We all know what it’s like right now to go into a grocery store — It looks as if people are preparing for the apocalypse. The harried employees are doing their best to stock what they can and answer questions to the best of their ability; they probably would like some quarantine time at this point just to alleviate the stress. A woman who was listening to my exchange with the angry shopper Sunday morning declared, “They should get her name and ban her from the store.”
As I left, I thought, these are our dividing lines. In a crisis, which the novel coronavirus certainly is, who are we going to be? Are we going to look at other people with compassion or think about only ourselves and our own petty needs? That morning, the woman in the grocery store was raging over $2.
From 1940 to 1955, my grandmother Nelle Reagan visited tuberculosis patients at Olive View Sanatorium in California. (It is now Olive View/UCLA Medical Center, but in the years when tuberculosis was sweeping through the country, patients were locked up in sanatoriums, and Olive View was one of them.) She would drive there every week and sit with patients whom no one wanted to visit. She would always bring gifts, even if it was just small things such as ribbons or pencils, and listened to them, filling up their empty days. She wanted to assuage their loneliness, to tend to their fear. She spent hours there.
I didn’t have my grandmother long enough. She died when I was 10, and to this day, I believe my life would have been different if she had lived longer and I’d had a chance to learn from her and to absorb her view of life. I’d have made fewer blunders, gone down wider roads instead of some of the dark, narrow ones I chose. But I try to keep her with me now. Despite poverty, her husband’s alcoholism and the terror of a disease that put thousands of people in sanatoriums, she believed in the goodness of human beings and the elixir of compassion.
We are all going to see who we are in this pandemic. As the coronavirus causes uncertainty, fear, hoarding and greed, we will get a clear and stark view of our neighbors, our friends, our families and ourselves. Each of us will be who we choose to be. We can be the person yelling at a cashier for what might have been a $2 mistake, or we can be someone who checks on neighbors and friends, who makes sure they are okay and are not in need. We will gravitate to the best of who we are capable of being, or we will stumble into the dark corners of who we should never be.
Nelle Reagan spent hours every week with tuberculosis patients, yet there is no evidence that she feared getting the disease. If she did, she never told her children about it. She had a job to do — ministering to human beings who had been struck down by illness.
I’ve often thought that her faith and drive were shields against the disease. I’m not suggesting that we go around shaking hands. But I am suggesting that we go around being kind.