Hugs: giving versus taking

“That was a good hug, a really good hug,” said my sort-of-wannabe-boyfriend at the time. He wasn’t talking about a hug between us, but one he had observed another man give me. He was right: it was a good hug, so good that I remember it some 35 years later. It is remarkable how such a simple physical act, given at the right moment and with the right spirit, can so profoundly affect us. Some hugs can offer us more hope, strength, encouragement, and comfort than even the most carefully crafted words.

Hugs are, if you think about it, kind of weird. You stand close to someone and put an arm or more around each other. Sometimes it’s a rather forgettable, almost meaningless gesture. Other times it’s awkward, uncomfortable, or perhaps even unwanted. But, in the best of cases, it’s a precious gift. I was reminded of this when listening to a podcast by a Christian counselor named Karolyn Merriman. I can’t recall which particular episode it was, or the context of her remarks, but she mentioned a time when her husband told her that she was “taking” hugs rather than “giving” them, and how this prompted her to do some prayerful self-examination.

Her personal account raised questions that I’ve since been pondering. Do I hug others only when I am desperate to be hugged, out of my own neediness or — even worse — out of selfishness? Why are some hugs so special, so memorable, even if the person hugging me wasn’t a close friend or loved one? Why are other hugs awkward and off-putting, even offensive?

The whole idea of giving, versus taking, hugs was something I don’t recall ever considering, but it began making perfect sense of my experiences of being hugged. But how do you tell the difference between giving and taking? A giving hug takes into consideration how the other person might feel while being hugged. Is the hug even wanted? Yes, there are clumsy huggers and hug mishaps, but there is a difference between wrapping yourself around someone in a welcome embrace — as opposed to grabbing and yanking them in close to you. It’s not just the “technique”, but the heart attitude that it seems to convey. One communicates, “I want to draw close to you and use my body to comfort you or express my feelings for you”, while the other says, “I want to tug you, even roughly if necessary, towards me because I want the feeling of your body as close to mine as possible…and I don’t really care about your personal feelings or boundaries.” It was easier to begin conducting my hug analysis and categorization with some extreme examples. While I’m not a mind reader and shouldn’t assume people’s attitudes or motives, actions do have a way of speaking louder than words.

The creepy hugger at church. He’s still memorable 35 years later, but in a bad way.  Creepy Hugger Dude would sieze any opportunity in our overly huggy church to grab girls and yank them into a tight full frontal squeeze, ignoring our protests or attempts to wriggle free. I quickly learned, if I couldn’t flee in time, to place both my hands in front of my chest and shove him away. Sometimes it took several attempts.

Supposedly he was “harmless”…just a clueless, lonely jerk, I mean “nice guy”. None of the leaders or other guys in the group would call him out for his behavior, instead preferring to tell the women that we were overreacting to a “sweet” guy who was just being “cute and funny”. He was at best an extreme example of someone who takes hugs, even over the other person’s objections. (Despite my wimpiness back then, I once got up the nerve to insist, “Please don’t hug me”, but he laughed it off and grabbed me anyway. I should have slapped him.) At worst…well, you can draw your own conclusions.

Not everyone who takes hugs is that obvious or that creepy. However, some boyfriends and husbands approach hugging as being primarily about how a hug feels to them, or as serving little or no purpose other than an initial step in foreplay. While their hugs may not make their significant other feel accosted, they are far more about having the woman’s body glommed up close than about giving of himself to her. These hugs communicate “I want to feel your body next to mine” rather than “Let me give you my physical comfort, love and affection”. They are far more an expression of physical desire, even of lust, than of love and true intimacy. Such hugs are selfish and self-centered, perhaps mildly so, extremely so, or somewhere in between. It’s merely a matter of degree. An obvious sign of a taking hug from a husband is if it includes grabbing or groping (unless the wife likes being grabbed and groped mid-hug). That doesn’t mean hugs can’t involve caresses which become increasingly sexual. However, for most women I know, gropes are a different story and feel like unwelcome intrusions, especially during a hug; such actions certainly aren’t giving or loving.

