“This next assignment may be challenging for some of you,” said Laurie Mulvey, one of my favorite college professors. “What I want you to do is create a sign that says ‘Free Hugs’ and then go to a safe location and hold it up. Give wholehearted hugs to those who take you up on it. But, most importantly… notice. Notice the impact the hug has on both you and the person you’re hugging. Notice how they hold themselves when they walk away. Notice how you feel afterwards.”
I remember the warmth with which Mulvey, a favorite college professor, explained this assignment years ago to her sociology teaching assistants, including me. But even her natural ability to connect with people couldn’t get me to go through with the assignment.
The truth is, I was nervous. I had an image of myself holding the sign and people passing me by, laughing. I never did it. I lied about what my imagined experience had been like.
Now, sitting in my apartment, restricted from human contact, I’m reminded of what I missed out on when I chose not to take a risk and try the hug assignment.
When the class came back together, my fellow TAs shared how moved they were by their experiences. One of my closest friends, Adam, commented, “It showed me the deep desire humans have for connection, and how much of it we’re missing. Getting a hug from a stranger shows people’s willingness to love when they are given the emotional safety to.”
Now, sitting in our homes restricted from the comfort of others, the importance of emotional safety reveals itself.
The health of our world, and its future, depends on us limiting human contact, and with it a piece of our humanity. But with that limitation I believe we can see what really matters more clearly and be better afterwards because of it.
Going Slow Can Help Us Connect
At my usual workplace, a high-achieving charter high school in South Chicago, my days often remind me of an episode of the West Wing: constantly running from meeting to meeting, problem to solution, person to person. Many days, my interactions become more transactional and less human: what do we need to accomplish and what’s the quickest way to. This is natural; the people I work with are the most empathic and passionate people I’ve ever encountered. But when we run so fast, we often lose sight of all the beauty along the way.
One of my favorite staff members, Travis, moves at a different speed. Travis has a smile that seems to stretch beyond his face. He is wise, and conveys perspective to our younger staff. Travis has large hands that always carry several rings; he moisturizes his hands slowly and often. He brings a grocery bag to school every week and preps his lunch in the staff lounge, not at home.
Travis’s actions are reminiscent of a different era. I once read that Socrates was always late because he would get caught in conversation. He was fascinated by the person in front of him–their thoughts and their feelings. That person was the most important in the world at that particular moment. Travis has this quality.
That Time When A Hug Made a Huge Difference
The hardest night I’ve experienced in my life was when there was a shooting in front of our school. One of our kids was shot. My mind played the screams over and over.
As I walked the halls, ushering students and parents to our Student Center, I thought I was on a single mission: provide safety. But, really what I needed most was stability in a time of chaos and uncertainty. I wanted to control something; I needed a purpose.
Once we had the building safe I was left alone with my thoughts, and the disorienting turmoil took hold–that was my first moment of terror. One of my students, Justin, approached me. As tears rolled down his face he shouted, “Mr. Healy, are you going to be alright?”
I said the first thing that came to my mind: “I don’t know.”
Justin’s face melted as he put his head down and wailed. I went to him, ashamed I had provoked this reaction, and put my arms around him. At that moment a familiar embrace joined us, confident and steady.
Travis had both Justin and me in his arms, and he held us. His embrace was long enough that the stress and trauma we had just experienced seemed to fade. The moments of panic gave way to a sense of safety. There was instability in the world around us, but a great anchor between us. It was a reminder of the intangibles that can transcend the pain of the world around us.
Justin’s sobs slowly turned to sniffles. Eventually, Travis rubbed both of our backs and released. I hadn’t realized my eyes had closed when Travis was around us. When I opened my eyes I saw Justin’s eyes were closed too. He remained like that for an additional moment at rest.
We All Need Someone Like Travis, And We Can Be That Person For Each Other
Many of us have lost our sense of safety, and that’s understandable. It’s especially painful for me not being able to stop in the hallway of my school and hug a trusted friend like Travis. We all need a Travis right now, and we need to be a Travis for others.
This time allows us all to reflect on the power of our humanity. The idea that what we had previously found so important: the meetings, the plans, the deadlines, the arguments, are all so small now. What is important are our relationships and the time we take to be fully present within them.
These are times to recognize the best parts of being human and consider what we really value. And what always rises to the top are the connections: the small moments of embrace, seeing others fully and being seen.
Eventually, this will pass. Challenges lie ahead, but collectively we will find ourselves on the other side of this chaos with a renewed appreciation for community. When we do make it to the other side, I plan on completing the assignment I was too scared to try in college. I have a new understanding of what I was asked to do, what all of us are asked to do for each other.
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