And I do, in a very literal sense mean holding hands, but I’m also talking about what the gesture means. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of “Hands Across America,” a national fundraiser in which six and a half million Americans across the country all held hands to raise awareness for our hungry and homeless.
Pretty amazing, especially when you consider that they had nary a Facebook page nor Twitter account to promote it.
Yet hold their hands they did and it’s all the more meaningful because of how much work it must have taken to arrange. Yes, they only held their hands together less than twenty minutes, but in that short time six and a half million Americans were one, connected physically.
They were all singing the same three songs, too, “We are the World,” “America the Beautiful” and “Hands Across America,” specifically in that order. It was probably hell to organize, but they made fifty million dollars that day. Which is over a hundred million in 2016, inflation adjusted and all for twenty minutes of what was basically “Kumbaya, My Lord” time.
In a lot of Middle Eastern countries I hear it’s customary to platonic ally hold hands with a friend. Most of my friends would probably rather immolate themselves than hold hands with me. You don’t see a lot of women friends holding hands, either.
You’ll see couples do it, but in a faintly possessive way that suggests a fear that, if contact breaks, the other might simply drift away. Is the gesture too intimate to be stomached except for in rare, extreme circumstances?
The last time I held hands with anybody I was at a funeral, a Quaker funeral, and everybody was doing it. The whole room had joined hands in a circle, heads bowed in a moment of silence and clammy, damp hands clasped together in a chain. It was a hot summer day in a meeting house that normally holds about forty people, not a hundred or so. We were sad, hot, wearing too many layers of black and locked in a silence most would define as “unbearable.”
We may not have been six and a half million strong, but in that room, that day, you could feel some kind of magic passing between two hundred or so sweaty palms.
It felt good. Not that Grammy Donovan had passed away, but to boost the emotional connection with a physical one. It sounds crazy, but you could feel a current of solidarity jumping from sweaty palm to sweaty palm. Like so many Quaker traditions, there is something equally charming and uneasy about its simplicity.
Lately, it seems like when somebody has a strong feeling it is their feeling. When somebody offers support to a cause, it is their support. Activists will communicate and assemble on occasion, but this is the intersection where ideals briefly pass by one another. Social media has created an interesting landscape where we are a more connected, and isolated, than ever before.
It’s easy to link together common goals with a hashtag, or facebook page or online petition, but it doesn’t go much further. If I were to ascribe a physical action to it, I would pick a game of pat-a-cake.
The hands are touching and paying close attention to one another, but without any extended connection. Because that extended connection is intimate, it requires an investment and, worst of all, can be very awkward when it’s unwanted.
So most of us don’t bother. We donate or volunteer alone, we post or views or new information alone and link it into the collective with a tag so that others, who probably completely agree, can read it alone and pass the message along. We really aren’t living up to our potential at all.
If they could get six and a half million people to completely, utterly unify all the way back in 1987, then what great obstacle is stopping us from blowing that number out of the water in 2016? We have larger numbers and the internet, people, the freaking internet. There’s really no excuse.
Now get out there, pick something to care about, then find somebody else who cares about it, too. Then, you hold their hand and don’t let go, even if your hand is really damp and gross.