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Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hugging Strangers

In 2006 Oprah conducted an interview with Juan Mann, the founder of the “Free Hugs Campaign.”  Free Hugs is a campaign that started when Juan Mann came back to his home country of Australia, walked through the Sydney airport unaccompanied with desires of embrace or friendly recognition; he felt alone and hopeless.  Instead of rolling in his own sadness, he acted (proactivity, one of my favorite characteristics) and did this:

“I'd been living in London when my world turned upside down and I'd had to come home. By the time my plane landed back in Sydney, all I had left was a carry on bag full of clothes and a world of troubles. No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown.
Standing there in the arrivals terminal, watching other passengers meeting their waiting friends and family, with open arms and smiling faces, hugging and laughing together, I wanted someone out there to be waiting for me. To be happy to see me. To smile at me. To hug me.
So I got some cardboard and a marker and made a sign. I found the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city and held that sign aloft, with the words "Free Hugs" on both sides.
And for 15 minutes, people just stared right through me. The first person who stopped, tapped me on the shoulder and told me how her dog had just died that morning. How that morning had been the one year anniversary of her only daughter dying in a car accident. How what she needed now, when she felt most alone in the world, was a hug. I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other and when we parted, she was smiling.
Everyone has problems and for sure mine haven't compared. But to see someone who was once frowning, smile even for a moment, is worth it every time.”
I empathized with his feeling of loneliness and of reward.  The Oprah interview touched my heart in some confusing way that made me want to emulate his goodwill.  I was a (back-to-school) student at Georgia Institute of Technology at that time and with the recruitment of a friend, I embarked on my first Free Hugs afternoon.  Still don’t know what I’m talking about?  Here, watch this video:

Free Huggers Jessie & Steph on Skiles Walkway, GaTech
After the first time I did Free Hugs, I wrote a blog post (2007, read here) about my experiences.  With a good friend Steph, we did Free Hugs many times while students on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology, occasionally joined by other friends.  Fast forward several years to Memphis Aug-2013.  For the second time in two weeks, I went to the downtown pedestrian (outdoor) mall with a sign raised above my head for “Free Hugs.”  I had not done a Free Hugs since Dec-2008 and had NEVER done it solo.  The day prior, I thought, “no sweat, I’ll just go on down there and hold my sign up high.”
As I drove downtown on my second trip, I noticed my heart beating a little faster.  Nervous?  Again?  Still?  I hoisted my sign up in the air, and breathed deep.  Quickly, I was greeted by similar emotions… the same faces of happiness, relief, skepticism, joy, and cynicism.  Many people walked by with questions in their eyes.  They look, smirk, grimace, or smile.  Some giggle or laugh.  Some point from across the street.  (I try to ignore those people.)  I hear commentary of: Lose a bet?  That’s just weird.  Yes, I need one!
Free Hugs in Memphis
What do I do?  Stand with a sign held above my head.  I am mostly silent, not catcalling at people but just holding a pleasant look on my face.  Mostly, it is about observing.  You can see in someone’s eyes or body language if they want or need a hug.  I do a lot of listening with my eyes and my ears.  I hear kind remarks, shouts of, “I want one!” or mumble…  Free Hugs… mumble… why… what.  Here is a sampling of comments heard:
You are like a light in an otherwise dark place.  Thank you for spreading happiness.
Did you lose a bet?
Are you serious?
There must be cameras around?  *looks around for candid camera*
You are something special, you know that?  You are!
Do you believe God?  (Which was followed by an attempt at preaching)
Thank you!
I needed that.
Have a great day.
What is your mission
Have a blessed day.
While I have received plenty of odd remarks, unquestionably, the most common included, “Thank you,” “Why?” and “Have a great/blessed day.” The oddest people are those that nominate their partner/friend … *pointing at / pushing friend towards me,* “She wants a hug!”  The most rewarding people that I hugged had genuine gratitude in their eyes and voiced heartfelt thanks such as, “I needed that more than you can imagine.”  Kids were undeniably the cutest, least reserved, and most precious as they did not question your intentions.  They just wanted to hug you, too!  I watched many people go out of their way to cross the street to me because he/she needed a hug.  A father pulling his little boy with Down syndrome made a bee-line towards me with the young child all smiles in his embrace, a young couple, people walking by themselves … 
Today a mom read my sign to her son of about 3 years old; she told him to run to me if he wanted to.  As his little eyes brightened, I threw my arms open wide, as did he.  About 45 minutes later, they walked back by, and he grinned at me from ear to ear.  He unleashed his mother’s hand, and ran to me again for another big (little) embrace.
A few oddities…
  •  All of the people that take your picture!  Since when has it become acceptable, to take a person’s picture without asking, particularly within 10 feet of you, and that person is not a performer on stage?  SO MANY people took my picture… a simple request of “May I or Can I…” would have been appreciated.  Ultimately, I could only laugh at the people that used as much zoom as possible on their cell phone from across the street!

  • The Memphis Main Street Pedestrian Mall is six blocks long; I stood at two different places during my 1st and 2nd Free Hugs days.  Ultimately, the only deciding factor was finding free parking close by!  On my first Free Hugs day, a police officer passed by me, very unremarkably.  Some shop owners came out and observed, some sending sentinels to inquire of my actions.  “Hey, what are you doing out here (i.e., why?)”    “Yeah, we weren’t sure if you were weird, or something.”  On the second Free Hugs day, I picked a different shady location amid summer heat, just near a corner furniture store.  Within 15 minutes, the store management were ogling me from their front door and speaking on the phone, and soon after were “inspecting” the furniture in the window closer to my perch.  Almost expectantly soon thereafter a security guard approached me stating, “they don’t like it” and that “we don’t like people to hang out spend too much time between Peabody Place and Gayoso Avenue… like vendors .”  After stating I was not selling anything, he seemed undeterred insisting that I remove myself.  Obligingly I walked the 50 feet to the other side of Gayoso Ave in an attempt to not cause a ruckus.  It seems that Inciting Peace was a concern! 

I have been asked countless times, “Why are you doing this?  I usually answer with, “To bring a little cheer to someone who might need it.”  The reception of that response varies so much from audible, “awwww” to reflection to “hmpf” in disbelief.  Watching responses on the faces of others is so insightful.  Without trying to be judgmental myself, I have found the reactions of others to be very revealing of character.  Body language speaks so loudly, sometimes it even YELLS!

A pictorial history of Free Hugs Jessie! 

“And in the end it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” 
— Abraham Lincoln

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