An ode to hugs and friendship

By Kathleen Parker

It was fitting that on Good Friday, prelude to the miracle of the Christian resurrection, that my life was renewed by a reunion of friends — all twice-vaccinated — celebrated with the heretofore not-fully appreciated hug.

So sublime was the moment that I feel I should be recording it with quill pen and inkwell on papyrus paper. Alas, given the profane demands of deadlines and editors, a keyboard will have to do.

Jack Cahill and Craig Wilson, with whom I shared countless meals and bottles of wine while living next door on Georgetown’s Olive Street for more than a decade, finally left their famous stoop and trekked southward for Easter with family. En route, they took a short detour to spend a night with us in our pandemic haven, otherwise known for steeplechase racing and assorted Revolutionary War battles.

An epidemiologist and a journalist, respectively, Jack and Craig are retired. Like many people finally shed of calendars and alarms, they had plans. Theirs were to continue their habit of traveling the world before the covid pandemic mucked things up. This time of year, you’d more likely find them cruising down the Amazon or observing giant tortoises in the Galapagos than dodging traffic along I-95.

But, having barely left their smallish townhouse for a solid year — and reasonably confident that it was safe to step out — they finally packed their car and hit the road. Suffice to say, their arrival was like an explosion of azaleas — colorful, beautiful and long-awaited.

Jack got to me first. “I think since we’ve both been vaccinated, we can hug,” he said.

We hugged. And hugged. Not to be hysterical but wrapping my arms around these two dear friends bordered on the sacramental. We’ve been so consumed with covering our faces, avoiding physical contact, washing and sanitizing, that these first hugs of a new season felt like slipping into a warm bath. To embrace another human being without fear was both to surrender to joy and to escape from a tediously long sentence of isolation and withdrawal.

Jack and Craig, neither of whom tend toward the sentimental, might be surprised to learn of my effusive interpretation of a simple hug. Jack has a penchant for data and is practiced at emotional distancing. Craig, though more effusive, is similarly trained with a skeptic’s eye and a lethal sense of humor. But hugs between friends are special — and our friendship was most special of all, at least in my view.

Not everyone loves hugging. People whose parents weren’t huggers are more likely to be hug-averse. However, I was reared on Daddy Bear hugs and have been a committed hugger all my life. This doesn’t mean I’m indiscriminate. Hugging is for close friends and family. But it’s a certainty that the hug-averse won’t likely share my stoop.

There are legitimate, scientific reasons for this. Hugging releases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that helps people form bonds with other people. Research has shown that babies who aren’t cuddled suffer an underdeveloped oxytocin system that makes it more difficult for them to read social cues or become sociable in later life. In researching a book a few years ago, I learned that women enjoy a surge of oxytocin with a 20-second hug, while the release of oxytocin in men seems to be activated by more advanced forms of, shall we say, situational awareness.

The coronavirus that rendered hugging unacceptable changed us by segregating us from loved ones, essentially un-cuddling us. Now the miracle of vaccines has changed us again. I wonder if those who refuse to be vaccinated are willing to go hug-free for life? Or do they hug people, anyway, in the belief that they’re immune to this terrible disease? As some get vaccinated and others don’t, we’ll inevitably become a bifurcated society in which the vaccinated steer clear of the unvaccinated. The question is, how will we know who’s who?

Vaccine passports were a doomed idea from the start, but I’ve hit upon an idea that shows promise: The peace sign. The two-fingered V signifies to others that you’ve had both shots. I’m (probably) not about to run up and hug a stranger, but I like the idea of sharing the peace in this way. “I’m vaccinated,” it says. I’m safe. You’re safe. As safe as is possible. We can hug, which, for the vaccinated, is just another word for freedom.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is [email protected]

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