I’m sure you’ve heard of the “cuddle phenomenon”. If you haven’t, let me give you a crash course, as it supports some recent theories and soul searching questions I have had about humans and our need for affection. Professional cuddling is now a thing – I kid you not. Here is a link to one of many sites where you can hire a strictly platonic snuggle companion: SnuggleBuddies
Basically, if you could use some human physical interaction, without the sexual pressure, you can hire a complete stranger to cuddle with – this is for real.
To be honest, this trend doesn’t surprise me at all, and I have some ideas as to why. But first, do you remember the Friends episode when Joey and Ross are caught napping on the couch together? Hilarious, right? It perfectly illustrates some of what I intend to communicate in the following thoughts.
Traveling in other cultures, working with people, and personal life experiences have contributed to the swarming thoughts in my mind which can be summed up in the following questions:
Are we as a society too emotionally independent and socially awkward?
Consider other cultures when compared to the US. Many Eastern and European cultures find it customary to greet one another with a strong embrace followed by a kiss on the cheek or lips. This form of affection is not just reserved for isolated intimate relationships. Even in the ancient Christian text (Rom. 16:16) there is a verse which says to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” It is no secret that over the years, our society has become more afraid of being touched and personal barriers seem to have increased. It isn’t so much that affectionate intimacy does not exist in our culture, but we have given everyone a personal bubble and any affection outside of a committed relationship is perceived as weird, awkward, or inappropriate. Ironically, the often used expression of “personal space” is a concept that is foreign to many non-Westerner’s. How did we become so closed off?
I live in a rural community where I see this independent need for personal space even greater than I visit more urban areas. Folks in our town would rather drive their personal cars than take a bus and may secretly judge you if you do choose to ride the bus. I once told someone I was taking the bus and they asked if everything was alright. No, I did not get a DUI. I had a car, but actually preferred taking a bus. Why is that weird? In larger cities, it is common to commute via public transit where personal space is not much of an option. In general, from my personal experience and observation, personal space still seems to be coveted more by Americans than other countries.
Several years ago, during one of my visits to Haiti, I noticed that men on their way to work would walk down the street holding hands. This is a part of the culture which is not only socially acceptable, but completely natural. Two friends, holding hands on their way to work. Women and children do this in our part of the world, but if men were to do this, we would automatically assume they are in a committed homosexual relationship. Of the many phobia’s and fears we have developed as a society, I think one we ought to talk about is our fear of getting too close.
Humans need affection. Society, in some ways, seems to have perverted what this looks like. Perhaps we’ve allowed some things to taint our entire view of relationships and the pendulum has swung towards fear and isolation. Not all expressions of love and affection are sexual. We’ve created a culture of fear of getting too close and have turned our part of the world into individuals who fear rejection and being alone. I often wonder if we have forced individuals into a sexual stereotypes because they may not be exactly intended to be in a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but still have basic human needs which include human affection. Celibacy used to be a thing, and now that is portrayed as wrong. When we have created such narrow boarders around expectations and created a compartment based upon our own personal comforts and I ideals, we force more compartments to be created. Simply because, not everyone thinks like you or I. So we have placed negative thoughts onto innocent interactions and turned them into being “inappropriate”. Not all human affection is inappropriate or sexual, but we have done a good job at creating a great divide. It also seems we assume that everyone is made for someone, when I happen to know some completely content singles. The pressure of media suggests that everyone should have someone, and if not, there might be something wrong with you or you are “different”.
We make basic social interactions awkward. Why do we do that? We stereotype.We are afraid of letting others get too close and worry what people might think way too much. And it’s about time we stop doing this. I’m not promoting an agenda or using this time and space to divulge my personal views on a particular hot topic which is causing even more division in our communities today. I’m simply saying that perhaps we sometimes go too far in assuming something and calling it what it isn’t until it becomes just that.
Are we so worried about what people think that we make too much of an effort to try and portray something different?
