The Man Hug and Loving Your Neighbor

Like most churches nowadays, Journey IFC encourages hugging between its members.  Rick the minister will say, “Find somebody you don’t know and make them feel welcome,” and then the congregation will scatter and the hugging will commence.  Hugging strangers, and even friends, has always made me uncomfortable.

As a kid in the Catholic Church, I remember the introduction of the tradition of turning to your neighbor and wishing them a “Peace be with you.”  It seemed odd at the time and made me uncomfortable.  How that Church tradition got started, I’ll never know, but it probably had something to do with the liberalization of the sixties, or maybe something to do with Vatican II.  Even acknowledging your neighbor and opening your mouth to speak in the sacred church seemed like a sacrilege.

And touching in church, whether it be a handshake or a hug, seemed unnatural.

My parents didn’t hug me as a child.  Anyway, not that I remember.  I was the oldest of four boys, and it was all my parents could do to keep us from killing each other.  Affection didn’t exist.  Even into college and beyond, the concept of hugging someone who wasn’t my sexual partner seemed weird.  Later, I learned (through the movies or television perhaps) that hugging was permitted, even expected.  I had thought that everyone felt about hugging the same way I did.  Now I think maybe hugging has been around forever, and it was just my particular family that didn’t do it.

So now I attend a church that hugs.  I can sort of fake it when I hug the women.  A woman is a potential sexual partner, after all.  Peggy comes up to me and says hello, and then she gives me a big hug.  She’s a big woman anyway, and then she wraps her arms around me and squeezes tight.  “How are you?  Have you had a good week?” she will say as she crushes the breath out of me.  “Fine!” I squeak faintly, gasping for air.

Most of the other women are more reserved, if they even hug me at all, understanding that a full body hug is probably not appropriate.  Or maybe they just read my body language and back off, wondering what my problem is and why I don’t get into the religiousness of the pressing of two bodies together.

Then there’s the “man hug”.  It has become kind of a joke.  The method for hugging a man is the following:  First you lean in, hesitating a little, perhaps verbally acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation.  Then you shake hands.  As you shake his hand, you move in closer and bump your right shoulder to his right shoulder.  Now, right shoulders touching, you put your left hand on his right shoulder.

That keeps the number of points of contact at a minimum for a hug, three points.  It’s not possible for other body parts to accidently bump together with the man hug.

But Rick the minister doesn’t employ the “man hug”.  He gives a real hug, a real face-the-person-and-wrap-arms-around-them hug.  The weird thing is that I like it.  Does that make me weird?  And I reciprocate in kind.

Learning to hug strangers and friends, whether women or men, has been part of my journey to learning to love those around me.  It doesn’t seem religious to me, but I would miss it if I left the church.