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How to Hug a Porcupine

So when we saw a guy at the local mall holding a Free Hugs sign, part of me cringed. The other part of me wanted to run bawling into this stranger’s arms.

Have you seen these people? They’re part of the Free Hugs Campaign, a group that travels round the world dispensing affection… to complete strangers. I’m not sure what compels these folks to do this, but I know this — they didn’t grow up in my house.

Being raised in an alcoholic home, one learns to survive… without hugs.  Resilience becomes far more useful than empathy, a thick skin is preferable to a tender heart. Sure, the absence of attaboys and weepy parental pep talks did not enhance my people skills. But durability is now a specialty of mine.

Hugs? Who needs ’em?

‘Course this made my entry into the Christian community rather rocky. You see, I quickly learned that Christians liked to hug. In fact, there was all kinds of hugs to choose from.

  • There was the awkward side hug.
  • There was the disarming, motherly, pat-on-the-back hug.
  • There was the reckless, slobbery, open-armed, full-on bear hug.
  • There was the stiff, tense,  let’s-make-this-quick hug
  • There was the slow, deliberate, uncomfortably long, I-really-mean-this hug

But there was no porcupine hug. Porcupines don’t do hugs.

Needless to say, Christian fellowship can be quite taxing on us non-huggers. Handshakes are fine. But hugs? I need my space, brother. Besides, I grew up believing there were only two types of people in the world: The weak and the strong. And people who require hugs are not strong. So how had the Church survived all these years filled with cream puffs?

Okay. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate. Perhaps the fact that Free Hugs exists and people want them is indicative that the weak DO survive. Barely.

Either way, I steered clear of the guy. I’ve survived this long with minimal hugging and doubt that some stranger on a sidewalk in a busy marketplace will sufficiently alter my psychological malfunction. I smiled and nodded as I passed. But I just couldn’t seem to shake this nagging thought:

God hugs porcupines, and has the wounds to prove it.

Alright, enough with this foolishness! This kind of talk will do us no good. The world is cold and cruel, and one can’t survive pining for shows of affection. Then again, does surviving really require quills?

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Jill June 26, 2011, 5:27 PM

    Not giving hugs, not being touchy-feely, not wanting to give or get affection–these are positions of weakness because they are EGO protections. When I force myself to give affection to my husband and children, I am much stronger. I am a fighter. I am a person who can get past my own self-protective measures. And, honestly, I feel better about myself. Otherwise, I just feel stingy. I won’t ever be the nurturing woman I’m expected to be, but that doesn’t matter because I love deeply and feel deeply and need to demonstrate this depth to my family.

    Besides, as you said, God hugs porcupines regardless of their spines.

    BTW, I think it depends on the kind of church you go to. I’ve been attending a Lutheran church for four years, and they aren’t huggers. I don’t think I’ve seen any of them hug each other. Ever.

  • Pam June 26, 2011, 6:59 PM

    You forgot the Self-Hug. It only requires one person. You should start here. 🙂

  • Diane M Graham June 26, 2011, 9:39 PM

    I don’t think it is a matter of ego as much as macho. I have a macho I married over 20 years ago. He gets hugs whenever I feel the urge to give them. He grumbles like an old bear but deep down, he loves my hugs. Some guy on a street corner, not going to happen.

    • Jill June 27, 2011, 9:40 AM

      Does the macho apply to women who aren’t touchy-feely?

      • Diane M Graham June 27, 2011, 9:43 AM

        Ha! I don’t think that can apply to women. What would you call it then? Ego? I don’t know.

  • Patrick Todoroff June 27, 2011, 4:50 AM

    To Throw Down and label as macho or egotistical people who don’t think hugs are a primary means of nonverbal Christian communication is pretty arrogant. I’m not a Hugger but I hug plenty of people at various times: my wife, daughter, grandson, the surviving wife of a friend who just passed away, certain friends I haven’t seen in a long time…

    Hugs mean something. Like the word ‘love’, slather it on everything and pretty soon it loses its tenderness and impact.