On the other end of the hugging spectrum is…

World’s best hugger. She was proclaimed that, year after year, by those of us at a retreat for sexual trauma survivors. Let that sink in for a minute. That means her hugs felt safe. They were welcome. They came from deep within this amazing, compassionate woman. She expected nothing in return. Her hugs were a gift, a healing embrace, a warm comfort, a haven in the storm, true solace in the dark. She put her heart and her soul into those hugs, and they embodied love. They were the epitome of giving.

She told me that she learned from a man whose hug I’ve written about before:

Then, with my permission, he hugged me oh so carefully, and he leaned his head down towards mine and whispered in my ear in a choked voice, “I am so sorry. I am so sorry they did this to you. I am so sorry.” And this big strong man, this man who didn’t really know me but who chose to identify with my pain and anguish and devastation — he wept for me. I felt his tears fall on my shoulder, like the most precious, healing gift. He knew. He understood. And he wept.

Hugs don’t have to involve weeping. But the best ones, the truly good hugs — the ones we remember with gratitude years and multiple decades later — are the ones that go beyond merely not taking. It’s not just that there are no strings attached and no ulterior motives in the best of hugs. They go far beyond even giving the physical warmth of a close embrace; they give out of the depth of a person’s very being.

Not every hug has that much meaning and emotion behind it, or requires that much of us. We might be giving comfort or encouragement, expressing a joyful greeting, welcoming someone, saying goodbye, or simply being affectionate. However, if we want to be hug-givers rather than hug-takers we should, at the very least, give of ourselves in a way that is appropriate to the situation and circumstances. The hug should be more about the huggee than the hugger. Expecting nothing in return might make some hugs seem to be a more one-sided communication on our part…but that’s the way giving often is.

The hug I mentioned at the beginning of this post caught me by surprise. I knew the hugger mostly as the boyfriend of a friend, as someone who had taken on a bit of a protective older cousin/uncle type role in my life. He was saying goodbye before moving across the country and, right before the hug, he looked me in the eyes and said simply, “Stay safe.” But behind those words were, as we both knew, paragraphs and pages of meaning. The hug spoke volumes, crammed all those paragraphs and pages of words, all the advice he had ever given me, and every word of encouragement, into one embrace. I felt it. The wannabe boyfriend-ish guy could see it. I hope my hug in return spoke volumes as well.

It was a good hug…a gift I still carry in my heart.

Addendum: Here’s a good article about hugs and physical touch: Public Displays of Christian Affection. This article resonated with me because I can remember different seasons of my life when I felt almost desperately starved for affectionate, safe touch, for hugs that gave rather than attempted to take. But, as already mentioned, I’ve also been blessed with people in my life who have given me amazingly wonderful hugs that were more healing and comforting than I could even begin to describe.

Update: edited to rearrange sentences in a hopefully more logical and coherent order.

Inspirational sayings and memes

Sometimes they seem trite and silly, even annoying.

Sometimes they encourage, challenge, enlighten, or simply give us warm fuzzies.

And sometimes we stumble across the right one at just the right time.

These are lessons I’ve been learning of late, so the words, while not exactly profound or eloquent, were exactly what I needed to hear this morning.

Hiding from help

“Why do you get angry at any adult who really cares about you?” my sweet, kind, and bewildered friend confronted me when I was in high school.

“What? No, I don’t. I just can’t stand ultra-concerned types.” I put so much sneered emotion behind the words “ultra-concerned types” that one would have thought I was plagued by obnoxious, overly-zealous, heavy-handed, intruding busybodies trying to bulldoze over me and seize control of my life.

“But why get so angry when they care about you?” she asked again, mentioning some specific examples of kind, wonderful adults.

I brushed her off, muttering something about how I suffered at the hands of “ultra-concerned types” and their annoying ways. I rather angrily denied that I was angry, and then changed the subject.

It took me over three decades to find out the answer to my friend’s question.

Back then, and for those many years afterward, I was hiding a deep dark secret, one so deep and so dark that I could only cope by refusing to think about it, by pretending it away. That didn’t work well. As a teenager, I was filled with the constant, overwhelming sense that there was something very much wrong with me, but I had no idea what — and I never connected that sense with the hidden burden I carried. Fear, shame, and secrecy had become a way of life for me. So had a form of denial so profound that it was almost as if I’d created an alternative reality for myself.

