Embracing during an epidemic

Do we need to wait for the vaccine before we can hug our kids, grandkids, siblings or close friends?

A DEEP gaze can be a gesture of love. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A DEEP gaze can be a gesture of love.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One thing that everyone agrees upon is that it’s hard not to hug. We love to hug, and for good reason.
Hugging is healthy. It cuts stress and reduces fear and anxiety. It lowers blood pressure, promotes well-being and improves memory performance by triggering a release of the body’s feel-good hormone – oxytocin.
On the eve of the pandemic, the hug was well on its way to becoming the new handshake. All over the world and even in frum (religiously observant) circles, self-proclaimed huggers foisted themselves on their loved ones and their not-so-loved ones, thinking that their embraces were a welcome gift. It turns out that wasn’t the case. Scientists have discovered that hugging works only with people you love and trust.
“An unwelcome hug may be perceived as disconcerting or even as threatening,” says Jürgen Sandkühler, head of the Center for Brain Research at the Medical University of Vienna.
Hooray. COVID-19 has solved that problem. No more unwanted embraces. But do we need to wait for the vaccine before we can hug our kids, grandkids, siblings or close friends?
Maybe. Of 500 epidemiologists recently surveyed by The New York Times, close to half said they would wait another year before daring to hug or shake hands. Six percent said they would never do either again. Oy vey. So maybe forget about hugging.
In the meantime, here are a few alternatives, non-physical ways to show love.
Focus on eye contact. When we fall into people’s arms, we sometimes forget to look into their eyes. This is a mistake we can now remedy. And a deep gaze can be a gesture of love. A friend reported that instead of hugging her grandson, she looked at his eyes, and it made her feel connected to him. The eyes really are the windows to the soul.
Try the “hassidic kiss.” When one of the Lubavitcher rebbes was a baby, his father, the rebbe, couldn’t stop showering him with hugs and kisses. One day, however, the baby lay asleep in his bassinet, presumably after a long, long crying spell. Instead of kissing him and risking waking him up, the rebbe found another way to show his love – the “hassidic kiss.” He composed a long essay on his love for God and dedicated it to his new son, and years later presented it to him at his bar mitzvah.
That’s a long wait, but we can show our love with letters or gifts – a photograph, a painting, a poem, a cake or cookie or even a song or dance. Let your imagination lead you.
If you must hug, here’s the way a Harvard epidemiologist says to do it.
1. Keep your mask on.
2. Face away from the person you are hugging, no face-to-face or cheek-to-cheek contact.
3. Hold your breath.
4. Don’t talk or cough and don’t cry. Tears and runny noses increase risk of coming into contact with more fluids that contain the virus.
5. Don’t linger. Make it fast, and when you’re done, wash or sanitize your hands.
6. It’s fine to allow young children to hug an adult around the knees or waist. This lowers risk for direct exposure to droplets and aerosols, because faces are far apart, but the adult should look away so as not to breathe down on the child.
Or don’t hug. Wait. Use your version of embrace. Whichever method you choose, heed the advice sung by James Taylor so many years ago: “Shower the people you love with love.”
The author is a prizewinning writer. Her work appears frequently in these pages, and she facilitates a memoir workshop on Zoom. ungar.carol@gmail.com