In the beginning…
It started at a large overnight music festival in September of 2015. On the Saturday night of the festival, I spontaneously had the impulse to walk up to perfect strangers and ask for hugs.
I don’t recall the initial spark, nor do I recall the first person that I approached. I do vividly recall that I did this with the sincere intention to help heal the world.
This evening’s adventure had been inspired by many powerful visions that have taken place over the previous two years — visions of a new and beautiful world in which we all come together, and embrace each other as one human family — one Earth tribe.
Paintbrush Warrior by Mark Henson – markhensonart.com/politics
On this night, I only approached guys as I strongly felt in the moment that it was our brothers that needed to open their hearts in order for this planet to heal (I’ve since expanded my vision to be more inclusive). I hugged many women too, but only when they initiated. I did this for over eight hours, without break. I had no sign, and no Awesome Cards; however, I was carrying a prop.
When an evening drizzle came to an end, I became the custodian of a glowy black umbrella after one of my campmates got tired of carrying it around. This festive umbrella became a totem of sorts. Once I starting hugging, I didn’t lower it, even for a moment. I still don’t know to this day how my shoulders had the endurance.
I walked around all evening, umbrella-totem held high, attempting to hug a certain type of persona. I would hug any brother in my surroundings, but specifically kept an eye out for the one with the hardest looking shell — the muscled-up guy, the “cool” guy, the one covered in tattoos, the tough looking one, the security guard — all ethnicities, shapes and sizes. My standard line was “Hey Brother, can I get a hug?”
On first try, about half of those I approached granted my request, and the other half turned me down. To my surprise, in over eight hours, I didn’t get a single overly harsh response. For those that initially hugged me on the first attempt, I thanked them and gave them a little talk which included recommending that they walk up to someone in the festival that they fear, and ask for a hug. And if they didn’t fear anyone, I recommended that they walk up to someone that they wouldn’t be so inclined to hug on the street — someone whom they may judge or dislike based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other physical characteristics, and ask them for a hug. I then explained that if they did this, it would open up their heart and then it would begin to spread. I used slightly different language depending on the situation. Strangely, it felt as though I wasn’t the one making the talking happen as I had never spoken in this way before. In one sense, I felt like I was a passenger along for the ride, yet in another sense, I was doing the driving — with more focus, power, intensity and certainty than I’d ever witnessed in myself.
For those that initially declined my embrace, I would say, “Okay, but I have a small request.” Most would respond with, “What’s that?” I respectfully attempted to explain to them why I was doing this, giving them a similar talk as I had given to the others. To my amazement, over 90% of those that initially turned me down gave me a good
hug after the talk. Most appeared to be inspired and grateful for the message. It is my guess that the great majority of them did not walk up to a stranger and spread the hug as I had recommended. Nonetheless, I felt like I made some real progress that night in opening many hearts. I didn’t keep count, but it felt like I had embraced at least a couple hundred people.
Something unexpected happened to me that evening. My intention for hugging others was not for my own benefit. But each and every time my request for a hug was granted, especially from guys that seemed closed off or had a tougher persona, my own heart opened more and more, and whatever fears that I harbored became less and less. I certainly did not expect this to have such a profound impact on me. Each hug that I received was a gift. I felt a deep sense of brotherly love. This is probably what fueled me to go nonstop for eight hours.
When I awoke mid-morning Sunday, I began to think about the previous night’s events. While enjoying the festival during the day, as the hours passed, I was contemplating whether or not to continue on with the mission. I didn’t want to force it, and I wasn’t feeling any significant inspirational charge at the time.
Very late in the afternoon, I was hanging out at my campsite with some of my festival friends. At one point, way off in the distance, I spot Joshua, walking — practically skipping — toward our camp. His head was held high, eyes grinning, and proudly holding a large sign, affixed to a long foam post. The sign simply read “Need Hugs.” He had made that sign for me. I accepted. This was the inspiration and the “sign” that I needed.
On that Sunday eve, the night of a rare Supermoon lunar eclipse (unfortunately covered over by clouds), and the last day of the festival, I hugged more. But this time I took a more laid-back approach. I simply held up the sign. All night, from all angles, people approached to give me an embrace. Most people would come up to me because they thought I needed a hug. And some would approach because they thought I was offering. Either motivation was okay with me. I was surprised by the overwhelming level of response. It felt amazing.
A seed had been sewn.
For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt my own power and fully stepped into it in a profound way. I felt my own power to make an impact, to make a difference, to play my part –- to become the one that I had been waiting for.
As the days and weeks passed, I would continue to reflect back on that magical weekend. I felt the power of ONE BIG HUG with a perfect stranger — hundreds of times over. I continued to dream and dream and dream awake…What IF…What If every man alive hugged another brother. What if he hugged a stranger that he feared? What if he hugged a stranger whom he disliked or “prejudged”? What IF? What might be? I wanted others to experience what I had experienced — to receive the same gift that I had received.
I wondered how well hugging strangers would fare out in the “real” world, outside of a friendly festival environment, in broad daylight. How would I be received in a community park, in front of a sports stadium, at a political rally, at a protest, or on the corner of a busy metropolitan street?
In the beginning of spring, as the Dogwood flowers were blooming, it was time for the seed that I had planted last fall to also bloom and find out the answers to those questions.
But why had it taken me over six months to give this a try? Vulnerability, doubt and fear — fear of looking silly, fear of being laughed at, fear of humiliation, fear of not being enough, and fear of all of the unknowns.
On a beautiful crisp Sunday afternoon in April, at a mainstream art fair in Atlanta, I held a hand-written “Need Hugs” sign. I also had amateurish-looking “Thank You for Being Awesome” cards printed at the last minute off my computer. With my buddy Phil as my photo journalist and supporter, feeling a little self conscious, I leaned into fear.
I approached a stranger and said “Hey Brother, can I get a hug?” My heart opened, my nerves calmed and my fears were reduced.
As I write this story, it is now November of 2016. Over six more months have passed. I have hugged thousands of people. My heart continues to open and there doesn’t appear to exist an upper limit.
I will now dance with a little more fear as I bring this forward to the world.
I would be honored if you decide to dance beside me.