I recently received a link to a YouTube video, the subject of which may cost me my curmudgeon’s credentials, but it is a subject that is too important to ignore.
The video shows some young people walking the streets of Milan holding up signs that read “free hugs.” There is no talking in the video. It is set to a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The video can be found at www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=hN8CKwdosjE.
In the beginning, the young people with the placards met with resistance. Passersby either pretended to ignore them, or treated them as if they were lunatics.
Gradually, though, a change began to take place. Some people began to accept the free hugs, and when they did, they could not help but smile.
Soon, all sorts of people, young and old, male and female, began hugging complete strangers, and all of them were smiling. Some were even laughing. No matter how serious or sad or isolated they had initially appeared, it was obvious that they were feeling just a little bit better after that brief connection with another person.
The free hugs campaign was started by a guy in Australia. His name is Juan Mann, and he made a commitment to go out in public and offer free hugs one day per week just to see people smile, and see them happy. The response he got in Sydney was similar to that which met the young people in Milan.
A band, the Sick Puppies, made a video and posted it on YouTube, and soon the free hug campaign had spread to cities all around the world.
It should be noted that governments in Australia are like governments everywhere, and the local city council’s first idiotic response was to try to prevent Mann from offering free hugs by forcing him to purchase public liability insurance “in case someone were to get hurt.”
Common sense prevailed, however, and band member Shimon Moore documented Mann’s efforts to get the council to change its mind. Supporters collected 10,000 signatures on a petition to allow Mann to continue sharing the love.
Why, one might ask, is hugging strangers so important, and why would anyone, particularly a curmudgeon who is unaccustomed to public displays of affection, care?
As long as I can remember, there has been war and conflict somewhere in the world. When I was young, I wondered why we had to send our military personnel to get killed over in southeast Asia.
I have wondered the same thing about other conflicts in other parts of the world over the years.
This is especially true of those parts of the world where tribes or other groups seem to have been fighting amongst themselves since the dawn of time. They don’t seem to want to get along. What’s more, they don’t like us at all.
And yet, we continue to send millions of dollars, tons of weapons, and far too many young men and women over there to fight and die for reasons that aren’t always clear.
When I was young, I felt vaguely superior to those people. I thought they were uncivilized because they seemed to accept violence, tyranny, and corruption as a way of life.
Lately, though, I have begun to wonder. One cannot turn on the radio or TV, or even one’s computer, without being reminded of what amounts to tribal warfare in our own country.
We are fortunate that there is, at least so far, a lot less actual bloodshed here, but the saber-rattling and name-calling between the tribes gets louder every day.
It might be the red tribe versus the blue tribe, or it might be based on any of a million other excuses people find to draw lines and build walls between themselves and some other group with whom they disagree, or which may be different from them in some way.
If one ignores trifles such as car bombs, IEDs and fanatics who blow themselves to bits in crowded public places, I am not sure we are that much different from people in other parts of the world.
We say we are united, but we don’t always act like we are. It may be that the only thing that separates us from them in some cases is apathy. People here may be just as nuts as they are, but are just too lazy to take things to that level.
That brings us back, in a roundabout sort of way, to the free hugs campaign.
Distrust, prejudice, animosity, and violence are expensive, and they foster more bad than good.
In contrast, the simple act of making contact with another person by giving him or her a hug costs nothing at all, but it can be an incredibly powerful tool for change. It can break down barriers, bring about understanding, and make the world a better place.
Hugging each other and making connections with others has got to be a better direction than attacking one another at every opportunity, which seems to be the way we are heading now. Instead of focusing on our differences and adopting an “us versus them” mind-set, we should be looking for ways we can work together.
We sometimes isolate ourselves, and find it difficult to connect with those who are closest to us, much less with strangers, but following the example of the young people in Milan and many other cities (also on YouTube) may provide a way to change all that.
If we want change, the path is clear. If, on the other hand, we only want to perpetuate conflict, we are no better than those we are trying to convert.