Don’t Deny People The Chance To Be Heroes

The flaw in rugged individualism.

Helen Cassidy Page
Apr 10, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Craig McLachlan on Unsplash

ome of us can do this. I don’t mean to be arrogant, but there are people like me who live alone and don’t need help quarantining.

It can become a point of pride to wash all your clothes in your tiny bathroom sink instead of risking contamination in the communal laundry room. Ask me how I know.

You can also order everything online instead of letting your neighbors run errands for you because you always take care of yourself.

Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

You can become your own one-person bastion against the virus, self-distancing the bejesus out of the little bugger until it dies the ugly death it deserves. But while you’re showing the microbe who’s boss, you might be forgetting something.

Everybody needs to feel good about themselves. Everybody needs a sense of purpose.

And in this dark time when folks are alone with nothing but their thoughts and unpaid bills to keep them company, or kids begging for a sleepover with friends you have to insist they can’t have, or a spouse who’s battling insomnia because he/she’s worried about parents too far away to visit even from the curb, doing a favor for a shut-in might be just the boost they need.

Last night I was reminded of a life-changing lesson I learned the last time I lived through a pandemic.

Don’t give yourself a whiplash doing a double-take. Yes, we’ve had pandemics before. Look up AIDS in the 80s. If you’re young enough, you might think HIV is only slightly more annoying than the common cold, but, really, no biggie. But, really, you would be so wrong.

Over 36 million people currently live with the disease, many in countries without adequate treatment. And over three-quarters of a million patients die of AIDS-related illnesses each year. In the 80s, when AIDS blew up in San Francisco, there was no treatment but lots of fear and loathing — of anyone connected to the diagnosis.

I walked into that dumpster fire with a need to express feelings I didn’t quite understand.

When I heard about Shanti Project giving emotional support to the AIDS community, I knew something in me had found a home.

For five years, I witnessed the horror that whipped through the Castro, the gay community in my city, San Francisco. But even as young men died by the scores every day and their friends and family lived in fear and grief and anger at a society that shunned them, the volunteers that offered their time and energy also felt something else: a sense of joy and renewal that assuaged in part their own grief. They had connected to something greater than themselves, something noble.

When the UK put out a call for citizens to volunteer to help the health care workers with novel coronavirus patients, they asked for a few thousand people. Over 200,000 strong stepped up as I recall. I wasn’t surprised. I knew the impulse.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

A crisis can bring out the best in people. But to the volunteers, it doesn’t feel like they are doing for others. Service can feel like a very selfish act but in the best way possible.

We do for others to have the sense that we matter, or what we do matters. It’s not always something we can articulate or even want to admit as we join an organization that aids abandoned animals or knits caps for preemies.

But you see it all over the news these days. Children playing their cellos for elderly neighbors who can’t leave their homes. People walking dogs for folks who are ill with the virus. And everywhere, people shopping and running errands for those who are urged to stay in isolation because they are the most vulnerable.

In years to come, when all this is behind us, I hope someone will catalog the enormous creativity spurred on by the quarantined public.

People reaching out on social media with funny videos of their pets, family choruses giving virus-themed words to old favorites, poems describing the fear, the isolation, the hope. I see remarkable, glorious humanity in all the disruption and horror reaching out to distract, inspire, entertain.

I also hope someone will document the kindness people have shown to others, from the neighborhoods singing to one another from their balconies in Italy to the cheering at 7 pm each night in major cities like New York, to the post-it hearts on the windows of San Francisco homes.

I also hope someone will document the kindness people have shown to others, from the neighborhoods singing to one another from their balconies in Italy to the cheering at 7 pm each night in major cities like New York, to the post-it hearts on the windows of San Francisco homes.

All this came back to me last night when I was texting with my upstairs neighbor Sarah who has become a new friend. Sarah is a twenty-something roommate of Megan, whom I have not met yet because she is isolating with her family in Seattle.

So we are on our own together as it were. We’ve had a meetup on our fire escapes, one floor away from each other, and a dinner date ten feet away when Sarah ate her salad on the stairs, and I opened my door and sat on a chair just inside my apartment.

Photo of author in her collection

Sarah is just one of the eight or ten neighbors who have volunteered to help me out during the quarantine. I do my best to resist all these offers, though some I am forced to accept. Beth has my mailbox key so I don’t have to go down to the lobby, and folks drop deliveries left downstairs outside my door.

But as often as I can, I order things online and say no when someone offers to do a favor. Beth has been my main shopper because she pesters me every morning, insisting she’s the beneficiary. She needs to get out and can take advantage of senior hours at the shops.

Last night, Sarah offered to do my laundry. I was horrified. Are you kidding me? That’s so personal, and besides, I’m inordinately proud of the way I’ve figured out how to hunker down and make do. I may be an old crone, but I’m an independent old crone.

Last night, Sarah offered to do my laundry. I was horrified. Are you kidding me? That’s so personal, and besides, I’m inordinately proud of the way I’ve figured out how to hunker down and make do. I may be an old crone, but I’m an independent old crone.

Sarah persisted. It would make her feel good.

And then I got the whack on the side of the head that brought me back to my Shanti days. The feeling of serving others that gives meaning to your lives.

My refusal to do for myself has a selfish tinge to it. I discovered a couple of N95 masks the other day in the back of my closet left over from the Napa fires when the smoke came all the way down to San Francisco.

I offered one to Beth, and then another neighbor checked in, offering to help. He happened to mention he couldn’t find a mask and was using a bandana when he went out. I immediately offered him one of my extra masks.

I recalled how thrilled I was to do something, finally, for Beth and Jim. My gesture had value, a feeling I’ve needed. And of course, by being so fiercely independent, that is what I deny the kind people who want to help me out.

My insistence on independence won’t let them be the heroes they are, they are asking to be.

What is the one symptom we all suffer from these days? It’s not a fever or a cough. It’s helplessness. We don’t know where the virus is; we don’t know who has it; the health care workers often can’t help those who are sick.

The whole world is under the same threat, and we’re all in this together. The least we can do is make someone else’s burden lighter. Maybe I’m the only “rugged individualist” who needs to do everything herself, and I’m writing this for an audience of one, the insufferable control freak in my head.

But maybe we/I can loosen up. Let someone else be a hero. We can never have too many. Especially when your towels are getting rank, and they won’t fit in your pitiful little sink, but you’re too proud to ask for help when there’s a hero begging to be put into service right upstairs.

Maybe the virus will kill you, but a little humility won’t.

m an editor and writer on Medium with Top Writer status. I’m also an editor for the publication, Rogues Gallery. I’ve published 55 titles on Amazon and edit for private clients. If you’d like to hire me as your editor for fiction, non-fiction, or business writing, please contact me here. If you’d like to read more of my work on Medium, click here to sign up for my newsletter. I’ll make sure you don’t miss a word. Thank you for reading.

The Narrative

What’s your story?

Helen Cassidy Page

Written by

Writer, editor, researcher, aging expert, life coach, sand tray coach. Read one of my 55 titles on Amazon: https://www.HelenCassidyPageBooks.com

The Narrative

What’s your story?

Helen Cassidy Page

Written by

Writer, editor, researcher, aging expert, life coach, sand tray coach. Read one of my 55 titles on Amazon: https://www.HelenCassidyPageBooks.com

The Narrative

What’s your story?

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