Part of my passion and purpose in this lifetime is to embrace people, literally and figuratively, letting them know that they matter and that we are all connected regardless of the differences that separate us. I grew up in a touchy-feely family in which hugs were abundant so I was at ease out in the world hugging friends and those who might become so. It was when I heard about a young man in Australia who was living what I had envisioned that I was inspired to do the same thing. Juan Mann is the founder of the Free Hugs Campaign. which was founded in 2006. From his example, Hugmobsters Armed With Love was born eight years later.
When the opportunity arose to interview my ‘comrade in arms,” I was delighted to connect with him. In this time of physical distancing, we need hugs more than ever. I look forward to hugging him someday.
What was the pivotal moment when you decided to pick up a sign and open your arms to ‘strangers’?
I was 21, and life as I knew it had fallen apart. I’d pretty much lost everything and everyone I ever knew in the blink of an eye because I made a decision to stand by my values and morals than compromise them for comfort. I couldn’t bear the idea of living a lie. If I wasn’t going to be true to myself, how could anyone else ever trust me? I ended up in a garage in the Blue Mountains with pretty much no social contact at all. I was absolutely alone in the world, I had nothing to gain and nothing to lose. I felt like I was just a grain of sand on a vast beach. Lost. Somehow, an old friend found me and dragged me to a party. I was way out of my league. The more I saw people easily and happily enjoying each other’s company, the further and further I backed into a dark corner of the room. Suddenly this pair of arms slides around my back and a head rests against my chest and I feel them take a deep breath and sigh as they settle in. I hesitated for a second but my arms were already moving in to hug this stranger for a reason I couldn’t define until I was hugging this person. I felt like things were going to be alright. It wasn’t the answer but it was the thing I needed to start living again instead of counting how much nothing I had to lose. I let go and she stepped back, scanned my face with a plain expression, nodded, smiled, and walked away. Didn’t say a word.
But it worked. I started looking forward, thinking about the person I wanted to be, what my values and ethics were, what my virtues and strengths were, what my weaknesses and negative aspects were. Then I wrote a plan. Not of achievements or a career or goals, but a plan to work on myself, to be the best me I could be. I thought a life spent in pursuit of self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-actualisation would be a wonderful life.
The first thing I thought I would do, was to pay that hug forward somehow. I’m a 6 foot 4 inches long-haired 21-year-old hippy looking guy, I’m not just going to walk up to a complete stranger in public and hug them! That would not go down well. I figured I had to let people know I was willing to hug them if they wanted but struggled to think of how to do that either. It was creeping up to the middle of the year, I’d done some other random acts of kindness to get the ball rolling while I figured this hug thing out and then I thought, “Everything’s on sale… what if I had a sign that said Free Hugs?”
How did you feel as you took that monumental step?
To be blunt, I blacked out on the escalator leading up to the Pitt Street Mall and ran back down to the men’s room to splash water on my face and pull myself together. I dropped the sign without thinking and an elderly gentleman picked it up and handed it to me saying, “They’ve been waiting for you quite a while, you better get going, son.” The question of whether I had lost my sanity had firmly taken a seat in the back of my mind.
I remembered this little mantra I had at the time, “Don’t let fear hold you back.” I kept repeating it in my head and got out there with the biggest smile I could gather and… nothing. For 15 of the most awkward minutes since I first faked foreplay. Absolutely nothing. Nobody even blinked at me.
It now wasn’t just a question of if there was something wrong with me, I wondered if there was something wrong with the world. I then realised that question meant that I already had nothing to lose, clearly I’d thrown my sanity in for good measure. I was going to find a doctor. Then a lady stopped in front of me with tear rimmed eyes asked if I was serious and hugged me like we were closer than family. She told me there would always be someone like her who would need a Free Hug and made me promise to not stop. I gave her my word that I would keep offering Free Hugs until I was dead or I found someone better.
I’m a man of my word. I kept my promise. I only planned to offer Free Hugs for one hour. Then it was the next random act of kindness and the next and the next. One hour.
Were you surprised that it became a worldwide phenom?
Oh like you wouldn’t believe! There was a group of us that met every Thursday in the Pitt Street Mall and we all took turns in small groups, holding signs and hugging people, the rest of us, all different ages, races, genders, we’d sit and talk about what we’d learned from the people we hugged. We joked about living a hundred lives in a day as we all learned and shared and I hope we all took something useful from that. I was happy. I had a simple job washing dishes, I had a way to make my city a happier place and some wonderful people to share it with.
The world was an absolute shock to all of us. In hindsight, we knew better, I knew better. Tourists from all over the world visiting Sydney loved Free Hugs, why wouldn’t they love it at home?
The beautiful thing about it all has been seeing people take it and make it theirs. Nobody is telling anybody what to do, it’s all individuals, of their own accord. People embraced the idea as their own. It does say Free in it.
It’s great. It’s never been about me or a product or a philosophy or a grand plan. It’s just kindness for the sake of kindness, another tool for us all to use.
How has your life changed as a result?
That joke the Pitt Street Free Hugs crew had about living a hundred lives in a day. I have learned so much about this world and how people survive in it and for many, I do mean survive. I retired from active duty so to speak after 15 years. I gave my everything right up to the last minute before passing the baton on to Ken E. Nwadike Jr. of the Free Hugs Project. My health had taken a backseat and my body was not happy. Not dead but not going well. And I did find someone better. Ken is amazing. I’m inspired by him!