    • Diane M Graham June 27, 2011, 8:36 AM

      Ha! I meant no slander toward my husband. He is macho and not in a feminist slandering kind of way. More like a manly-man, protect his family, sling a hammer kind of way. I guarantee he takes no offense at me saying he is manly.

      I don’t really understand why any man would be offended by being labeled a man. Unless he was confused. Then, I would think he needs reassurance that yes, he really is a man.

      And my hugs never lose their impact. Neither does my love. They are always genuine and full of impact. Kind of like God’s.

    • Jill June 27, 2011, 9:21 AM

      Um, I didn’t use the word egotistical. I said “ego” protection. Ego basically means self–so, therefore, non-huggy people are being self-protectionary. That is quite a bit different than egotistical. Giving affection, touching, etc. are signs of weakness, or simply an annoyance to people whose primary means of communication are non-tactile. But tactile response is absolutely necessary for human beings, so these people must be brave and bold and forget about their protectionary measures in order to be whole and healthy. At least, that’s what I’ve found to be true in my own life.

  • Patrick Todoroff June 27, 2011, 9:18 AM

    Slander??? wha…?

    The context and relationship behind the hug is what gives it its impact. None of that is present with a Sunday morning acquaintance or stranger.

    I’ve been hugged plenty of times only to discover a knife in my back.

    • Diane M Graham June 27, 2011, 9:36 AM

      Why isn’t it present with a Sunday morning acquaintance? It should be in theory…sisters and brothers in Christ. That is family. I suppose it has to with perspective.

      • Patrick Todoroff June 27, 2011, 1:29 PM

        ” – in theory…”

        Exactly my point. Some sentiments only work on paper. I suspect it’s more a matter of experience than perspective.

        Glad people enjoy your hugs though.

        • Diane M Graham June 27, 2011, 2:20 PM

          Yep. I don’t give them out haphazardly. Only when I mean it. I think that’s what you mean as well, Patrick.

  • justajo June 27, 2011, 11:10 AM

    Hugs should always be given and with the feeling that a hug imparts. When they become some kind of required action to show you are a Christian, which I have encountered, that’s when I get away. I love to get and receive hugs but I’ll never make anyone do it, nor should they me. As has been stated above, a requirement of a hug robs it of its value.

  • Sherry Thompson June 27, 2011, 11:34 AM

    “How to Hug a Prcupine” sounds like a version of an old joke to me. The answer: very carefully. Which I think fits certain people who don’t welcome hugs for whatever reason.
    A couple of personal experiences:
    When I was growing up, I only experienced hugs on 2 occasions a. When it was a gift-giving holiday like a birthday or Christmas. It was customary to open the gift, express please, and then go over to the person who gave the gift to hug them & say “thank you!”
    The other growing up family occasion was when my maternal grandmother’s sister & brother-in-law visited us. On arrival & again on departure, we received the full-bodied kiss-on the mouth hug from both of them. She at least was a Baptist, but I don’t think that’s where she picked up the custom.

    I have been without living relatives now for just over 10 years. I used to have a therapist who made a ritual of a light hug as I was leaving her office every time. As a Lutheran, I occasionally get the “side-hug” from a couple of people in church. Sometimes we all hold hands in service while singing the Lord’s Prayer.
    Otherwise, I receive and get back no bodily contact at all.
    This grieves me and makes me feel very cut off from the rest of humanity–even though I was rarely in position to be touched or to touch back in my past. (As I said, the physical signs of affection were carefully orchestrated in my family when the members were alive.)
    If the situation calls for it, I pat someone on the shoulder in a show of sympathy (So far, no one has pulled away 🙂 ).
    Didn’t Paul exhort the members of the early churches to exchange brotherly kisses of Christian peace?

  • Alan Oathout June 27, 2011, 11:35 AM

    “Resilience becomes far more useful than empathy, a thick skin is preferrable to a tender heart.”

