“Hugging the cactus”

I came across this phrase in a video of Robert Downey Jr receiving the American Cinematheque Award  in 2011. Downey Jr had requested Mel Gibson present the award and went on to, well:

This page has a transcript:

When I couldn’t get sober, he told me not to give up hope, and he urged me to find my faith. It didn’t have to be his faith or anyone else’s, as long as it was rooted in forgiveness.

And I couldn’t get hired, so he cast me as the lead in a movie that was actually developed for him. He kept a roof over my head, and he kept food on the table. And most importantly, he said if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoings and if I embraced that part of my soul that was ugly — “hugging the cactus,” he calls it — he said that if I “hugged the cactus” long enough, I’d become a man of some humility and that my life would take on a new meaning.And I did, and it worked. All he asked in return was that someday I help the next guy in some small way. It’s reasonable to assume that at the time he didn’t imagine that the next guy would be him or that someday was tonight.So, anyway, on this special occasion …

I humbly ask that you join me — unless you are completely without sin, in which case you picked the wrong fucking industry — in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have me, and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame.

He’s hugged the cactus long enough!

I found this rather more heartfelt and touching than the usual awards ceremony sentimentality. And this world needs a lot of more of let-he-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone so Downey Jr’s rather profane formulation is welcome.

The phrase “hugging the cactus” stuck with me. I presumed it was some kind of phrase from a twelve step style programme or somesuch. However, an internet search doesn’t turn up that much. It pops up, for instance, here as an idiom for something not that pleasant:

“Parenting teens is like hugging a cactus. Even as the ‘warm fuzzies’ are not often reciprocated, teens still need them, still need to know they are loved unconditionally. Don’t miss the opportunity to say or show love, warmth and affection toward even your most prickly teen.”

The main online use of the term I found is this blog by a lady with Type 1 Diabetes:

My diabetes journey began on Christmas Eve in 1997. That day, I became the third person diagnosed with type one diabetes in my family. I was four years old at the time, so I’ve lived most of my life with diabetes. While some people may view this as sad, I’ve learned to embrace my chronic condition and live my life without limitations. You might say that I’ve taught myself to hug the cactus, so to speak.

It is an interesting idiom. Perhaps Mel Gibson did indeed invent it. Is there anything he cannot do?

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