I had to keep people at arm’s length. If anyone, especially an adult, got too close and actually looked into my eyes, they might know whatever it was I dared not face.

At the same time, my innermost being was desperately crying out for help, and my greatest desire was to be rescued…from what, I dared not think. The memories of some of the wonderful adults who managed to overcome my defenses long enough to plant seeds of hope in my bruised and battered, locked up heart, cause tears of gratitude as I write. There was, for example, the youth director from another church who spent a Friday night playing bumper pool with me, laughing with me, having fun with me, and treating me as an interesting person of value and importance. I don’t remember your name, my brother, and I never saw you again, but you were like a ministering angel to me that night.

Then there was Mr. Bottaro, my tenth grade English teacher. He told me, when I was attempting to argue with him about a paper I’d written, “Someday I’m going to break through your façade.” Façade? I fumed angrily. What on earth is he talking about? The nerve of him! The next year, even though I was no longer in his class, he would often stop me on campus and ask how I was doing. He never believed my polite responses or automatic answers. “No, really,” he would insist, his eyes trying to search mine for the truth. “Come up to my room and see me,” he would urge, no matter what I answered. I knew he saw…something.

Finally I decided to take him up on his offer. I would sit in front of him, let him look in my eyes, and tell him that there was something terribly, seriously wrong with me but I was too afraid to try to think about it. Surely he would be able to figure it out. That was my plan, anyway, to beg him to help me, when I arrived on campus early one morning. I was on my way to his classroom when another teacher stopped me with devastating news.

Mr. Bottaro was dead of a massive heart attack.

It took over 30 years for me to try again, to sit across from someone else and let him try to figure out what on earth was so terribly, horribly wrong with me. But, as desperate as I was for help, I didn’t make it easy for my therapist. I hadn’t just erected protective walls around my growing mountain of secrets — I’d planted prickly cacti outside the walls, dug a moat, and filled it with alligators. Then I stood in my watchtower, safely out of reach, and threw rocks at anyone who dared commit the heinous crime of caring in ways that made me uncomfortable or threatened my defenses. My therapist did not have an easy time gaining my trust, and overcoming my anger and fear.

Exposing our dark secrets to the light of day — it’s scary stuff, I tell you. Absolutely terrifying. I do not exaggerate when I say it came close to killing me. But hidden secrets can never be healed, and there is no freedom comparable to living in the light. There are burdens we were never meant to carry alone.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the prickliness when I ventured too close to someone who did not wish to be known, who feared what I might discover. I’ve experienced what it’s like when others lash out in fear and panic because a secret has been exposed. So now I know both sides, and I understand.

Until recent years, I had no idea what true freedom was. I was in survival mode, always feeling as if I were on the brink of chaos, barely holding things together. My life was a carefully erected house of cards that might fall down at any moment, and I couldn’t let anyone know. The fear of exposure — even exposure of some of my more trivial flaws and failings — was crippling. The worst is that this didn’t just effect me. I raised six beautiful, wonderful, amazing children in a climate polluted by my fear, isolation, and secrecy. By the grace of God, they are now much stronger and healthier than I could have ever hoped.

The enemy of our soul hates freedom. He hates the light. Stay in the dark! he urges us. Don’t let them see who you really are! Don’t even admit to yourself how desperate your situation is. Deny. Minimize. Hide. Cover up. Isolate. Live in secrecy. Get angry at anyone who refuses to play along. Break relationships with those who care for you and try to help. Live in fear!

That house of cards? Trust me, once you start walking in freedom and truth, you won’t ever miss what you were once so desperately protecting. Experiencing true healing is more than worth the temporary pain of bringing shameful, dark, or painful secrets out into the light.

Walk in the light. It’s absolutely beautiful out here!

Easter in the midst of grief

On this Easter Monday, while praying for someone who recently experienced the devastating loss of a loved one,  I was reminded of words I wrote back in 1990, to be published in a church devotional booklet:

Easter…it has held a new, triumphant meaning for me since I discovered that you can’t really celebrate the victory of Easter without being devastated by Good Friday; one is meaningless without the other. When I was 19 years old, my beloved Opa died, my mother’s father, a man who had completely opened his heart to me and captured mine in the process. Even when he was a continent away, I felt his love.

