A Thousand Hugs at the Rally to Restore Sanity

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I never bought into the “good pain” exercise evangelists pontificate about. If you’re exercising just because you don’t feel like you’re thin enough for society, then the pain isn’t good—it’s just dumb.

But I’m in a good kind of a pain right now, because I spent almost seven hours on my feet giving out hugs at Saturday’s huge Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Aside from a few little press interviews and one five-minute break to eat a snack, I was “on duty” from 9 until almost 4. I didn’t keep count, but this militant atheist with a gay agenda easily gave up to 150 hugs/hour, so I guesstimate I gave around 1000-1200 hugs.

(I’m kind of bummed the Christian Science Monitor didn’t quote me in its story despite interviewing me; I was really curious to see how I would have been portrayed there.)

I had no comprehension of what was happening on the stage at the rally. In fact, I didn’t see any clips until the next day! But I had an amazing time, nonetheless—perhaps the best day of my life. I definitely feel I made a difference, and I had to convince myself to leave when I did, though there was still a steady flow of huggable traffic.

I don’t have any sentimental videos to show you, but let me tell you a little bit about what it’s like to give people hugs all day.

First of all, let me share something kind of depressing. A lot of people are afraid to ask for hugs. I spent the whole day standing in the flow of traffic, but I didn’t shout out to solicit at all. Many stopped to take pictures of me and my sign, most of whom politely asked if they could. I usually replied, “So long as I get a hug out of it,” in which case I always did. But there were so very many who read the sign, smiled, and made extended eye contact… but kept walking. Quite a few said, “Keep up the good work,” and a surprising number gently patted my shoulder as they walked past, as if to say, “I’m with you.”

Every once in a while, when someone made casual contact like that, I would offer, “Do you want one?” or even, “Oh, come on, you know you want one.” And there would be this sense of relief and a smile as they eagerly came in for a hug. I didn’t want to push (or guilt) anyone into a hug they didn’t want, but it was amazing to see how many people wanted hugs but didn’t feel it was their place to ask despite my obvious offer.

This, alone, seems to me a stunning commentary on the state of things in our society. Here was a huge group of people at what had to be the most mild-mannered rally of its size ever, and there were people who still felt reluctant to let themselves enjoy some social contact that was freely offered. Are we afraid of each other? Are we afraid of love? Are we afraid to let ourselves be loved? Do people feel like they don’t deserve hugs? I really wonder about the state of things that so many would feel they couldn’t ask someone as obviously goofy as me for a hug.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly folks who don’t like hugs. I happily offered many high fives and (terrorist) fist bumps to folks who didn’t want to be touchy-feely. But what I’m talking about is folks who really wanted to hug, but just didn’t feel comfortable asking. It was also evident that seeing other people hug me set an example that “made it okay,” and so folks would come in clumps, but people who didn’t see me hugging someone else were less apt to ask for a hug themselves. This phenomenon, more than anything else, has me inspired to continue my own Free Hugs campaign in the future.

But let’s put those thoughts aside and focus on the positive. Hugs really are amazing. I had hugs of all kind. I had full-on hugs, one-arm hugs, side hugs (not Christian though), hugs from behind, group hugs, long meaningful hugs, awkwardly long waiting-for-the-friend-to-figure-out-the-camera hugs, running-start pick-up-and-spin-around hugs, and whoa-careful-you-almost-tackled-me-to-the-ground hugs. (Starting to understand why I’m sore now?) Hugs can be awkward if you don’t know where each other’s arms or heads are going, but they all turn out just right in the end. Sometimes I could see hug-wanters coming from many yards away by the look in their eyes and the intense bee line they were making for me. Other times people passed by and then turned around and came back because they just couldn’t pass one up.

I hugged people of all genders (including beyond the binary, as one person disclosed), ethnicities, religions, and ages.

I actually found a lot of middle-aged and older women were eager to get hugs. One woman said, “I hope you don’t mind grandma hugs.” Who minds grandma hugs?!?! (If there is a People Against Grandma Hugs group out there somewhere, it is officially my mission to destroy you!) Some younger kids were shy about hugs, and one hug with a little kiddo backfired when my shoulder and his head met in an unfortunate way! He jokingly wobbled around as if I’d just knocked him out. Don’t worry, he was okay! Hug mishaps will happen, and we made sure he got a good one.

Two couples insisted their (“progressive,” as one qualified) infants in strollers be photographed with me. In both cases, I double checked to make sure they weren’t worried I’d rub off on the toddlers. I even hugged a few pregnant women, so all the pro-lifers out there will surely count each as two hugs.

