by Lore Ferguson Wilbert
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Last night as my husband drove and I sat in the passenger seat, my dearest friend sat behind me. We were driving away from dinner with friends, their first guests in seven months, only the third table we’ve gathered around since March 11. My friend reached her hands up through the headrest and placed them on my shoulders.
We have known one another since we were in middle school, dreaming the same dreams, gathering our hopes and whispering them to one another through high school and early adulthood. Some of those dreams have come true for her and some for me, but one has still not for her. I joined with a husband in my mid-thirties and she has still not. In turn, though, I had hoped to marry someone who loved physical touch as much as I do, and I did not.
While the touch of a friend is not the same as the touch of a spouse, she and I do find a special sort of grace in the company of one another. There is comfort and peace for me in her hands upon my shoulders, and comfort and peace for her in knowing she can place them there freely.
Exactly one month before our state was put on lockdown in March, I released a book, and in what began to feel like a cosmic joke, the subject of my book was physical touch. I labored for two years on the theology of human bodies, the church body, Christ’s body, and physical touch. I made a case for closing the gap between brothers and sisters in Christ, and one month later, the CDC recommended keeping six feet between humans.
Immediately I ached for children who live in abusive homes where the hands they are surrounded by are hands who harm. For my friends in marriages where there is little loving contact. For the elderly who were now more isolated than the more healthy of us. But I especially began to ache for my still single sisters. Most of my dearest friends are still unmarried and either nearing 40 or beyond it already. Many of these women were already feeling the sadness of shoulders left unrubbed, hands unheld, and hugs ungiven, and now those aches were heightened more.
Skin hunger is a real and scientific thing and the starvation of human contact leads only to brokenness after a period of time. Humans need other humans. God was the first to say, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The very first bad thing in all the goodness God created was aloneness. Man was not made for it and neither was woman. We need one another, the physical, material, tangible, touchable bodies of one another. So how do we live in this new normal of distanced lives? What do we do when we need a hug but we feel alone?
Acknowledge our need: As I wrote above, God himself was the first to acknowledge that aloneness was not good. God’s perfect first human was incomplete and needed another. We do too. So if we’re feeling that need, it’s good and right to feel it. Just acknowledge it. Say it right out loud: “I need a hug.”
Acknowledge the frustration of our time: I’m always comforted in scripture when we see men and women saying the precise truth of their situation. They don’t sugarcoat the pain of their circumstances and try to pretend everything’s okay when it’s not (I Kings 19, Psalm 79). I think God loves when we’re honest about how much a situation hurts. 2020 is hard, friends. It’s harder than an average year. And it’s really hard when we desire physical nearness and can’t have it.
Accept the common grace of our specific situation: Whether we’re single, married, childless, a mother, a roommate, a grandmother, a neighbor, or a widow, we do have a reality. There is another someone in our life, even if it’s not the person we would most like to be hugged by. There are some reading this who may have underlying conditions and truly cannot even be near another person. But for the great majority of us, we often let the lack of what we most desire dictate our joy today instead of simply saying, “This isn’t what I most desire, but it is sufficient for today.”
Years ago, I was praying for people after church and a stranger came up to me and just said, “I don’t need prayer, I just need a hug.” And I thought, Wow, I can do that. If Jesus came and let his body be broken and bruised for the sake of those he loved, I can hug this woman as long as she needs. Times are different now and I don’t know how long it will be before a stranger will do that again, but what I want for myself is the courage to see the loneliness of my one friend and offer the hug she is afraid to ask for. And what I want for my friend is the courage to ask, “I need a hug and it’s okay if you don’t want to hug me, I can ask someone else, but if you’re okay with it, would you hug me?” I can’t do it with all, but I can with just one.
Lore Ferguson Wilbert is a writer, thinker, learner, and author of the book, Handle With Care. She writes for She Reads Truth, Christianity Today, and more, as well as her own site, Sayable.net. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @lorewilbert. She lives in New York with a husband named Nate, a puppy named Harper Nelle, and too many books to read in one lifetime.