I’m usually a hardass. But I find myself feeling a lot more generous right now.
Yesterday, I went shopping at Whole Foods. It was the day after Trump’s address, after the WHO had declared a pandemic, after the stock crash, the emergency declarations, the NBA shut down. The local schools and library were announcing that they’d be closed. It was 2 in the afternoon. And it was a lot more crowded than it usually would be on a Thursday afternoon.
I usually do the food shopping with my wife, and we are the most efficient team ever. We work from a Google Sheets shopping list that she diligently creates, we split up and get everything in two carts, and our checkout routine is a ballet of expert bagging and loyalty apps. But she was feeling under the weather so she left it to me, on my own with a list three times usual. It seemed like we might not be able to shop again any time soon.
There were a lot of empty spaces on the shelves, so I knew my job was going to be difficult. But a funny thing happened that day. People were really nice to each other.
As I reached the nearly empty pasta and tomato sauce aisle, a worker on a ladder was shelving the few remaining packages. “What happened to all the pasta?” I asked. “I knew you were coming so I hid them all in my basement,” she replied. We smiled at each other, and she pointed me to what I was looking for.
Tall shoppers were reaching up and getting things down for little old ladies. Another woman and I reached for the last two packages of English muffins. “Are these any good?” she asked me. “I like them, but my wife hates them,” I told her. “More for us, then,” she said as she walked off.
People were in each others’ way. The employees working the shelves blocked us, and we blocked them. There were a lot of gig workers filling carts for people at home, and more toilet paper in shopping carts than on the shelves. But there was a lot of generosity on display, a lot of “after you”s and “I’m sorry you had to wait behind me”s.
It gave me hope that America may still be able to hang together — that we, as people, can rise above the divisions and inflammations that have destroyed what had made us, us.
What I’m doing
That grueling shopping trip was a way of getting together what my family needed. I’m picking up my daughter from the university today; she’ll be back living with us until the fall, doing her college work remotely. My son was just about ready to enter the job market; the economy is going to make that difficult. We’re all going to be together for a while, four contentious adults, and that’s going to be a challenge, but I’d rather go through this together than separately.
I have a lot of neighbors. I’m emailing and texting them and offering to help in whatever ways I can. That includes the woman with three small sons and a husband who’s a radiology resident in the hospital — I’m betting she could use a hand. It includes the guy across my backyard who helped me clear up a downed tree a few years back. And it even includes the single, older woman whose real estate agent annoyingly hovered a drone outside my bedroom window, the one who was so incensed by my proposal for sharing expenses to solve a shared problem that she said she didn’t want to hear from me again. She might need help. All that other crap no longer matters.
I’m contacting my clients and subcontractors. The guy who’s a college professor might need a little extra time to figure out how to teach classes remotely — I’m happy to wait for his next draft until he can spend time on it. My copy editor, whose kids are usually at day care, will now have them at home — she’ll need a deadline extension, which I’ll gladly provide. As for the event I’m speaking at that hasn’t yet decided if it’s going to cancel or go virtual, I won’t bug ’em, they’ll figure it out.
The public speakers group I’m part of is seeing cancellations spread like . . . well, let’s avoid the obvious metaphor. Those people are in pain, but they’re supporting each other. The group’s leader has us organizing seminars on how to deliver value virtually. I’ll pitch in with a talk on virtual workshops.
My parents have rejected my offer to come help them out. They’re in the at-risk group and don’t want any visitors. But I worry about them going stir crazy. I’m going to introduce them to Zoom, so my brother, my sister, and I can connect with them by video. We’ll have a little party. We won’t let this isolate us, even if we’re scattered across the country.
Why am I telling you this? I’m not trying to impress anybody. These things are small and human and not worthy of praise. I don’t want your thanks or your disdain or your sympathy. Don’t think of me. Think of the people you interact with.
We’re all in this together, even if we’re not allowed to be within three feet of each other.
I care about you. Who do you care about? Could you help them out in some small way? Pick up the phone, text, email, WhatsApp, FaceTime — figure out a way that you can help, and do something small for people you interact with. It won’t just make them feel better. It will make you feel better.
We may as well be nice to each other in these difficult times. And maybe we’ll remember that we’re all human again when it all goes back to normal.