A few weeks ago, a couple of weeks into social distancing, my wife and I were walking our dog Zoey on a drab Friday morning. It had been a challenging week, and my mood was not particularly good. We went down the street to our car, which my wife was going to take to work — an essential New York City employee, she still has to go to work in person some days. She got in the car and started to drive off before suddenly pulling over and pointing at what used to be the passenger side mirror. It had been stolen. So had nearly every other passenger side mirror in a long row of cars in front and in back of ours. Thieves had taken advantage of the fact that people are using their cars less under the stay-at-home order. My wife gingerly drove off without the mirror, but I just sat down right there, stunned and overwhelmed. Amidst all that was going on, opportunistic ugliness revealed itself. Not for the first time since COVID-19 came along, I unsuccessfully fought off tears.
Now, as I write this a few weeks later, I’m reminded of another time I sat on a street corner, overwhelmed. On Saturday, July 6, 2013, I was bicycling through central Kansas on a 97-mile journey from Dighton to Great Bend. The last leg of the ride looked to be a 32-mile slog without services, according to what my navigation app told me over lunch at a diner in Rush Center.
The ride was hot, and I was working hard against the wind, sucking down water that was becoming warmer by the minute. As I rolled into a small town called Albert halfway to my destination, I was desperate for a cold drink, but it didn’t look like anything was open.
I sat down on the porch in the shade, settling for sipping hot water from my dwindling supply, and the next thing I knew, a pickup truck pulled up. The driver said, "I saw you looking around. You all right? Is there something you need? "
This is where I sat down in the heat in Albert, Kansas.
"I was just hoping to get a cold drink," I explained. "Want some water? Pop?" he asked. "Sure," I answered. And off he went. A few minutes later, he dropped off a bottle of water and a can of soda, both ice-cold. Thanking him, I asked if I could give him anything for it. "Just say a prayer for me, " he said, and drove off, just like that.
About an hour and a half later I made it to Great Bend, just barely, woozy from the heat and down to my last swig of water. But for the kindness of this stranger from Kansas, who knows what would have happened. I made sure to thank him with a quiet prayer that night.
All these years later, in the middle of all the ugliness of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was reminded of this experience while watching YouTube. I live in New York, and ever since COVID-19 hit my state hard, Governor Andrew Cuomo has been giving daily press conferences. I try to catch them most days, both for the up-to-date statistics on the epidemic in my home state, and for the inspirational messages he often tags on at the end. On Friday, April 24th, after reporting the latest stats, he shared a letter he had just received from a man named Dennis.
"I'm a retired farmer hunkered down in northeast Kansas with my wife, who has but one lung and occasional problems with her remaining lung," the governor read aloud. “We are in our 70s now, and frankly, I am afraid for her. Enclosed, find a solitary N95 mask left over from my farming days. It has never been used. If you could, would you please give this mask to a nurse or doctor in your city? I have kept four masks for my immediate family. Please keep on doing what you do so well, which is to lead.”
I have no better words to describe how hearing this made me feel than those offered by Governor Cuomo: “How beautiful is that. How selfless is that… It is that generosity of spirit that for me, makes up for all the ugliness you see.”
Dennis, thank you for reminding me of this generosity of spirit. Once again, I find myself helped through a challenge by a stranger from Kansas. Once again, I find myself saying a quiet prayer.
I am also reminded that this is a time of increased stress for all of us, and it’s important that we take care of ourselves and our family, friends, and community. At NIMH, we’re working to help support such efforts by providing resources to help people cope, and NIMH-supported researchers across the country are also hard at work conducting research on the mental health impact of COVID-19.
We are all in this together and can get through this difficult time by showing support, kindness, and generosity toward family, friends, and strangers alike.