Women seemed slightly more interested in hugs than men. Many had their boyfriends photograph them hugging me, but the boyfriends were not as interested in hugging (though plenty did). When posing for pictures with women (particularly older women), it was not uncommon for their hands to just happen to be on my butt. My butt was never squeezed—at no point did I feel violated—but there their hands were. I felt a little dirty, but not in a bad way! I was happy to see that plenty of guys sought out hugs of their own volition, too. One guy, who was presumably straight and quite confident in his sexuality, insisted on a long, sensual hug, adding, “Yeah, just hold me gently.” He was quite handsome and I happily obliged.

Interestingly, many of the guys who wanted hugs gave real hugs, not feeling the need for the 3-pat “I’m-not-gay” hug variety. Some of these guys even made the necessary “I’m straight, but I’ll still hug you” disclaimer (as if my “gay agenda” meant I only gave gay hugs?), but still gave real hugs. I wonder if the “straight” hug only comes into play between guys who know each other, but with a complete stranger, guys feel more comfortable giving the meaningful kind of hugs we all treasure.

Many folks were quite excited about my gay agenda. A few straight folks weren’t sure if they could really be a part of the gay agenda, but offered that they certainly supported it. I told them I was pretty sure they didn’t have to be gay to be part of the gay agenda, but that I’d get in touch with the gay leadership on high and get back to them.

I felt bad that not all the hugs I gave were of the same caliber. Often times I’d be bombarded in all directions by huggers and I didn’t do them all justice, though plenty complimented me on my hugging ability. Other hugs were incredibly meaningful, and you could tell that those folks really needed those hugs. One woman was particularly gracious to get a hug, because she simply hadn’t had one that day. I was quite surprised by the number of people who expressed, “I love you,” and a few added a kiss on the cheek to the encounter.

One girl let me have one of her french fries. Another fed me a bite of her salad. (I’m really hoping she doesn’t have mono.) One gentleman handed me a candy bar, which I promptly “paid forward” to a very young girl who passed by with a sign that says “I want candy.” At some point my sign inherited a pro-birth control sticker, but my favorite takeaway was a pin that said “Christine O’Donnell is not me!”

At one point, a reporter who was doing some live interviews nearby stepped away from his crew for a moment and said, “I couldn’t not give you one.” He didn’t interview me or anything. He just got his hug then rejoined his crew as they moved onto another area of the rally.

I hugged a Cylon (Toasters United Against Teabaggers), a male butterfly, a rodeo cowboy, Cookie Monster, and Bert. Bert informed me that he had just proposed to his now-fiance (who I also hugged) and that they were going to the courthouse Monday morning to get married. After I congratulated them, he told me she likes it when he wears the Bert suit, which she confirmed. I told her I agreed that he looked good in it. I then suggested that she’s into furries, which she also confirmed. (I later spotted them walking hand-in-hand without his Bert-head, and he looked pretty good without it too.)

I hugged Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Christians, and probably more. Several Christians (and only Christians) felt the need to disclose their religion when hugging a “militant atheist” such as myself. One gentleman informed me he was a Christian missionary but he still loved me; I told him I loved him back. Several wished blessings upon me. Toward the end of the day, a woman started talking to me all about her integrated church and how it’s great to have so many different perspectives there. She then told me she’d pray for me and I politely invited her to visit my blog and read about why I prefer people not pray for me. I was shocked and impressed when she then volunteered, “Well, I suppose prayer is more for ourselves than for anybody else.” I smiled and nodded.

Of course, there were plenty of atheists. Some were just as visible about it, but for many, it was a dirty little secret they whispered in my ear as we hugged. Clearly, the message of sanity resonated a lot with the free-thinking community, and I was really delighted to see so many proud nonbelievers. I also relished the chance to visit with them afterward at a gathering Hemant Mehta organized. While I didn’t get to talk to too many people there, I really appreciated the connections I did make and the feeling of being in such rational company.

One hug from the day will stick out in my mind for the rest of my life. The woman informed me that her son, now deceased, had been both gay and atheist, and it meant so much to her that I was there. We exchanged no other words, but no more needed said. A tear formed in her eye as she hugged me with all the love she clearly has for her son.

Giving free hugs is not an original idea, and I won’t pretend that there’s anything special about my own effort to give hugs. It was also an exhausting day, and I was so tired I didn’t go out or touch base with any of my other friends who were in town. Nonetheless, it was one of the most amazing days of my life. There is a lot that we all disagree on, but hugs bridge all gaps. Love bridges all gaps. No day might ever compare to the one I just had, but I look forward to the love we can all share in days to come.

If you asked me for a hug, thanks. It meant as much to me as I hope it did to you. If you didn’t get one, there’s always one waiting… and as many more as you need.

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