Daily reflections from the Bolton Circuit

Rev Hilary Howarth – 6th May 2021

Big Hugs

Along with many people something I have missed during the lockdown has been hugging people. For some it has been quite liberating – those who dread passing the peace in services, hugging on the door after a church service or for those who are not naturally huggy people and want to draw away when a big “hugger” approaches to envelope them tightly in their arms. As a natural hugger I have had to learn over the years that some people don’t want their body space invaded and they just want you to keep your distance and shake hands. For those people, this last 14 months has been quite freeing.

Instead, we have found other ways to “hug”. Elbow bumps, “high fiving” the air, arms crossed over our chests as a sign of saying “lots of love” and these are wonderful, but they can’t replace a physical hug from someone you love. On the first occasion of being with our grandchildren, although the youngest, Rory had been told he mustn’t hug Grandma and Grandad, it instinctively was the first thing he did and it was the best hug ever! We are a family of huggers and it is something we do with our friends and boy, we’ve missed it.

I didn’t realise until reading a report on the BBC news channel that there is a “science of hugging” and people have researched just how much not hugging has affected people in the last year. We actually need to hug.

Ross Lannon doesn’t class himself as a big hugger. But giving friends and family “a good squeeze” is what he misses most about his life before the Covid pandemic. He “could probably count on one hand” the number of hugs he’s had since March last year. He lives alone and is on the government’s list of people who are extremely vulnerable, due to his progressive muscle-wasting condition, spinal muscular atrophy. “It’s not been great” he said. “I never really knew how needy I was before this. I wouldn’t have put myself down as a huggy person but you just really miss that sort of human contact.”

There’s a scientific reason behind why we have all missed hugs. Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London said this: “Physical touch in general is really important to humans as it’s something that’s relaxing – you actually get a reduction in stress from being touched by someone, but it can’t be from just anyone – it has to be a meaningful thing,” she says. Human touch is associated with the hormone oxytocin, which Prof Sophie says plays “a very important role” in mother-and-baby bonding. “It’s soothing and relaxing to babies and it never stops being like that, even when we get older,” she adds.

Many of us are struggling with a lack of human touch in the form of a hug. It has taken me back to the story of the woman in Mark’s gospel 5:25-34 who had had a haemorrhage for 12 years and during that time would not have had physical contact with anyone. I have a new found respect and empathy for her, and it’s only been 12 months for us. She was the lady who crept up behind Jesus to touch his cloak in the hope of being healed, and that is what Jesus did when he realised what had happened. No – “get away from me, don’t touch me”, but “daughter your faith has made you well, go in peace”. Those words were a virtual hug and the most important words she could hear.

I’d heard someone say that the one thing they were looking forward to was passing the peace and hugging back in their church, I wanted to say “I don’t think you will be doing that for some time to come”, but I didn’t want to burst their bubble. As lockdown lifts it still doesn’t mean it’s safe for us to start hugging again, but the time will eventually come when we can. St Paul tells the church four times to “greet one another with a holy kiss” along with

hugging we won’t be doing that either (or ever for some folk) instead we will elbow bump, air high five and just continue to hold one another in love and prayer.

Prayer: Lord, I just want to hug and be hugged but that is not possible at the moment. I pray for the day when we shall be able to do that again but until then I shall do my bit to keep myself and others safe. I will love in other ways, show me how to do this, until the day when I can give someone else the biggest squeeze possible – if that’s what they want. Amen.