This editorial originally appeared in Monday’s Premium newsletter, but I hope and expect that most Premium members won’t mind me sharing it with everyone. The entire planet is literally going through some tough times with no end in sight. And I just wanted to express how important it is to focus on what’s important in times of crisis: Taking care of each other.
I also wanted to add something that should have been in the original editorial: Over the weekend, one of our neighbors texted us all and offered everyone on our street access to her incredible stockpile of food, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and more. It was perhaps the most neighborly message I’d ever received, and yet another wonderful example of how good people can be.
Late last week, I started writing an editorial about working from home, a subject I’m uniquely qualified for since I’ve been doing so since about 1994. I may still finish that, but it occurred to me over the weekend that we perhaps need to have a different discussion. About crisis.
My kids were in Jamaica last week to help with a poor school for the deaf, part of a group from a church that a family member is active in. We’re not religious, but I’d like to think that we’ve given our kids the experiences they need to be good people, and my wife and I knew that this trip would be transformative for them. It was: My daughter, normally quiet and insular, was joyfully sending us photos of her and her brother with the kids whose lives they intersected with all week. They’ll never forget it. And I hope they go next year too. They want to.
As I’m sure you’re aware, the Coronavirus situation escalated dramatically in the week they were gone. The kids wondered whether they’d have trouble flying home–they didn’t, thankfully–and reacted differently–my son troubled, my daughter elated–as they discovered that their respective schools had been shut down, at least temporarily. They had a lot of questions about the crisis. And on their final day in Jamaica, my son texted us and asked if people were really hoarding toilet paper.
“Here’s all you need to know,” I wrote. “People are idiots and you see their true selves in times of crisis.”
Driving around later–probably heading to the gym, something I keep expecting to be closed any day now-–I found myself thinking about what I had communicated to the kids. I regretted the first half of that: Not all people are idiots, of course. But I was also struck by the raw truth of the second half of my message. You really do see people’s true selves in times of crisis. And oftentimes–more often than not, I bet–those true selves really shine.
My best personal example of this happened 21 years ago when my then one-year-old son almost died in Phoenix from bacterial meningitis. His life was saved by a doctor who had the smarts and insight to believe that a type of infection that was, at that time, not at all common could be the cause. I was also impressed by how my wife reacted to this tragedy, taking charge and making sure that our son got the care he needed. I later told her parents that their daughter was a superhero. Meanwhile, here I was in the hospital with a dying child, looking up at news of what turned out to the be the Columbine school shooting–in my haze, I thought it was happening locally–and worried that this already over-burdened care center was just about to get a lot crazier.
Our son did recover, but he completely lost his hearing and he later received cochlear implants. A few years after this, we visited Phoenix again for the first time–we had moved back to Boston in part because it’s a center for the type of care he needed–and we took him to visit the doctor to thank him for saving his life. It just seemed like the right thing to do, and I think it was as important for us as it was to the doctor.
This makes me think about how people react in times of crisis. That doctor, with great speed and correctness. And my wife, who revealed herself to be a person of great resolve and decision, someone who always fought to make sure our baby got exactly the care he needed.
That was a personal crisis. But in times of greater crisis like this Coronavirus pandemic, it’s helpful to remember how people can–and often do–rally to help each other. There is nothing more amazing to me than the footage of the Boston Marathon bombing in which everyone ducks and stumbles at the first blast, and then the Boston Police instantly turn and head towards the explosion. Are you kidding me?
A few weeks later, we brought the kids into Boston to visit the various memorials and to confront this terribleness together, and we witnessed something wonderful. Waiting to cross the street on the corner of Copley and Dartmouth in front of the Boston Public Library and just a short distance from where the Boston Marathon usually ends, we saw a bus full of school children pull up to the corner, right to the side of several Boston policemen who were sitting on motorcycles. The kids pulled down the windows and applauded the cops with joyous cheers. The police, in turn, stood up and saluted the bus. My God.
This is who we want to be in times of crisis. And for all the negativity we see out there, all the terribleness, I feel that this is who we can be.