Some of us have started to hug again, some of the time, sometimes sporting masks revealing only eyes, sometimes (if fully vaccinated) unmasked, so we see the charm of smiles. I love the reverence, the honor we extend each other in a hug. And I love how we ask, “Is it OK if I hug you?” Asking permission also feels reverent.

Susan Lebel Young, a retired psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher, is the author of three books, one of which is “Food Fix: Ancient nourishment For Modern Hungers.” Learn more at susanlebelyoung.com or email [email protected]

Some of us say, “I’m sorry. I’m not hugging yet.” We touch our heart to greet another. This gesture, too, is reverent.

Some of us loved elbow fist bumps. Some of us have found that Zooming can boost a sense of belonging during these times. But there is something about human touch, even if we join just at the shoulders for the professional hug, even if the hugger quietly pumps one short tap on the back of the huggee.

I love that we can hug with the whole body. I missed hugging. I missed the embraces with family and friends, when socializing waned, or needed distancing, or because of COVID exposure contact tracing followed and cut out a lot of cuddling. Not that contact tracing is bad; contact tracing is good. So, what am I saying?

I am saying something about feeling fully human, in a family, in a neighborhood, in the world. I’m saying I longed for that loving dance of grandkids to once again jump into my arms. I’m saying we all yearn for, are wired for, relationship. Hugging, then, is a metaphor. Maybe human connection is the deeper thing, that actual human-to-human engagement is the real thing. Science tells us we fail to thrive without such bonds. We’ve seen the news and known for ourselves how quarantine has left some of us glum, some clinically depressed, others merely morose. We know the pandemic can hurt our health in huge ways, not just if we contract the virus. Loneliness can scar our emotional life, dull our mental outlook and personality and greatly wound the body.

We’re not all huggers, COVID or not. We did not/do not all feel lonely either, because solitude does not always create an aching human heart. Some of us flourish, given the chance to learn to be with ourselves, to cherish aloneness, to grow independence. Even those of us who identify as huggers do not hug all the time, or on all days, or in all settings. But we are social animals. Introverted or extroverted; we need one another. Hugging, even a one-second “bye, luv ya” squeeze offers a way toward a sense of belonging, one step toward feeding what scientists call our Social Nervous System. Social Nervous System: it’s a real thing. Without the feeling of social belonging, we can suffer with anxiety, fatigue, with “I don’t care about the Red Sox anymore.” Adult Failure to Thrive, too, is a real thing.

How do we feed this life-giving, energy-enhancing, health-affirming Social Nervous System? We play with others, hang out with pals. We meet together. It’s tricky if COVID numbers rise, if we go unvaccinated, if we don’t honor requests to wear masks when asked (wearing masks when asked is reverent, too).

But awakening to life again will be easier when/if we can hug safely, which will only happen if we follow guidelines. Mindfulness teacher Thich Nhat Hahn points to the possible: “When we hug, our hearts connect. The hugging can be very deep. Life is there. Happiness is there. When someone hugs you with all their heart and presence, you feel it. So, hug like that—make life real and deep. It will heal both of you.”

Imagine.

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