By SEAN DIETRICH
I wish I could give you a hug right now. I really do. I’d reach through this screen and squeeze you so firmly that your eardrums would pop.
I would hold you for a long time, too. I would hug you for five, ten or thirty minutes. Long enough for everything to start getting a little weird. Then I’d hug you some more.
Because people need hugs. We need them in a biological way.
Oh, sure, you probably think you’re doing all right in a hugless world. You think you’re surviving just fine without all that sappy Oprah Winfrey business. You’re tough. You’re self-sufficient. You’re smart. You’re intelligent. You drink V8.
But you’re wrong, pal. You need hugs. You need someone to embrace you, for your own health, and you need it right this moment.
You see, when two people hug, their hearts are squished together, only separated by inches of bone, adipose and muscle. During a hug, the two cardiac pumps actually start beating together like two kettle drums making perfect music.
Sort of like two violinists, playing Strauss. Or like two clarinetists in junior-high, playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” simultaneously, but in two very different keys.
You probably know this already, but hugs release a chemical in the brain called oxytocin, which is what most neurologists refer to as the body’s “Woodstock” hormone.
Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel, quite literally, loved. It is the body’s own love drug.
When you give or get a hug, your body is flooded with oxytocin, your “love” hormone levels go through the stratosphere. Your blood pressure goes down, your immune system improves and your mammary glands begin producing more milk. Which is nothing short of a miracle, especially if you’re male.
In short, a hug can save a person’s life.
When I was a boy, at our church there was a volunteer program called the Baby Savers. The idea was simple. Anyone could sign up to cuddle and hug premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at the local hospital.
Church ladies did this because cuddling was medically proven to improve a preemie’s chance of survival. Physical touch stimulates a newborn’s immune system, circulatory system, central nervous system and all the other systems. Simply put, babies who are not touched will die.
Well, there was this man in our church who I am going to call Clyde. That wasn’t his real name, Clyde isn’t anyone’s real name. Clyde was a large Black man with cotton white hair and a quiet disposition. In fact, he rarely spoke. Clyde’s wife did all his talking for him.
His wife was wonderful. Everyone loved her. She was an outgoing, animated woman, with a powerful voice. She sang soprano in the choir and could belt out hymns loud enough to crack the glass above the baptismal.
When Clyde’s wife died, he almost died with her. The poor man was a wreck. He was stuck inside his house for almost a year. He lost his job, his gumption and he became famously depressed.
People from the church would stop by his home to deliver cheese-laden casseroles, enormous dinners, and spend time with him. But truthfully, nothing could bring Clyde out of his funk.
That’s when my aunt added Clyde’s name to the Baby Savers sign-up sheet.
My aunt tells the story better than I do, but she recalls watching this six-foot-nine man, with shoulders wider than a Buick Roadmaster, walk into the NICU and lift a premature baby in his herculean hands.
Clyde sat in a rocking chair and cradled infants until the night shift nurses had to send him home. He was back the next morning even though he wasn’t on the schedule. He hugged babies again the following day, too. And the day after that.
My aunt says one afternoon Clyde started crying when he was holding a preemie. He started heaving and quivering so badly they had to take the baby from his arms.
Then, all the little-old-lady volunteers surrounded Clyde and group-hugged him until they practically smothered him. My aunt said she had never seen a grown man cry that hard before. She also said that hugging babies is what eventually brought the old man back to life.
Years later, I saw that man in a grocery store. He was stocking the shelves when he recognized me. The first thing he did was come at me with his arms open. It was a colossal hug.
We held each other in the middle of the supermarket and I was lost in his embrace. Clyde slapped my back and I slapped his, as Christmas music played over the intercom.
And, even if only for a moment, I felt the profound weight of love. Real love. Biologically transforming love. The same love that made this universe. The same love that is saving this selfish and tired human race, even as we speak.
Then I came directly home and wrote this.