In a patient room at the Cancer Care Institute is this sign: “You are stronger than you think and braver than you know.”
This is a truth we each discover for ourselves, during those hard, painful times that life eventually throws at all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly one of those times.
Last week I read an editorial written for the Los Angeles Times by Fran Chalin, a hospice chaplain. In short, strong sentences that have the power of poetry, she describes the death in ICU of a man with COVID-19, the anguish of his family unable to be with him as he takes his final breaths, and the exhaustion of his caregivers. Then she writes this:
“Outside the hospital there is a billboard.
‘HEROES WORK HERE.’ I want to scream.
Hero is just another word for better you than me.”
Think about that for a minute: Hero is just another word for “better you than me.”
This statement, written out of exhaustion and heartache, is certainly not the whole truth. But it does hold a great deal of truth—a truth that went straight to my heart because I have felt it myself.
In the late fall of 2018, my partner Alvis spent six weeks in the hospital, with a series of complications and recoveries and setbacks, and in the end he did not recover. During that hard, painful time, something I heard often from people around me was, “You are so strong.” It was true; I was. I had to be. At one point, the morning we learned that Alvis was going to die, one of his closest friends collapsed on my shoulder. I vividly remember standing there in the hospital hallway, shattered and in shock myself, literally physically holding him up.
I was only strong enough do that because I had other people’s shoulders to collapse on myself. I had loving family and friends who helped and supported and grieved with me in all sorts of ways. Even with that support, I still needed to be stronger and braver than I thought I could be. It was exhausting.
Having someone tell me, “You’re so strong,” didn’t help a bit. Instead, it felt almost as if they were adding to my burden or abandoning me to cope with it on my own. I wanted to say, “Don’t tell me how strong I am. Help me carry this load.”
I never did say it. Maybe that’s why I feel such a need to say it now—not for myself, but for all of those pandemic heroes we are so grateful for. Not just the medical workers who are exhausting themselves emotionally and physically, risking their lives, shift after long shift. But also the other “heroes who work here,” those who show up day after day to provide us with essentials. Like the farm workers, the teachers, the grocery store workers, the delivery drivers, the caregivers, the janitors.
We do appreciate these dedicated, heroic people. Signs of our gratitude show up everywhere. Social media posts. Drive-by parades. Flyovers. Light shows. And signs reading “Heroes Work Here.”
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these things. Thank-you gestures matter. They are important. They remind us of how much we rely on the strength and commitment of all sorts of dedicated, ordinary people.
But gestures are still just gestures. At best, they are sincere but passing recognition. At worst, they can be shallow, guilt-driven ways of saying “better you than me.”
Heroes appreciate being acknowledged. But what heroes really need is help to carry the weight. The burden of this pandemic has been dropped on all of us. It’s too big for just a few heroes to bear. Getting through it is a shared, universal responsibility. It requires something from all of us.
Here are a few ways to help:
- Get your pandemic news from reliable medical sources, not third-hand unverified shares on social media.
- Be patient and kind around COVID-coping inconveniences. Instead of complaining or getting angry, smile and say thank you to stressed-out people who are doing their best.
- Think twice, or even three times, before you open your mouth or hit the “post” button to share anything that’s critical, angry, or negative.
- Take care of your own physical and emotional health.
- Help according to your resources, whatever they might be. If you have money, donate to a food bank. If you have a car and some time, deliver meals or groceries. If you can sew, make masks. You might donate blood or read to children online. Don’t worry about the big things you can’t do; just do a few of the small things you can do.
- If you can’t do anything else, stay out of the way. Not doing anything to make things worse is another way of helping.
- Wear a mask. All the best-dressed superheroes do. So do their sidekicks.
During hard times like this, all of us have the capacity to be “stronger than we think and braver than we know.” But only because we help each other bear our burdens. Only because we take turns holding each other up. Only because we all serve as heroes for each other.
So please, don’t just thank a hero. Act like one.