    Mike, I’ve spent 23 years working with some of the most resilient individuals on the planet, and I’d argue that empathy and a tender heart are by no means incompatible with being a survivor.

    I’ve listened in awe as people describe the horrors they endured: six and seven year olds witnessing their drunken father blow their mother away with a shotgun in the family kitchen; children as young as 2-4 years of age being forced to perform oral sex nightly; children locked in sweltering attics, or dog kennels, for weeks on end.

    From experience, and from the research on resiliency, we know that people exposed to such indescribable childhood traumas have a variety of different coping responses…and a variety of different outcomes when it comes to issues like physical touch, etc.

    The effects of trauma *combine* with the in-born personality, and the persons’ post-trauma experiences, to determine adjustment and behavior in adult life.

    Absolutely, the porcupine effect is common. Where I work, we see the tragic results of this every day, in large and small ways. But in no way is this “shell” universal or inevitable. In large part, trauma magnifies or intensifies the already pre-existing personality tendencies. So, a traumatized person with traits opposite of yours might stray into “bad boundaries” territory…touching others, and allowing themselves to be touched, in ways that leave them *too vulnerable*, rather than *too guarded.*

    In other cases, though, I’ve witnessed persons rebound from their past…bounce back from terrible abuse, and use that experience to drive a healthy, mature perspective on empathy, tenderheartedness, physical touch, etc. Trauma + pre-existing personality + healing influences (or lack therof) = adult personality & choices.

    One finding from the resilience research that is very clear: statistically, those most likely to achieve successful outcomes are those who find nurturing, balanced ways to attach to other human beings…close and abiding relationships based on empathy and warmth. Kids from traumatic homes who never pull it together in their adult lives are those more likely to feel: “I don’t have anybody…I never had anybody…and that’s the way it’s always going to be. It’s me against the world.”

  • Kenneth Hopkins June 27, 2011, 10:14 PM

    Coming from a hugger, I can appreciate the life of non-huggers, as I have many of them around me. and i’m a bad one too… the kind that hangs all over you, deep never letting go hugs :-).

    However, when we meet, i’ll give you a good solid handshake 🙂

  • Cile June 28, 2011, 11:56 AM

    I’d like to send an electronic hug to Sherry Thompson. Her post was so touching — well, didn’t intend a pun but will let it stay. There were studies done years ago that showed that babies in newborn nurseries who were not touched and handled failed to thrive.
    When the side-huggers at your church hug you, be sure and hug them back and say, “Thank you for the hug. That felt good.”
    My grandmother was so touch deprived she hugged her doctor when she went for a check up. The hug was a healthy prescription! We lived a long distance away, but when we went to see her, we made sure she and the rest of the family received hugs though usually on arrival and departure.
    If your health permits, you may want to consider volunteering at a day care or school. Little children love hugs and give them freely. If the above options don’t appeal to you, you could visit a chiropractor, or physical therapist if you have joint pain. If human contact seems contrived, get a pooch, or a cat if you’d prefer. Cats don’t have to be taken for walks. People with pets live longer. Scientific fact.
    XXXXXs for you because I sensed lonliness in your post. And, for Mike and Kenneth a handshake. Men tend to read more into a friendly hug than what is intended.

  • Katherine Coble June 29, 2011, 1:32 PM

    I know I’m a gruff INTJ woman who isn’t physically affectionate with anyone beyond her husband and her dogs, so that should be taken into account.

    But I’ve read enough novels in this life time to consider every hugging stranger a potential pickpocket, cutpurse or fingersmith.

  • C.L. Dyck June 29, 2011, 3:56 PM

    Did you write this post just for me, dude? Srsly, I need to forward this to my talented but misguided editor, Chila Woychik. 😉

    As I explained to Chila, when I attended ACFW last year, I got inordinately hugged by large numbers of romance writers, like at least 3 or 4 of them. This so disoriented and dismayed me that, swept up in a combination of Stockholm Syndrome and sheer relief, I hugged the first non-male speculative writer I met up with. Which caused her in turn to go “glurk!”

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