It was the last day of the year and I was watching my children climb durian trees in leafy Parque da Jaqueira, capturing their primate adventures with my iPhone and listening to the songs of bem-te-vi, a native Brazilian bird of yellow and brown feathers. Suddenly the bird tunes were muffled by the noise of a crowd coming our way from behind the trees on the other side of the park and I immediately put the phone in my bag and turned to look for the nearest exit. But before I asked my children to jump down and run I noticed that the approaching mob were wearing white t-shirts and holding bunches of red roses. Phew. I sighed with relief and grabbed my phone again.
The fervent murmuring lowered as the crowd broke into smaller groups and went about offering passers-by a hug and a rose. Most of the militants marched through the parks’ gates and on to the streets to approach drivers at traffic lights. I saw many getting out of their cars to exchange a smile and a hug with a stranger who also spread the love through open windows in buses, to cyclists, street vendors, and anyone willing to engage in this intimate act. I saw people with tears in their eyes, overwhelmed by emotion. I heard an elderly man saying he had not been hugged in years. I asked one of the volunteers why they were doing that and was told that the group is on a mission to simply reach out to strangers, clasp them close and make them feel better about their day – no strings attached.
I was in the park for two hours and was hugged twice by the group and the gesture made me feel warm and fuzzy indeed. I had been spreading the Christmas/New Year smile for a couple of weeks, wishing everyone a happy new year but was feeling a bit discouraged by the number of people complaining that their year had been pretty average. I was surprised to find that people that I know personally was so discontent. These are not people stricken by personal tragedies like a life-threatening illness or loss of income. What they were complaining about was that they couldn’t afford a bigger home, a dream holiday, didn’t have much ‘me’ time, their kids didn’t perform that well at school, their careers are not taking them where they want to go… first world problems we all face.
One of my friends who had “an awful year” was about to board a plane for an overseas holiday and had recently changed jobs. But it wasn’t the job of her dreams. The problem for me is that we live in a time in history in which we have never afforded and achieved so much and our lives are so abundant that it’s unfair to say that the year was ruined if we didn’t tick all boxes in our accomplishments list. We have become so obsessed with success and perfection that we created the self-improvement movement (or maybe it was the other way around), which I think is partially responsible for the widespread discontentment in our society today. The standards of happiness have become so high that too many people are thinking they are falling short of society’s expectations.
We are told that we can achieve anything and if we don’t it’s because we are not trying hard enough or didn’t follow the morning routine of the world’s most successful people. It’s about the Self, of improving our individual lives, but how about the lives of our neighbours? We are becoming increasingly isolated. We are living digital lives and moving away from our families and friends. Even if we don’t physically relocate to other geographic locations, much of our personal contact is now reduced to electronic interaction. Every year I travel back to Brazil and it always surprises me when my friends that are so active interacting with each other on social media say that they haven’t seen each other in a year. I’m also guilty, I only have to look at Facebook to see how many of my great friends have now become digital acquaintances.
Seeing people hugging, smiling, offering roses to random strangers reminded me of the essential things in life that do not need to be bought with a credit card but we forget these things when we are obsessing about our selves. We can only live authentic and satisfying lives when we realise we are all in this together but together doesn’t have the same weight through the window of a smart phone. The simple gentleness of the human touch is worth thousands of likes.