Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a 20th century martyr. He was killed for his involvement in a conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. Prior to his death, he was in Nazi custody for more than two years. Bonhoeffer was a pastor but served most actively as a teacher before his arrest. He spent a majority of that time at Tegel prison in central Berlin. Not far away was the home where he spent much of his youth and where his parents still lived.
While confined in Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer, alongside his fellow prisoners and the general population of Berlin, had to withstand the fear engendered by the sound of air-raid sirens followed by intense bombings of the city by the Allies. After one of these dreadful events, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents reflecting on the emotional experience of having to endure the bombing while also being concerned about their wellbeing.
While Bonhoeffer’s experience is not directly correlated to our ongoing endurance of a worldwide pandemic, it’s his separation from loved ones that is significant for our consideration. He writes in a portion of that letter to his parents,
“It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people’s, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The ‘as though it were a part of me’ is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence.”
(Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)
In our present circumstance, it’s widely reported that people are experiencing “Zoom fatigue” while we’re all quarantined and “working from home.” Connecting to one another and enduring “meetings” via the myriad assortment of video-conferencing apps is, while helpful, also incredibly exhausting.
To be sure, we certainly have a better situation than someone like Bonhoeffer, who was confined away from his family and close friends, with virtually no access other than letter writing. He was eventually able to see his fiancé, but never often, and only for moments at a time while under incredibly strict supervision. Yet, in our time of social/physical distancing, we are all getting a very real glimpse at why solitary confinement is such an awful kind of punishment.
Perhaps you’re not that isolated (neither am I). But if you’re feeling exhausted and lonelier than you think you should (after all the Zoom meetings and FaceTime chats), you’re not alone.
Perhaps one way of describing why we’re feeling so exhausted is that we are having to tolerate the absence of one another’s presence. Or, to put it another way, we experience the presence of their absence—their physical absence which creates a distance that we cannot unfeel. However helpful FaceTime and Zoom and emails and phone calls are, what we really want is the presence of our friends, family, and coworkers.
We’re becoming somewhat desperate to gather again, to commune (the basis of community), even to touch one another. Perhaps this is because we’re made for this kind of human relationship. The digital and the virtual serve a purpose, but they leave us feeling vastly incomplete, even in a way, empty. We need embodied contact with others. It meets our basic needs and contributes to our good health (conversely, loneliness is detrimental). If these natural outcomes tell us anything, they tell us that at the very core of our being, deep in our human nature, profound and intimate contact with other people is critical to our existence.
About two years ago my family was sitting in church. It came time for the children’s message delivered by the minister. A picture came up that showed Jesus hugging a little child. It was similar to what you can see here. We had seen this picture before, but this time my daughter said to me, “Daddy, I want a hug from Jesus.” Now, I’m a trained theologian, and even have a degree in philosophy, yet I wasn’t immediately sure how to answer my daughter. But I gave it shot.
I told her that her desire for a hug from Jesus is something that everyone gathered with us wants. Every Christian wants a hug from Jesus. It would be an amazing thing. But I went further and tried to tell her something rather complicated from a theological perspective. I wasn’t sure if it would work. I told her that whenever she wanted a hug from Jesus, all she had to do was ask for a hug from another Christian. Thinking like a theologian, I had in mind something St. Paul said in one of his letters, found in the Bible. He wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but [Jesus] Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20).
Paul was thinking about the fact that followers of Jesus come to do the things that Jesus does. And if anything, Jesus loved people. And he did so unconditionally. So who wouldn’t want a hug from Jesus? Especially if it would be that kind of hug—one where you knew that no matter who you were, what deep dark secrets you kept, or whatever terrible thing about yourself that you worried would cause rejection of something found out—Jesus would hug you authentically and with unconditional love in spite of it all. The same often seems to work for children—people are often freely willing to give them hugs and express care and compassion to them unconditionally.
Right now, I think we could all use a good hug. Probably more than one. I long for the day of many hugs, when we’re finally released from this captivity.
To want a hug from another person is nothing more than to acknowledge our interconnectedness and our interdependence. We need each other and we cannot survive without one another. The embrace of a hug offers us the experience of being seen, recognized as worthy of such an embrace. The gifts of a hug from those we love offer glimpses of the embrace of God’s love. It’s not uncommon to imagine that such connections with the divine love of God come through extraordinary means. Nevertheless, God has chosen other ways to show love to us. Rather than expecting some miraculous, extraordinary experience, the love of God comes to us through the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday.
The embrace of a loved one or close friend is also and always a glimpse and experience of the love of God for you. You can be certain of this because God created us for human connection and community. And because he chose to use other humans to show us such love. I know of no other way for us to feel completely and totally loved, affirmed and accepted than through the continued love of those closest to us. Through them, we have a mysterious window into God’s unfathomable love for us.
Maybe that’s why we miss each other so deeply in this time of separation. We weren’t made for this sort of experience. We were made for flesh-and-blood community with one another. We were made not for the absence of presence, not the presence of the absence of people we love, but for the richness and fullness of life that comes from the physical proximity and more often the touch of an embrace of our closest friends and loved ones.
If you’re missing hugs these days (like I am), we wait together in hope. The sweet embrace of a hug from my friends and distant family is something I anxiously anticipate.