So I finally got to the end of that One Hour and return to a simpler life. Did I reach the idealised version of myself I’d written up and worked towards? No. Nobody is perfect. I’m human, I’ve made mistakes I never knew about, I’ve learned things I didn’t have to deal with for a decade. I’ve been frustrated by simple things and absolutely blown away by things that seem trivially mundane. I learned to forgive myself for my flaws and find the strengths in them. I’ve learned to forgive myself for mistakes. I’ve learned to leave things better than I found them. I learned that the “perfect” person doesn’t exist in the way we imagine them to be flawless, always correct, always right, always just, always fair, always impartial, always peaceful, and harmonious. The perfect me for me was about accepting I’m not always correct, right, just, fair, impartial, peaceful, harmonious, flawless. I aspire to uphold my values and live guided by my morals and utilise my virtues and strengths, but to accept the shit no one likes admitting they have in them. Anger, frustration, over analysing nothings and dwelling on them, vulnerability, hurt and the search to pinpoint the what and when things change so I can avoid that pain. That’s me too. The challenge isn’t trying to minimise, hide, or bottle it, it’s to tame it and use it for me, not against me. I’ve learned to be kind to myself and not beat myself up, like dwelling on how much of an idiot I am or the reason my best friends, ex-girlfriends surprisingly, don’t ask what name to call me, they all call me an asshole and rightfully so when I’m just dribbling crap and wasting their time which is incredibly valuable, as is every person’s time. This doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, I’m doing my best every day to be the best me that makes me happy and others too. I’m just not going to pretend I’m perfect and ignore the things that cause disharmony and unhappiness. It’s perfectly human. Every light casts a shadow, it’s ok. Don’t hate yourself for it, find the reasons why these things are in the shadow, use them to constructively bolster your happiness, don’t let them use you for your misery.
I’ve learned to keep an open eye, an open mind, and an open ear.
I’ve learned that there is love all over the world.
I’ve learned that when all else fails, there is always hope.
How many people do you estimate you have hugged over the years?
It doesn’t matter. I just hope I was enough for whoever hugged me. That matters.
Any particularly poignant or memorable moments?
15 years. So many memorable moments, people, events. Regardless of where on Earth I was, many common threads would weave throughout the world, even in spite of how completely contradictory places may seem to each other, the human experience is not something we have to endure the ups and downs alone. Many others have had similar journeys across the world and know how you feel. The most memorable moments? The ones when people would tell me they had made a choice to change their lives for the better. It’s not just the elation they had it was what they had done. They realised that life is theirs to make the choices.
In the face of COVID-19, the world has turned upside down, and what is necessary for wellbeing is now considered dangerous. How are you dealing with that temporary reality?
I’ve been retired for a year, I had to deal with the loss of contact half a year before it got worse. I’m very fortunate that I have two housemates that are closer than family. We’ve got each other. We’re all very appreciative of that. Love found me again and I’ve been so overwhelmingly amazed and in awe every day by her that even in the face of COVID, I asked her to marry me a half dozen times and she said yes a half dozen times back.
In the little world that circles around me, I am surrounded by hugs and loved ones. I’m the troublemaker!
Is there something you are doing as an alternative?
Learning, actually. If you’re at home and online, you’ve got a computer. Learn how to do something new with it. Now, to the bemusement of my beloved housemates, when any of us return home and their phone connects to the network, our chosen entrance theme song starts playing. We all watch way too much WWE.
How are you taking care of your own healthy touch needs?
Behind closed doors.
Are you, like many, myself included, going through hug withdrawals?
In a very different way. Free Hugs is something important to me and important to others. I spent so many years seeing the positive impact it had on the lives of people around the world and now it’s just not safe to be there for people in that way. Retired or not, I know how important a simple hug can be and seeing it become unavailable at a time when people need it the most, it doesn’t feel just like withdrawals, I feel like I failed to take an unknown variable into account and prepare for it. I feel like I’ve let someone down.
For those who live alone, what would you suggest for them in terms of experiencing human contact?
Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin. Find ways to increase those levels, basic neuroscience says those are the chemicals released in the brain on positive human contact. Or synthesize it and break bad?
In all reality, if you are reading this, you are online and so am I. You are not alone. Come have a chat with me, meet some more people from around the world who are going through exactly what you are going through.
If quarantine restrictions allow some movement and meeting people, first be kind to yourself and take safety precautions, establish a circle of trust and ensure these people are being kind to themselves and taking safety precautions too.
It’s really weird living in a world where we practically have to wear a body condom just to check the mail. I don’t like it. I take precautions. Keeps me safe, keeps my loved ones safe, keeps others safe whether I intended to or not.
Is Juan Mann your birth name or chosen name?
Do you have a message to share that may just make a difference for those reading this?
Take a look at the world right now. Take a look at the world around you, right now. Are you happy? Are you comfortable? Are you safe? Yes? Live that life hard! No? Take a look again. What have you got to lose? Life is all about making a choice and taking action. You can’t catch your dreams if you don’t chase them!
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Photos courtesy of Juan Mann