A brutal, painful heart attack took his life not long after he had celebrated his fiftieth wedding anniversary. My mother, who had the privilege of being with him when he went home, told me his last words were a prayer of praise, ending, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

Grief is far more than emotional. It is a pain so intense that it is physical, devastating, exhausting, all consuming.

Easter came in the early days of our grieving. My mother and I stood together in church, singing the familiar Easter hymns, tears flowing down our faces. It was then that Easter became real to me — truly real — dynamic and immediate rather than historic. I was amazed that my heart could be simultaneously filled with such great joy and such aching sorrow.

Someday I too will be snatched out of this life. Someday I will stand before my Savior, along with all the saints who have gone before, and I will shout with my Opa, “Jesus is the victor! Hallelujah! Amen.”

That is what I celebrate at Easter.

Why I’m glad that I’m no longer a Calvinist…

…and some other rambling thoughts about suffering and stumbling.

I wrote this as a comment on a blog a few months ago:

I wish I had the rest of the day to respond to individual posts. As many of you so eloquently and heartbreakingly described, grief and suffering HURTS. Jesus showed us what true compassion and grief looks like when he wept with his friends over the loss of their brother — even though Jesus knew full well he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. Later, Paul would remind Christians to weep with those who weep, to bear each others’ burdens.

And, you know what? Doing that HURTS — not as much as the actual pain of the one grieving, but it hurts to sit with someone in their pain and totally open your heart, allowing their pain to invade your safe little bubble. It’s scary to admit that we don’t have neat, tidy answers to difficult tragedies. It’s scary to admit similarly devastating blows could strike us as well. So we blame people for their own pain in a self-righteous and desperate attempt to promise ourselves that this same sickness, this same tragedy, will never come near us. And, if it does, we will handle it better. We are made of stronger stuff and better theology, so we will never hurt as much as those other people. That’s what we tell ourselves.

I know. I was that person…until my world exploded about 6 years ago, and years of running from pain and being all “praise God, the past is in the past!” came crashing down on me. Thank God that I had left Calvinists and Calvinism behind before then.

There were no easy answers. I did not heal nicely, or neatly, or tidily. It was messy. I stumbled and fell a lot. I sinned — not by grieving or hurting or being a mess, but by actual sins. I met a ragtag group of beautiful fellow sufferers who showed me what true, loving acceptance looks like. The best thing that eventually came out of the evil that Satan intended for me — and he intends evil for all of us because he is all about killing, stealing, and destroying — is that God showed me that he is a redemptive God. Sin and evil and sickness has no silver lining, but God can redeem the worst thing. And the best way he redeemed all that ugliness in my life, all the pain that came to a head in recent years, is that he revealed himself to me as the perfect, loving Father that I’d never dreamed he could be. It was in relationship with him — and some of his representatives who shared his love — that I have been able to walk out my healing journey. (It has felt like stumbling and even being dragged more than walking at times.)

This longwinded comment is to say that I think when we begin to comprehend the enormity and tenderness of God’s love — especially in the midst of life’s ickyness —when we begin to experience how deeply personal and intimate his love is for us, it makes all the difference. The Calvinist view of God is much safer. It keeps God at a comfortable distance. God up close and personal is beautiful and healing beyond all comprehension, but it’s also overwhelming. After all, this is the God of the universe we’re talking about.

My world has been rocked. My heart has been broken. I’ve lost my taste for nominal Christianity. I have no easy answers. Sometimes all I can do is hug someone, pray for them, and weep. And that hurts, even though compassion is a good hurt, a good heartbreak.

That’s what I was running from when I was a Calvinist. I needed a small, safe, understandable, predictable God who provided security and a safe haven from pain and messiness. What I’ve found now is this huge, wild, mysterious, incomprehensible God who has captured my heart, melted and broken it, healed and tenderized it — and turned my world upside down.

I wish everybody could know that wonderful, amazing, magnificent God.