To Hug, or Not to Hug
That Is The Question?
By Father Leo Booth



For many years I rarely hugged anybody at any of the conferences where I lectured - although I tended to give more hugs at 12 Step meetings. You must remember, it was not part of my growing up as a Priest in England to hug the congregation, a handshake was sufficient. Today, hugs are everywhere: Even the Episcopal Church, which has often been described as the meeting place for God's Frozen People, is busy giving and receiving hugs. So is it okay for all of us to give hugs? Are there times when a hug is not okay?

There is no comprehensive answer to these important questions because it depends on a number of things:
(A) How we are feeling?
(B) Who is giving or receiving the hug?
(C) Is the hug (experience) something we appreciate as an indication of friendship?

Sometimes we do not feel like giving or receiving a hug - we simply do not want it. It may have something to do with the other person, or it may not - whatever, we do not feel like we want a hug. And this is okay! Often if I'm feeling like this I say to the other person something like "if you don't mind, I would prefer a shake of the hand". And if somebody says this to me, I quite understand. I would much prefer the person to say how they are feeling than to receive a hug and complain afterwards. You might say "But shouldn't the person who wants to give the hug ask first?" The answer is "yes" - however, if you are surrounded by people who are all giving hugs to each other, you sometimes get carried away with the corporate emotional intimacy. As a speaker I sometimes have a line of 30 people or more, and most grab a hug before you have time to ask their name! However, strictly speaking, it is correct to ask"ČIs it okay if I give you a hug?"

Sometimes you intuitively know that it is not okay to hug a certain person. Either they are giving you the clear message to keep a distance or their behavior seems way too seductive - they want to devour you! Again, the spiritual gift of intuition works wonderfully in a one-to-one situation; however, in a crowd the awareness is diminished. Watch out for the person who keeps returning for another hug etc. etc.

Also, it is certainly true that some people do not enjoy the hug experience. This needs to be respected. It is insulting to suggest that a person who has a different relationship barrier from most of us in recovery has a psychological hang-up because they do not hug; a handshake can also be warm and friendly.

I suppose the reason all this needs to be said is the ever-present backdrop of sexual abuse and sexual harassment in our society, especially in the work place. Also, in case you had not noticed, we are being led by (at best) an over friendly and "I feel your pain" President.

It is undoubtedly true that sexual messages can be given and received from a hug but they are never appropriate, even by willing and consenting parties, in the work place or conference setting. A hug is not a romantic embrace - it is a symbol of a deep and profound spiritual connection. The hug should be warm, supportive and friendly; it should not be sexual!

As a public speaker who is surrounded by hundreds of men and women every week giving and receiving hugs (at all levels of recovery), I am conscious that personal boundaries can easily be crossed, intentionally and inadvertently. Sometimes I feel that the other person is becoming far too friendly and I need to step back; sometimes the other person pulls back indicating that they feel I am becoming too friendly; whatever, it is always embarrassing.

What to do:
l. Maybe we should make it clear if we really want a hug or not, and if we suspect an emerging sexual interest, we should keep a cool distance. Maybe a wave would be appropriate!
2. Hug people the same way. Let's not have short hugs for people we do not particularly like and long, long, long hugs for people we do like.
3. Remember the body contact points are the shoulders and chest - our knees do not need to be connected. We should be leaning into a hug, not forcing the other person backwards!

Having said all this, I do hope that the media's attention on sexual abuse and sexual harassment does not stop the continuing development of healthy and spiritual hugs. We really do need to connect. And it would be very sad if we can connect emotionally and intellectually but are separated physically.

Over the years I've realized that so much of society's sexual hang-ups and frustrations have been created by a form of sexual abuse that condemned the body, making us ashamed of most things physical or sexual. The message that the church for years seems to have given is that in order to be spiritual we need to escape our bodies, often encouraging people to embrace an unhealthy celibacy and abstinence. God created this world, our bodies, and "it is good". Sex, like anything else can be abused, however it is essentially good and important.

In my book "Meditation for Compulsive People", I write extensively about the power of the hug, ending with the following thought:

In the hug is the healing.
And the hug can be in a word,
touch, or smile.
A hug is our insides reaching out-
To ourselves,
Others,
The world.
Power Thought:
God is found in a prophet,
        A poet
              A song
                    And a hug.

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