The Kindness Contagion Goes Viral

In spite of all the preapocalyptic terror, economic implosion, public health cataclysm and actual mass graves dug in New York — which, just … I mean … I am not sure what to even say besides yelling “fuck” for as loud and as long as I can into an empty, socially distant dystopic void — people are, still, impossibly good. Here, a small note on that.

One of my readers is a former UN humanitarian aid development coordinator. She spent the past five years of her life living and working in West Africa. I know this because while on a January trip to San Francisco, she asked me out for drinks. She’d just moved there a month prior. I obliged.

And so I meandered to meet someone I only vaguely knew, and for three hours we talked about the Bay Area and writing and politics and foreign policy and the hazards of dating when we are both constantly on the run, and we even wrecked two entire bowls of Shishito peppers.

We’d kept in touch ever since, and she’d send me these breathtaking photos she took of Mali and Pacifica and wherever she found herself, and then asked me how I was holding up in this COVID-19 pandemic. I said, “good, my life is basically the same, yet I’m not leaving the house until memorial day except to go the grocery store and the pharmacy because immunodeficient,” and she asked me for my address. I gave it to her.

Three days ago, she tells me to check my mail on Friday. I do. In it was an intricately patterned, vibrant blue and yellow and red mask, stitched by hand, and a sweet little handwritten haiku. She brought the woven fabric to the States from Niger, initially to make herself dresses and curtains, the way she says they did there.

My bespoke protective face-gear is one-of-a-kind, custom-fitted, beautiful and made me feel seen and supported in a way few things have. What do I always say? In dark times, be a light … And if you can’t be a light, be a mirror? She is that light. I’m writing this as a mirror.

I have absolutely zero idea what I did to deserve such a thoughtful, deeply moving gift, or such a thoughtful, deeply compassionate person. Her kindness amazes me, as does the kindness of so many people who aren’t directly involved in exacerbating this crisis (which, while a powerful minority, is still a minority nonetheless).

* * *

Americans are, I believe, good people. Men, women, straight folk, LGBT+ folk, white, black, East Asian, South Asian, Central Asian, Arab, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, middle class, working class, impoverished and so on. We get a bad rap internationally and even amongst ourselves, because our systems are unbalanced and staffed by sociopathic power hoarders, and because we dress really poorly and speak too loudly when we travel overseas, and because we have about 70,000,000 too many guns on our streets. That said, what we’re witnessing are two simultaneous acts of kindness, the likes of which humanity has never seen:

  1. A national (global, really) effort to torpedo our own economy at warp speed, put our hopes and dreams on hold, imprison ourselves in our own homes, and fracture our mental health for the sake of preventing the death of hundreds of thousands of people — 99.99% of whom we’d likely never met.
  2. A national movement to re-position ourselves not as individuals, but as guardians of our own communities and republic, pivoting to turn our skills and careers into volunteer or deeply discounted services aimed at lessening the suffering the pandemic leaves in its wake. Not since World War II (and even that might be dwarfed by comparison) have we seen this act of radical re-imagining of how to keep the dimmest of lights on in a society. You see it every time a restaurant offers curbside family-style meals, or when the supermarket gives hazard pay, or someone sews you in a mask.

* * *

Look, there’s no mistaking that this is pandemic is the bleakest, most viscerally heart-shattering, and most indeterminately precarious thing we’ve ever lived through. The republic, and the world order, is on a ventilator of it’s own right now. Death even on this scale (2,500 people per day) is a cataclysm. That there’s a wide disparity in racial affect, caused by 400+ years of anti-black systemic injustice (along with other, mildly less severe anti-[insert group here] bias) makes it all the worse. By the end of May, 30% of the workforce will be out of a job. Many businesses closed will never reopen. Oligarchs and kleptocrats and authoritarians are gleefully hoovering all the gains in power and wealth that we are losing while cooped up in fear and out of the interest of saving ourselves and each other.

Yet, within what I’m calling our Grand Pause — our Long Night — there are flickers of mobilization and light, hope and compassion, and the vast majority of us are playing some kind of role in this. Hell, even the House just introduced Universal Basic Income legislation into the floor. WTF?!

Cities and states, scientists and journalists, storefronts and supply chains are springing into action, trying to give the thing that’s giving us hell enough hell of our own to get this sucker out of our hoods, off of our minds, and pave a clearing for the real work to be done: radically overhauling our economy, our democracy, and our social contract.

The next few months, and, frankly, years, are going to be really, really tough. We may not make it all the way to the other side peacefully or even at all. But there’s enough of us … Even folks you may not agree with ideologically, who are proving their mettle and that their hearts are in the right place even if we don’t always agree on the means to give everybody a decent shot at a quality life of dignity, hope, truth, equality, freedom, health and happiness.

* * *

Maybe it’s a bit too rose-colored even for your liking. But if you take away anything, it’s this: you guys are doing a great job … almost as well as can be expected given these harrowing circumstances. It’s apocalyptic out there, and — stretched well beyond our sanity and breaking points, bearing witness to the shattering of almost every myth we’ve been spoon-fed by the great American gaslighting machine — our better angels are putting up a competitive fight against our darkest demons.

It looks hopeless. It feels like it’ll be forever. And, lord almighty, is this country being run by a tyrannical, solipsistic despot, but damned if the common-folk, the proletariat, the creative class, the dreamers, the activists, the salt of the earth aren’t acquitting themselves well. Tonight, as you hug your families or drink your second bottle of wine, or dig into your stash of Quarantine weed, take some time to think about you’re doing — what we’re all doing — and allow yourself to relax and maybe even crack a smile.

Yes, this is going spectacularly badly in nearly every way imaginable, but on the grassroots level — our level — it’s also going much better than any of us in the know could’ve ever imagined. The death toll, while high, projects to settle much lower than even the low end of initial estimates. Thank your friends, neighbors, families, businesses and local leaders making that possible. It is both their, and our, profound sense of duty, (mixed with a healthy dose of fear) that is getting us through, and gives me hope that we may one day find that more perfect union we set out to create when we drafted the ground rules of this republic all those centuries ago.

This pandemic is a blistering, scarring, haunting thing that will wreck us all in wildly disparate, unjust, unfair and surprising ways. Some more than others. Some will pay with their lives. Some of us will reemerge irrevocably ruined. Yet, there are fantastic people, ordinary people, doing extraordinary things out there, everywhere. Either find those people, or be those people. Or, you know … do both.

Previously published on


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Photo credit: Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash