharing a positive vibe, but nothing more. Instead, what I have noticed is that there has been an ongoing unfolding that has shown up in my interactions with others as a sense of more openness and a willingness to reach out to people, literally.

Usually I am one to offer a hug in social situations only if I am sure of its reciprocation, but I have found myself much more willing to make the first move, a couple of times even initiating group hugs that lasted for several minutes. In every instance I have received a very positive response. It’s as if I have created a space for myself to live into, or given myself a kind of permission somehow because hugs are something I now “do” in a more public way or maybe I just feel bolder in going for the connection that I really want.

From my new perspective it seems like such a simple thing to offer a hug to a stranger, but it has spread so much goodwill that I know there is much more to it.

People hunger for connection in a world that so often seems disconnected, full of negativity, and lacking in opportunities for positive, non-sexual touch. Free Hugs is a way to create that connection and I have definitely received as much, if not more, than I have given.

Editor: Sara Kärpänen

Photo: John Wong / WikiMedia Commons 

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