A few weeks ago, a few weeks after the social distancing, my wife and I went for a walk on a dreary Friday morning with our dog Zoey. It had been a challenging week and my mood wasn’t particularly good. We went down the street to our car, which my wife wanted to take to work – a key employee in New York City who still has to go to work in person for a few days. She got into the car and drove off before suddenly dropping by and pointing to the former passenger mirror. It had been stolen. So almost every other passenger side mirror had in front of and behind us in a long line of cars. Thieves had taken advantage of the fact that people use their cars less when they stay at home. My wife drove away cautiously without a mirror, but I just sat down, stunned and overwhelmed. In the midst of all of this, opportunistic ugliness was evident. Not for the first time since COVID-19, I was unsuccessful against tears.
Now, as I write this a few weeks later, I remember another time when I sat overwhelmed on a street corner. On Saturday, July 6, 2013, I drove through central Kansas on a 97-mile trip from Dighton to Great Bend. The final leg of the trip seemed to be a 32 mile slog without service, as my navigation app told me over lunch at a diner in the Rush Center.
The ride was hot and I worked hard against the wind, sucking off water that was getting warmer by the minute. When I rolled into a small town called Albert halfway to my destination, I really wanted a cold drink, but it didn’t look like anything was open.
I sat on the porch in the shade and drank hot water from my dwindling supply. A pickup stopped next. The driver said, “I saw you looking around. Are you all right? Is there anything you need?”
Here I sat in the heat in Albert, Kansas.
“I was just hoping to get a cold drink,” I said. “Do you want some water? Pop?” he asked. “Sure,” I replied. And off we went. A few minutes later, he put down a bottle of water and a can of soda, both ice cold. I thanked him and asked if I could give him anything for it. “Just say a prayer for me,” he said, and just drove off.
About an hour and a half later, I barely made it to Great Bend, dazed from the heat to my last sip of water. Without the kindness of this Kansas stranger who knows what would have happened. I thanked you that evening with a soft prayer.
All these years later, amid the ugliness of the COVID 19 pandemic, I was reminded of that experience when I watched YouTube. I live in New York and since COVID-19 has hit my state hard, Governor Andrew Cuomo has given press conferences daily. I try to catch them most days, both because of the current statistics about the epidemic in my home state and because of the inspiring messages that he often marks in the end. On Friday April 24, after reporting the latest statistics, he shared a letter he had just received from a man named Dennis.
“I am a retired farmer who has settled in northeast Kansas with my wife. She has only one lung and occasionally has problems with her remaining lung,” read the governor. “We are now in the 70s and frankly I’m afraid for them. Enclosed you will find a lonely N95 mask that is left over from my agriculture. It was never used. If you could, would you give this mask to a nurse or doctor in your city, please? I kept four masks for my immediate family. Please continue what you do so well, namely to lead. “
I have no better words to describe how I felt about it than Governor Cuomo’s: “How nice is that? How selfless it is … It is this generosity of spirit that makes up for all the ugliness that you see. “
Dennis, thank you for reminding me of this generosity of spirit. Once again I am supported by a challenge from a stranger from Kansas. I say a soft prayer again.
I am also reminded that this is a time of increasing stress for all of us and it is important that we take care of ourselves and our family, friends and community. At NIMH, we work to support these efforts by providing resources that help people cope. NIMH-supported researchers across the country are also intensively researching the effects of COVID-19 on mental health.
We are all together and can get through this difficult time by showing support, kindness and generosity to family, friends and strangers.