Over the weekend I went to the local Farmer’s Market with my “Free Hugs” sign to spread some love. Though I’ve done Free Hugs many times before, it has always been with other people from my Southern Maine Random Acts of Kindness meetup group. I must admit, I felt slightly nervous about standing out there by myself.
After pulling out my sign, it took about 3 or 4 minutes for the first person to come over, though it felt more like 20. When you’re holding a sign in a large group of people that says “Free Hugs,” you feel pretty vulnerable! Of course, some people never notice you, but the majority of people walking around do see you- many of whom quickly look away for fear you will ask them to come over, many who will smile and nod but keep walking, and others who laugh because they’ve never heard of “Free Hugs” and don’t quite know what to make of it.
My first interaction of the day was with two boys, brothers, about 7 and 9 years old. They were walking by looking at my sign and smiling. “Free Hug?” I asked them, smiling back. The younger boy shook his head as they continued walking. They stopped not long after and looked back, as if contemplating if they should hug me or not. I could tell they wanted to, but they didn’t quite have the social context to figure out what to do. Perhaps they were thinking of the multiple warnings they’d received in their lives about strangers. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, but I could tell they wanted some sort of exchange, so I put my hand out and said, “How about a free high five?” The younger boy giggled and came over, giving me a solid high five. His older brother followed, and the two boys walked off together happily, apparently satisfied.
Shortly afterwards, a little girl, about 4 years old, came over and gave me a big hug, per suggestion of her mom. I thanked her and gave her a slip of paper with a positive message on it: “You are a Beautiful Expression of Life.” After she returned and showed her mother the message, the girl’s little sister, a mere 2 or so years old, came over to me saying, “I want a paper!” Sensing her mother’s approval, I said, “I’ll trade you one for a hug!” to which she gallantly ran into my arms.
After that, a few more children came over to me for hugs; all of which had parents standing, watching nearby, clearly encouraging their participation. I’ve noticed that it seems to be children’s natural inclination to want to give a hug, but if they don’t have a parent around or if their parent is not supportive of the idea, they are unlikely to come over. If a parent has anxious or tightly wound energy, the child is especially unlikely to come over.
After getting a streak of 6 or 7 hugs from children, an adult woman came over and gave me a big squeeze. “Have you had any luck today?” she asked. I told her I’d just gotten there, but had received many wonderful hugs from children. “That’s great,” she said warmly, “Thanks for doing this!”
After that, rarely a minute went by before the next person approached. All the times I’ve done Free Hugs, it seems the first few moments feel a bit awkward- Probably a mix of feeling vulnerable and getting acclimated to the environment and the people. However, once the person/people giving free hugs loosen up and become more comfortable, others around seem to pick up on this vibe and are more likely to come over.
After the first few brave folks come over for hugs, I became a hug magnet- Even those people who hadn’t witnessed me hugging others seemed to sense that others had done it before them and therefore was a safe thing to do. It may seem ridiculous to question the safety of a hug, but in our society, this is a very real concern. From a young age, many of us are bombarded with the concept of “stranger danger” and are taught to avoid people we don’t know at all costs. Though many of us outgrow this fear to a degree throughout adulthood, there are still a large number of us who carry this fear: Fear of talking to strangers, making eye contact, standing too close in line, and of course making any sort of physical contact, such as with a hug.
One bubbly young adult woman, looking to be in her early 30s, came up to me with a beaming smile saying, “I’ll take a free hug!” Afterwards, she told me it was her first hug of the day.
“Want to stand next to me and get some more?” I asked. She happily accepted and stood there with me for the next 20 minutes or so giving hugs. When people came in to give me a hug, I’d ask them if they’d like a second hug, to which nobody declined. “This is so amazing!” she beamed. “It just feels so good to hug these people!”
I asked her if she’d seen any of the many “Free Hugs” videos on YouTube that have been circulating about. She said she had and that she’d often thought it would be lots of fun to do it herself, but that she just hadn’t had the gusto to do it. I explained that for the longest time I’d wanted to do “Free Hugs” and hadn’t either, which was part of the reason why I started my Random Acts of Kindness group. Doing group events such as “Free Hugs” had given me the courage and confidence to try it on my own. “And once you start, it’s highly addictive!” I said. “As you’re probably noticing.”
I love going to the Farmer’s Market to give hugs for many reasons. The first time I started doing it, I realized very quickly that it just feels good to hug other human beings, regardless of whether I know them or not. The more people you hug, the more you see that it’s not just about connecting to that particular person you’re hugging at that moment, but about connecting to the entire pool of humanity. The individual people you hug may look different, but deep down, they are all expressions of the same life force, the same life force that you and your loved ones came from. Once we can see this truth, we begin to see all other people, regardless of whether we know them personally or not, as loved ones. This is the shift in perception that is needed to end war within ourselves and within the world at large.
Doing free hugs has not only been a very powerful experience for me personally, but it seems to be a powerful experience for everyone who participates. Some people come in reluctantly for a hug, and walk away with a visible shift in their energy; others are overjoyed at the idea of free hugs and emphatically express their appreciation. Many people come in for a hug and walk away uplifted, with love beaming from their eyes and hearts; a good number of people engage me and others in the group about the importance of human connection and spreading joy and love in the world, most often resulting in heightened inspiration all around. Some people are so taken by what we’re doing that they take photos to post on their social media accounts or share with friends and family. Occasionally we get a person that tells us we changed their whole day- that receiving a hug(s) helped shift them to a much more positive place.
Even the people who see what we’re doing and decide not to come in for a hug are likely affected in some way, whether it’s feeling uplifted by the exchange of positive energy nearby, or by a seed that’s been planted in their mind. It could be something like, “I guess some people do good/kind things for no reason,” or “maybe it’s okay to hug strangers.” Some people may simply walk away wondering, “Why would anyone want to give free hugs?” and that too is valuable. The act of thinking about something gives us a wider perspective than we had before and increases our openness for future experiences.
When I was really getting into the spirit of Free Hugs, a kind-looking man appearing to be in his 60s approached me, handing me a pink, folded up sheet of paper. ‘This looks like one of the messages I give out,’ I thought. Sure enough, I unfolded the paper to see a message in my handwriting: “Thank you for all the good you do for others.”
I hadn’t done Free Hugs in a few weeks, so clearly this guy had been carrying around this message with him for a while, perhaps waiting to see me again to give it back. “Wow… that’s so nice… thank you!” I said, my eyes tearing up a bit.
The man looked in my eyes, the way someone looks at you when they are really seeing you, and simply smiled. He nodded and began walking away, as I stood there, looking at the paper in astonishment. Acts of kindness really do come back around.