I’ve shaken hands hundreds of times in my life…but I’ve given thousands of hugs. Never having the kind of work life that demanded suits and high heeIs, hugging has always been my go-to greeting. And lately I’ve been dreaming about them. Hello hugs. Goodbye hugs. Making-up hugs. Congratulatory hugs. Gratitude hugs. And no-reason-at-all hugs. Joni Mitchell had it right when she sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

In these disorienting times I feel like I’m holding all this emotion in my body with nowhere to put it. There was actually a study where healthy adults were monitored for how often they hugged. Then they were quarantined and intentionally infected with a cold virus. Those who received more hugs had less severe disease. Counterintuitive, no? That those who receive more hugs are somehow more protected from infection? Maybe if CVS dispensed comforting hugs through the years along with flu shots and shingle shots and vaccines and COVID tests, we’d all be better fortified to handle these challenging times.

Wholehearted hugs are like the opposite of drinking too much coffee. They turn down anxiety and melt away uncertainty. They lessen grief and fear and heighten celebration; you can see all iterations at the airport. Hugs are the centerpiece of every Hallmark commercial, especially the ones of returning soldiers surprising their families. And they’re featured in some of my most vivid movie memories.

Remember the ending of ET? The hug of betrayal in The Godfather? Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton at the train station in Reds? Forest Gump and Jenny at the Viet Nam rally? The group hug in the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? And to me the most heart wrenching one of all after which Debra Winger told her mom in Terms of Endearment, “That’s the first time I stopped hugging first.” Ahhhhh.

Hugs have always come up big in my life. My father had a lot of faults but the fact that when he hugged me, I felt bulletproof, warms me still. When I taught, hugs were one of the most rewarding parts of the job. I’ll never forget the hug I gave my husband when he came home the night of 9/11. Or what seemed like a ten-minute hug my grandson gave me last year after months and months of separation.

One day this summer I was alone in an elevator that kept going up and down erratically and wouldn’t stop for almost two minutes. The fear was excruciating. The next day a pot of boiling water caused second degree burns on my wrist. The pain was the most intense I ever felt. And the NEXT day, (sounds contrived, I know) I left the car running in my garage and when I got headachy, I realized the house was filling with carbon monoxide. Talk about needing some hugs. The ones I gave and received that week kept me from falling apart; they were like an infusion of emotional medicine, so powerful I still recall the surge of resilence they supplied.

Not all hugs are magical, of course. Aside from toddlers who run to you with open arms, it’s not always easy to gauge how one will be received. Nowadays we have “consent mandatory” laws to insure our private space won’t be invaded by predatory hugs in the workplace. Unfortunately there’s no such protection from overwhelming bear hugs and icky fake air hugs and the cringeworthy kind when you throw your arms around a “non-hugger.”

I recently read that if we live to 80, that’s only 4000 weeks. That number seems even more finite when you consider the Great Pause has eaten up over 100 of them. Our lives are determined by what we pay attention to. A good hug holds our pieces together. It’s a powerful transfer of empathy. Which is why, although compromised, there were times I evaluated the risk/reward of being slightly crushed by someone I love…and wisely or not, chose the hug.

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