Getting over “hugophobia”

Most of us have a phobia or two. While I don’t mind flying in airplanes or going to the tops of tall buildings, I hate working on a roof or walking near the edge of a cliff. I guess I’m somewhat acrophobic.

As a kid I hated to crawl through snow tunnels. I don’t know if I was more afraid of the tunnel collapsing on me or getting my chubby butt stuck in the passage way. Today, I still hate tunnels and other closed-in places. That makes me claustrophobic.

There’s another phobia from which some folks suffer. I don’t know the psychological term for it but I call it “hugophobia.” Some people are uncomfortable hugging or being hugged by others.

In the past, I suffered from that phobia, too.

Waiting at airports, I watched ecstatic reunions and tearful farewells – all involving hugging – and empathized with the emotions, but I found it difficult to express those emotions in such a physical manner.

A number of years ago I spent a week in management training in upstate New York. Among the people I met there was Sam, a big Italian guy from Massachusetts. At the dinner table one evening, Sam told us that he was from a family of nine children and that nearly every week most of his siblings and their families gathered at his parents’ home for Sunday dinner.

I salivated as he described the Italian dishes his mother prepared for her brood each week. Even more intriguing was Sam’s description of how his family members expressed their feelings for each other. While everyone was outspoken at these events, Sam said, they would always greet each other and say good-bye with kisses and hugs.

“Even your father?” I asked, my northern European stoicism showing.

“Sure,” Sam replied, “and my brothers, too.”

The dinner table discussion which followed revealed that most of us weren’t as comfortable with this type of display of affection as Sam and his family. Nearly everyone, however, agreed that it was a good thing.

As I thought about Sam’s family, I recalled a church seminar in Wisconsin which my wife and I attended a few years earlier. A retired couple from Canada endeared themselves to most of the other delegates with their warmth and good humor. The husband, Dave, greeted most of the women with a fatherly hug.

At the breakfast table one morning, two couples from Ohio began talking about Dave’s “shameful” behavior. They were upset that Dave was hugging the ladies at a church-related meeting, “of all places.”

Always eager to play the devil’s advocate, I suggested that perhaps this was a most appropriate place for people to show this type of affection for one another. Besides, I observed, most of the ladies seemed to appreciate Dave’s fatherly attention.

No one seemed to want to argue the issue and that’s just as well. Perhaps they were jealous because Dave hadn’t hugged them yet.

My own stoicism was diminished by my wife’s paternal grandmother who was a world-class hugger. After a few awkward years of not knowing quite what to do when the hugging started, I finally gave up and learned to enjoy it. As time went on I looked forward to Grandma Fisher’s hugs and missed them after she passed away.

The losses of my father, a nephew and, more recently, my wife have driven home the value of this simple human expression: a handshake from the heart.

Some time ago I heard a speaker discuss how relationships in our society have changed over the years. A century ago, the speaker said, people had a web-like interdependence on others in their family and community. Today, we are more independent and our relationships with others are more often like brushing against hanging strings than that of a web-like interdependence.

In this age of independence, materialism and narcissism, everyone needs a hug once in a while.

“A hug delights and warms and charms,” someone once said, “that must be why God gave us arms.”