There is a story told by Henri Nouwen that I want to share here because I think it communicates a lot of what I believe happens in Snuggle Therapy as I practice it. But first a bit about Henri Nouwen.
Henri was a well respected scholar and author who taught at top American Universities — Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. However, he became increasingly discontent with the academic environment and felt he needed to make some serious life changes. After going to spend some time in Peru living with people experiencing poverty there, he ended up moving into the L’Arche Daybreak community just north of Toronto and that is where he ended up living out his life. The L’Arche communities, by the way, were communities founded by Jean Vanier where more able-bodied or able-minded people lived in community with people who were differently-abled or disabled. It was in this community of people — where all of his academic credentials counted as nothing and where no one had read (or cared about) any of his books — that Henri began to truly understand the truth of his own belovedness. He has written about this quite a lot in books that were very formative in my own development. His writings helped me to give language to my own experiences as I transitioned from being a child who was overwhelmed by fear, self doubt, shame, and self-loathing, to being a young man who felt assured of his own belovedness. The story I want to tell now is from his book, Life of the Beloved.
While living at L’Arche, Henri served as a priest within the community. One day, a woman named Janet from the community asked him for a blessing. Without thinking much, Henri made the sign of the cross over her and said a few spiritual words. But Janet protested quite vocally:
No, that doesn’t work. I want a real blessing!
So Henri apologized and promised her a real blessing after the service.
When the service ended, Henri announced that Janet wanted a special blessing. As he made this announcement, Janet rose, walked towards him, and embraced him. What did Henri do? He hugged her back and as he hugged her, her told her she was special, and loved, and beautiful, and a gift to the others around her. It was a wonderful moment. And the others present realized something special was, in fact, happening. After Janet was done with her blessing, another person in the group put up her hand and said:
I want a blessing, too.
Before long, most everyone — including a 24 year old student who was assisting Henri with the service — had come forward to share a hug and some tender words with Henri. Many responding with words of thanks and tears in their eyes.
I think this story helps us to see the power of platonic, affectionate touch. All too often, words are weak and do not accomplish what we want them to do. People can tell us that we are lovely, people can tell us that we are special, they can speak words of blessing over us, but unless they show us, unless we experience our belovedness with our bodies, we have trouble connecting with those words or experiencing them in a meaningful way. What Henri said to Janet connected with her as a special blessing because he held her while he said it. This fits with the message I have heard over and over again in my career working with folks from marginalized populations — don’t just say you care about us; show us, in tangible ways that matter to us, that you care about us (after all, love is an action not just a word or a feeling!). Over the years, I learned many ways to show people their loveliness, but I remain convinced that few things communicate this so powerfully, especially to those struggling with loneliness, as a hug or a snuggle.
It is precisely this experience of being held (while we are affirmed as lovely and so forth) that so many of us are missing. Perhaps we have people in our lives we tell us we matter or that we are special or loved or gifted — perhaps a parent, or boss, or mentor, or counselor says these things to us — or perhaps we have no one, but these words come to us from a distance and so they don’t manage to put down roots in us. However, when we experience this message in the way our bodies are held and cuddled and hugged and comforted, then the words do begin to make sense and impact the ways in which we understand ourselves. In other words, what we want aren’t just platitudes and ritualistic comforting words, what we all want is a real blessing. We can be that real blessing for one another.