My grateful COVID-19 moment – and I assure you, there is such a thing – came a few weeks into the pandemic when most of us were still trying to wrap our heads around the Orwellian state we were now living in.
I woke up one morning and realized I needed a few things for breakfast, basics such as bread, cream for coffee and some fruit. Normally no big deal, but with the virus taking hold, outside excursions had become mini-expeditions fraught with unknowns.
I waited 45 minutes in a line that snaked around a downtown Toronto grocery store. Another 20 doing circles as I navigated the arrows, and another 15 in the checkout line. I made it to the cashier only to realize I had forgotten my wallet.
Then a young woman standing behind me did the most remarkable thing. She told the clerk to put my groceries – $38.78 worth – on her bill. Her name was Dawn, she worked nearby, and no, she absolutely would not accept an e-transfer or a mailed cheque. “Just do something nice for someone else,” she said.
That selfless gesture has stayed with me. It has picked me up when I’ve felt down, put a smile on my face and given me hope. It also made me realize that kindness can connect us in truly powerful ways.
The pandemic has forced us apart, but it’s also motivated us to pull together. People across Canada have helped elderly neighbours, donated meals and rallied behind small businesses. While 2020 has been an annus horribilis in so many ways, we’ve also been reminded of the potency of kindness – its ability to heal and inspire.
The million-dollar question, of course, is whether we’ll remember this when we come out the other side.
Heather Down, co-author of Not Cancelled: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19, says challenges can bring out the worst in people but can also unite them.
“Personally, I had to focus on the kindness to get me through the last 10 months,” says Down, who compiled dozens of stories of Canadians who saw the virus as an opportunity to become the best version of themselves. “If something good comes out of this pandemic, I hope it’s that sense of community, that sense of connection, of contributing to the well-being of your neighbour. I hope that we are rewiring ourselves to be kind, even after this craziness ends.”
Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale, is hopeful, too. “The research suggests that kindness is our natural state,” she says. Santos teaches a course called the Science of Well-Being, the most popular curriculum in the college’s 300-year history – it has three million participants, three-quarters of whom have signed up online since March.
The pandemic, Santos says, has slowed us down and, for many, motivated us to flex our compassion muscle.
Take Chris Stanley, a 38-year-old father of two young children in Kelowna, B.C., who spent a weekend last spring building a lemonade stand for two girls who had theirs removed from their front yard. “The girls had picked some lilacs and left them on their table for other moms on Mother’s Day, with a sign that said, ‘Free.’ They came home to find everything gone. That broke my heart.”
So he, his four-year-old son, a friend and his wife made them a new one. “I really think it was a good thing for my son to be part of the process, to learn early that helping others is just part of who we are – or should be,” says Stanley, an occupational safety officer and part-time carpenter. “I guess I’ve always had it in me to want to do kind things for other people. It’s partly selfish. I get such an incredible high.”
There is a name for this burst of goodwill, it’s called the “helper’s high.” And according to research from Emory University, when you are kind to another person your brain’s pleasure and reward centres light up as if you were the recipient of the good deed.
Even better, kind acts are contagious. Although there is no hard data to corroborate a huge jump in kindness around the world, anecdotal evidence, at least in Canada, suggests we are on track for a stellar year.
In Toronto, community fridges have popped up. In Saskatchewan, a local Holiday Inn provided showers, coffee and hot meals to long-haul truckers. In Calgary, a group of students started a 1-800 joke line for seniors. And in Paradise, N.L., a local dad dressed up in a Spiderman suit and paid visits to hundreds of youngsters, buoying their spirits, after schools closed. “We could have filled our book with three times the number of examples,” Down says.
All that is heartening, but still there are some experts who fear once the vaccine kicks in, this new-found benevolence will fade.
“We know from history that challenging, difficult times can prompt people to review their lives and find more meaning and purpose – and being kind to others is part of that,” science writer and author Marta Zaraska says. “But we also know empathy has been on the decline, due to any number of factors including our addiction to electronics and looking at screens.
“We’re not looking into each other’s eyes,” says Zaraska, author of Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100. “You practise empathy by talking and looking at people, by trying to understand people. We have so many good health habits. We drink eight glasses of water a day. Do 20 push-ups before bed. Eat goji berries and dark greens. But we often overlook the ‘soft drivers’ of health and vitality – kindness, relationships, optimism and community.”
The test will be to see if the goodness and grace that so many people exhibited during the pandemic will carry forward. Says Zaraska: “I’m an optimist and I’m hopeful, and I’ve changed a lot about my own life. I invest more time in my marriage. I stop to chat to neighbours. I try to be kinder. I can tell you, no amount of spinach has ever made me feel this good.”
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