Column: Tender Times

Do you feel tears sting your eyes at the weirdest times? Say when the register guy at Trader Joe’s says, “You’re so energetic! Thanks for bagging!” A lump in your throat and yes, tears. Covid has left many of us emotionally volatile, tender as newborns. It’s an affliction, this pandemic, stretching now into its third year. Much has been written about our collective state: how we Americans are coping —or not. Incessant news coverage is rife with examples of how out of step we are with one another and how badly many of us are behaving. Can we ever make it better?

Remember those early days when we realized the virus was here and dangerous? In March of 2020, I attended a wedding in Florida. Few wore masks in the airport as we prepared to fly south, but by the time the long weekend was over, masks were popping up in crowds. Never had I washed my hands so often as that first, scary weekend. Once home, we began ordering our groceries for delivery, even washing the produce, cans and bottles. The virus, which might kill you, especially if you were old or had underlying health problems, consumed the news. I was attuned, ready to cooperate with health authorities and government in the fight against this frightening, invisible foe.

At first, wearing a face mask when you dared to venture out wasn’t recommended. In fact, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams advised, “Seriously people STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing (the) general public from catching coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Later that advice changed; officials acknowledged the benefits of face coverings, which prevented small droplets, possibly containing the virus, from spreading through coughs and sneezes, singing, talking, or just through breath. But the initial misinformation resulted in confusion and mistrust. The president himself stood against many CDC recommendations, seemingly because he sensed closing businesses and schools was bad for the economy. Clearly at odds with what Dr. Faucci at the National Institute of Health was saying, he gambled that it was better to downplay the situation by declaring that Covid cases were few and that it would soon disappear. It did not, and the rifts widened. Divided in our approach to fighting Covid-19, team America was off to a bad start.

But there was good news too, along the way. Operation Warp Speed, tasked with developing a vaccine, succeeded in record time, and highly effective inoculations were available by early 2021. Unfortunately, vaccines were viewed with suspicion by many Americans, resulting in the lowest vaccination rate and the highest death rates in any first-world county. The nearly 40% of us who are unvaccinated are often those who balk at wearing masks, and so are vilified by those of us who have complied with protocols. Blame and scorn are passed back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, on opposite sides of an ideological divide that has left us furious and frustrated through lockdowns and closures of schools; of public buildings, museums, theaters and businesses. Covid-19, its delta variant, and now omicron have so restricted us, that like captive zoo animals, we Americans are pacing back and forth in our personal cages, asking, how long will this go on?

With our patience used up—our resilience, our hope—many of us find ourselves in the delicate state of both needing compassion, yet prone to acting without it.

But no matter our degree of tenderness or self-destructiveness at any given moment, what if we could just reset our priorities by recognizing that we humans do need each other? That allowing ourselves to feel our common humanity is a good place to start addressing the rift that divides us? Acknowledging that we are all tender and we are all needy right now, we can work to make each other’s lives a little better, a little bit sweeter, in the, so far, bitter 20s.

I can start by reaching out to others with a note, a card, a text, a phone call. I can let my neighbors hear from me and give my friends extra support. And can we all find ways to help little kids or bigger kids? Because this pandemic has been so hard on our kids.

As I feel tears sting my eyes at the weirdest of times, like when someone waves for me to go first at a stop sign, I’m going to embrace the emotion. I’m going to give that driver a warm thumbs up because, at that moment she has made me love all humanity and allowed me to bathe in a warm moment of optimism.

Small acts of kindness that we spread far and wide, even across the daunting barriers that divide us, are what we can do now. Imagine: acts of kindness even more contagious and fast moving than omicron! With smiles that radiate beyond our masks; with hope when we can find it; we are the prayer for something better in these tender times.

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