I visited a friend’s church in Portland not too long ago. It was a pretty culturally relevant non-denominational community. The pastor was covered in tattoos and it appeared as though everyone could’ve easily been cast in Portlandia. The music and vibe were great. I appreciated that they had a wall of mugs to cultivate a sense of feeling at home and taking care of the environment. For being known as a rather “hip” church, the people didn’t seem too overly pretentious and appeared genuine. Overall, it was a positive experience.
At one point during the pastor’s message, however, there was something that I don’t think was intended, but potentially gave a wrong impression. The pastor read a passage about a guy named John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples leaning on Jesus’ chest during a conversation which took place at the famous Last Supper. At which point, the pastor paused and said something like, “it wasn’t like that”, as if to insinuate a homophobic disclaimer. I’m going out on a limb here, but what a beautiful image of a friend and follower of Jesus being so close in companionship that this scene of John leaning against him was completely wholesome and without any impure motives.
The pastor did not even need to imply or bring such negative attention to such a beautiful thing. If anything, he could have at least elaborated on the appropriateness of such a display of affection and how it is different than whatever it is he was trying so hard not to imply. He potentially made it worse be saying anything at all. I wonder if churches placed more energy into showing what real love could actually look like than fighting what they believe it’s not, if more folks would have a better appreciation for and openness to Jesus.
There is a depth and display of intimacy among humans historically and culturally which is not intended to be exclusively intimate or perverse. Perhaps we as a society have been driven so far in our fears and phobias that we have driven our society to stereotype, label and segregate into communities simply because we don’t feel comfortable with any form of affection that is not somehow sexual.
This entire concept strongly manifested in my soul a couple months ago when I unwillingly entered into one of the most painful and lonely journeys of my life. As life seems to happen, I wasn’t the only person struggling when a friend posted the following image on social media, and I totally identified with it.
Sometimes it’s easier to talk about the challenges in our life than to just hug it out.
While I’ve had many friends and family members who have reached out to me in this season and wanting to talk, I remember thinking and feeling that I just needed to be held in my brokenness. Sometimes, I want to just stop talking about it and feel the warmth of another’s embrace. God surprises me sometimes. I can go seasons of what feels like dry desert doubt in my faith that there could be a God who actually cares about me specifically. Even when in those seasons I still try and “do my part” by praying and reaching out. And then there will be the right person at the right time who does the unexpected not having a clue, what I was needing, but they were used to fulfill that need.
I was at the mechanic shop about to drive my car off the lot, when I ran into a friend and former housemate. I see him randomly in the community a couple times a year, but we have not stayed in contact very well. When he asked how I was doing, I awkwardly shuffled my feet and eventually told him I was walking through a divorce while I looked down at the ground to fight back tears. He asked if he could pray for me, and I accepted. What happened next surprised me. I was expecting a 30 second blessing prayer that everything would “just” workout with very minimal contact. What I received was a full embrace at the mechanic shop which lasted well beyond the awkward threshold. It also happened to be one of the hottest record breaking days in the summer. Two grown men embracing, sweating, crying, and praying in front of a mechanic shop. I don’t even care right now what onlookers must have been thinking.
The next day I ran into a another friend of my parents who I have seen randomly throughout the years. I was at the local outdoor store. She is a cancer survivor, a lover of God and people and an absolute rock star. She doesn’t succumb to cultural expectations of personal space in public settings. I appreciate that about her.. She is also a “hugger”, which might make some people uncomfortable. I appreciate that about her too. I used to be more of a hugger. She always seems to run into me in a moment of need. I hope that I, too, can be that person for others who struggle on their journey of life. With little information, she felt compelled to embrace me and pray for me.
In both instances, it was as if the same God who saw me in my distress, whispered a clear directive into her and my other friend’s spirits to fulfill a long unmet need. When friends or family are going through difficult times, it can be easy to talk about it over and over. Professional therapists make decent money in listening, and there is healing in talking, but I have learned that there is also healing in the simplicity of human touch. My next post will be more specifically about how physical touch interacts with mental illness.
As I conclude part one of this topic of human’s need for affection, I invite you to join in the conversation me commenting below following my blog. This journey of discovering what it means to be human is painful and surprisingly beautiful. It requires strength, bravery and vulnerability. Please join in on the conversation and peace to your journey.