Hope in a hug

2012-03-13 L’Osservatore Romano

It looks like the release of a modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Free Hugs Campaign was born some years ago in Australia and has now spread all over the world. It proposes to distributes random and free “acts of kindness”.

A video by Juan Mann — the campaign's creator — was made in a shopping mall in Sydney, at a particular moment of loneliness in his life and has been seen by more than 70,000 people. In the video, the vaguely hippie main character with an unkempt beard and long hair goes searching for affection from others. Holding a large sign that says “free hugs”, he is first met with wariness and the understandable fear that he is mad. But when a small old woman, intrigued by the unusual sign, moves forward and allows him to hug her, a contagious reaction ensues as bystanders began to mimic this; spontaneous acts, like laughter, are contagious. Overcoming the initial distrust, this almost randomly triggers a race for the most original hug.

The web phenomenon spread throughout the entire world: not only in the United States but also in Japan and Europe. One of these videos which was widely distributed was filmed in Sondrio. Even in this Lombard city, the same dynamic of interactions between strangers was observed, as was seen in the original film from a few years ago (despite being made on the other side of the world). The video begins with initial wariness, following with absorbing enthusiasm. This is because where there is a sincere need for help and only momentary prodding for human contact, unconditional solidarity for others seems to be set off.

The Free Hugs Campaign, born initially as a public request by a single person and addressed to an obscure crowd, has transformed into an impromptu and rare occasion of interaction and contact between strangers in public places. What emerges from this experience is that an indistinct group of people - like those which typically enliven shopping malls or airports where everyone is seemingly distant, seemingly wrapped up in their own personal sagas - holds inside an unexpressed desire of human involvement and contact with others but has not had the opportunity to be articulated. This is because our society is one which is highly guarded where out-in-the-open dramas are rare, where opportunities to do charity work are logically organized and are distant social niches, distinct from our everyday lives. Even beggars are not evenly spread throughout our cities but divide themselves almost with scientific method in the crucial crossroads.

Now an uncommon and unforeseen situation and a public space, so pessimistically and hastily judged as humanly sterile — Marc Augé defined these spaces with a neologism “non-place”, marked by mass consumption and the frenetic satisfaction of desires, as a place of transit where people meet without ever sparking a relationship — is enough to make public places beat again with humanity and brotherhood. Because no one, no matter how entangled in their own problems, is ever truly prisoner of their own narrow life view, but instead is always able to open themselves up. It is here where the unforeseen opportunity blooms in a symbolic gratuitous gesture of hope.

Cristian Martini Grimaldi