An embrace is somewhat a paradoxical act; an embrace’s worth and meaning is beyond physical, although it’s a very physical gesture. We embrace in moments of triumph and elation, and we embrace in times of defeat and sorrow. It is when we are locked in an embrace that we are at our most vulnerable but at the same time it is when we can feel more secure. It can come from a loved one or a well-meaning stranger.
It is quintessential human behavior, as part of our repertoire of communication by physical contact. We feel the need for an assuring embrace as much as we feel the urge to give one to someone who needs it. Science has given us an answer of what happens when we hug but it gets more theoretical when answering the question of why we hug each other. It might have sprung from when a mother embraces her newborn child for the first time, the very first gesture of affection we all experienced as we came into this world.
Different cultures vary as to how they show or, indeed, permit the act of embrace. Filipinos, for example are more physically expressive in greeting an acquaintance compared with other groups, personal space notwithstanding. When in other cultures a simple handshake would be enough, a Filipino greeting would often include a handshake with a tap on either the forearm or on the shoulder, and then a pull in for an embrace with a tap on the back.
An embrace is one of the things we expect from our intimate partners; To openly express this need is to invite another person into one’s private space, letting go of every guard, in a way revealing one’s weakness if just for a moment. Likewise, the one who is on the giving end must understand that this privilege is not to be taken for granted. An embrace is a non-verbal affirmation of mutual trust.
The need for a physical connection can be so strong that we turn to symbolic articles in the absence of the focus of our intimacy. We settle for anything that the absentee has come in contact with and demand that it be as close to one’s body as possible. Personal effects are obvious choices, such as a favorite mug or a book, but they can also be an often-watched a movie, a certain coffee shop or a particular time of day. Back in the time when a telephone calls were not as accessible as it is today, people are separated by long distances, as in the case for parents who had to work overseas and their children, mailed letters which would take months to arrive should suffice.
The use of symbolic articles can also be extended to beings which our touch can never ever reach, our departed loved ones, our ancestor who has long passed, or even the divine. Among the catholic portion of the population, the religious “touch” the holy and the divine by proxy in the form of sacred imagery. The practice leaves its mark on the hallowed images as the collective caress of devotees over the years have practically erased the fingers and sometimes entire hands and feet off the statues. A type of embrace that physically alters its stand-in recipient.
With all the different forms an embrace can be expressed, there is still one more worth mentioning. It is easily overlooked because of the provider-receiver dynamics of an embrace that seem to imply that the act has to have at least two parties. The fact is that just as important as sharing an embrace with other people it is important for one to learn to embrace oneself. It might seem to be either pathetic or conceited when one thinks of literally embracing one’s body, but it is more than that. By definition, an embrace is an act of accepting something willingly or enthusiastically and so, in a manner of speaking, when one embraces oneself is also accepting one’ s faults and shortcomings. That is not to say that we wallow in the misery of the fact that we are inadequate but rather in accepting them we allow ourselves a chance to change and be better, and by doing so we become better providers of comfort to others when it is needed. This is where we return to the paradox of an embrace, that by embracing one’s self is to gain an ability to share an embrace with others.