Okay hands up – who went into last week with a ridiculous sense of almost childlike excitement that we could see our friends and family again? At a distance of course. But sitting in gardens with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, we could actually see their faces again – real live faces and not distorted in some hideous Zoomed freeze frame that had you desperately hoping the wind wouldn’t change. And who cared that the weather had turned to an arctic chill that blew through us as we sat outside savouring what actually felt rather like being let out on day release – it was sheer joy.
After that slightly awkward first moment where none of us seem quite sure how to greet each other now (for some reason I chose a wildly exaggerated wave while simultaneously proffering my elbow with the other arm for a joint tap – what was that about?!) we could sit down and just enjoy each other’s company. It felt almost like normal again. But only almost – because after a while, as conversation flowed and we were laughing at those things absolutely no one else would find amusing, all I really wanted to do was to hug them. Being so close had actually never felt further away.
Ask anyone, one of the things we’ve all missed most in this whole lockdown apocalypse has been the absence of any physical contact with people other than those we’ve locked down with. Friends and colleagues, parents and grandparents – who’d have thought that we could miss something as simple as a plain old hug. And not just a hug. Shaking hands, a peck on the cheek (bet those air kisses are going to be a thing of the past when this is over), tapping an arm to make our point, ruffling someone’s hair, even just peering in someone’s eye for that rogue eyelash they insist is at large and that you know you’re never going to find. Frankly I’d give anything to do that now! I don’t think we ever took on board just how much these incidental displays of physical contact meant to us.
Science tells us that hugging someone – even just a simple touch – carries with it huge mental and physical health benefits. It reduces stress and eases anxiety, lowers blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, boosts the immune system and releases oxytocin – a happy brain chemical. Small wonder it seems to come so naturally to us, as if our bodies instinctively understand its healing powers. We do it automatically, without thinking or ever really noticing we do it – showing support, offering comfort, affirming love or just flinging bear-like arms around an old friend we haven’t seen in a very long time. There’s no doubt about it, seeing people again without being able to touch is going to be very hard.
This gradual easing of lockdown is beyond exhilarating. It feels a bit like being a child again, reaching a landmark birthday when you’re allowed to go to bed an hour later or walk to the shops on your own for the first time. Gradual steps to glorious freedom. Bit by bit things are opening up – some we question, others we can’t understand why they haven’t already – but all in an endeavour to get us to back so some semblance of normality. The new normal we talk about. What’s not going to change though – for a long time yet – is social distancing. Two metres apart, and even if they reduce it to one metre, for me that’s just going to make it even harder. Really close, but almost painfully so. And is that British reserve that didn’t seem to exist so much anymore going to rear its slightly aloof head again?
Once we are finally allowed to hug again, I wonder if we’ll do it with quite the same uninhibited and natural abandon we had before any of this began. Obviously with the people we know and love well perhaps not much will have changed, but what about those small gestures of social courtesy with people we don’t know quite so well or even know at all? Will we all be just that little bit more hesitant to shake hands or double kiss a stranger when we’re introduced for the first time? I think that an element of the fear this virus has created in us is going to linger on for a while yet. It’s still early days as the restrictions slowly start to lift, and we can’t know what the new normal is going to be like, but the one thing I do know as we begin to emerge on the other side of this is that I am never going to take a hug or a touch for granted ever again.