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Isn’t it surprising how much we miss hugs and handshakes? Parents and grandparents miss hugging their children and grandchildren. Friends miss handshakes and hugs, the normal signs of affection and friendship that we never thought about very much, until we couldn’t share them any more. Those forms of physical contact go deep in our cultures and history, and seem to satisfy a genuine psychological function, a way to make contact with others. Business people break the ice by shaking hands, a sign of welcome, an invitation to trust and collegiality.

Shaking hands goes back along way. It is said that it was used between enemies to show a willingness to trust and be trusted. The right hand was used to wield a weapon, a sword or dagger. By stretching out the right hand, it showed that there was no weapon, no threat. Instead, an open hand was being offered as a sign of friendship. We don’t need that kind of gesture today, perhaps, but offering your hand to another makes the same point: we can be at ease with each other.

Giving someone a hug goes even further, it is an act of affection, of openness to the other. It says: “Look, I am hiding nothing from you, and I am being vulnerable, trusting you not to take advantage”. Is that reading too much into things? I don’t think so.

But we have been denied these gestures for more than a year now, even when we have been able to be in physical proximity to family, friends, or colleagues. It has sometimes been hard not to reach out a hand, or open your arms for a hug; but we have learned (most of us, anyway) to care for others by not reaching out. We are protective of them by keeping our distance, as the newly-learned phrase has it, we are together apart.

I watch football (soccer to some) a lot, and teams were told to give each other an elbow bump, instead of a handshake before and after games. You could see how awkward it made them feel, and very often they forgot and shook hands anyway. It is so hard to break the habits and traditions of a lifetime, of generations. But we have become deeply conscious of those gestures, and how dangerous they can be in a pandemic.

Many people have related how uncomfortable they have felt watching a movie where there is a crowd scene. There is a sudden alarm: they’re not keeping their distance! Why aren’t they staying safe? The new realities have seeped deeply into our thinking.

I wonder what will happen after we are once more free to shake hands or hug each other on a more general level? Will we literally embrace the freedom? Will we want to hug everyone we meet, no matter who they are? Or will there be a lingering reluctance, perhaps an unconscious distance that we will keep with those around us. I hope that’s not going to be the case. It may take a little time to get over the past year and feel that freedom again, a freedom we were never really aware of before.

I hope we come to really appreciate that freedom once it’s restored to us. I hope we can be aware every time we shake hands, or give and get a hug, just how precious and wonderful it is to be able to show that sign of friendship and affection. May that day some quickly.


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