It was fitting this message was attached to the back of the camp vehicles. I believe Jack Eckerd, Eckerd Drug Store and EYA Founder, used these stickers to convince the world a hug is the best vehicle to reach a child's heart. Although EYA was home to kids facing many different challenges in their lives, Mr. Eckerd was sure a hug was the simplest yet most lasting solution to every child's struggle. And in all likelihood it prevented one or two.
Growing up my parents would have had every right to attach that bumper sticker to the back of our family cars. My mom and dad were big on hugging. I don't know that we ever walked out the door in the morning without a hug goodbye or went to bed without a hug goodnight. Reality probably says they skipped a few hugs, but I'm grateful today my memory swears I grew up inside the grasp of one giant hug. I'm even more grateful that, still today, as an overgrown 50 year old son, my mom and dad find a way to get their arms around me and greet me with a hug every time they see me.
I didn't know growing up how powerfully those hugs shaped my life. They literally squeezed and molded me into a person who felt loved, wanted, and secure. As a child I never considered those simple and seemingly routine hugs with much introspection. But those bumper stickers and witnessing the therapeutic role hugging played in changing the lives of teenagers that many people thought were unchangeable helped me understand - there is nothing simple or routine about a hug.
Someone once said "a hug is like a bandage to a hurting wound." At Eckerd I came to believe in the healing powers of a hug. Early in my career as a counselor I watched from the outside as one sad and insecure kid after another was sprung back to life inside the caring arms of their chief (all the camp counselors were referred to as chiefs). Then I began hugging kids myself. Sometimes two or three at a time. There is nothing in this world that compares to holding a kid, feeling their hurts stream through your arms and out into some peaceful nowhere, and then replacing them with the love of someone who is committed to seeing, at least for the few seconds inside the guarded arms of that embrace, that hurt has no way of getting back in.
A lot of research has been conducted on the healing power of hugs. Many therapies have been developed based on it. If you're interested in the science behind hugs I encourage you to google the "healing power of hugs". If you do you'll learn all about the cortisol and oxytocin hormones and how science says hugs work with these hormones to reduce our stress and make us overall healthier creatures.
I'm not an anti-science guy. I enjoy science. In many cases, though, for me science turns out to be a more detailed explanation or evidence of what I already knew. So many of the hurts we face in the world come from feelings that we don't belong, we're unloveable, and we're afraid we might stay that way our entire lives. Nothing disproves those feelings faster than a warm hug. If cortisol and oxytocin come into play, I find that interesting. But in the end a hug is really just a quiet way, and sometimes the most convincing way, to say I love you.
Here's what's even more beautiful about a hug. The same power it has to heal hurts can be even more powerful in preventing them. When I look back on the hugs that surrounded me growing up, I now recognize that with each one I gained a growing confidence that I was loved and safe. My parents were very young when they had me. They had to be clueless about what went into being good parents. But after spending years with young people who were growing up in homes without hugs, and seeing the pain they felt without them and the sudden joy that rushed through them when they finally got one, I am grateful my parents had one very important piece of parenting mastered. They could always say: we've hugged our kids today.
It saddens me to say that several years into my Eckerd career the bumper stickers went away. And so too did many of the hugs. It wasn't as much a philosophical change as it was a caving into the cultural pressures that were beginning to make hugging less acceptable, and in the business of working with youth - a liability. Those cultural pressures have only intensified the last 20 years. In my next post I will address them, and hopefully convince one or two of you to reverse the trend.