In coronavirus crisis, our humanity saves us

by | Apr 5, 2020 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 1 comment

In the middle of a big war, you go searching for a small idea. One thing to cherish or believe in. One thing that brings you comfort.

We are in a big war now. We don’t know how bad it will get, or how long it will last. We don’t even know what the enemy looks like, except it often looks like us.

In such a war, fear can be as deadly as any virus. People turn on one another. They morph into characters from a “Mad Max” movie, hoarding scarce resources, stomping others to survive.

We cannot let ourselves become such caricatures.

We cannot become the vigilantes in Maine, who chopped down a tree to block the driveway of renters whom they thought had COVID-19 because their license plate was from New Jersey.

We cannot become the Texas man who allegedly stabbed an Asian-American family in a Sam’s Club because he thought they were spreading the disease.

We cannot sink to the worst version of ourselves. We must stay above the human water line, keep our character and our dignity intact, until normal life can resume.

The way out will not come from our leaders. Across the world, we see failures at the top. Governments that lie. Presidents who change course with the wind. Even institutions that are supposedly apolitical, from the World Health Organization to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making gaffes, misjudgments and blunders.

We are on our own here. No pamphlet will arrive. No law will be passed. Our contentment and inner calm rests on our own sense of appreciation.

One thing. One small idea in the big war.

I have found mine.

Let me share it with you.

Our new permanent resident

As the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to hit our shores, we brought an 8-year-old boy named Knox up from Haiti. Knox is one of 52 kids at the Have Faith Haiti orphanage I operate in in Port Au Prince; he has been coming to America every three months for physical therapy. Knox, you see, suffered a severe brain injury when he was one year old. It left him much like a stroke victim, with limited use of his left arm and leg.

You would never know it from his demeanor. He is human sunshine from the moment he wakes up. He bounces to you every morning, squealing your name, and he snuggles up and revels in a bedtime story every night.

Thanks to an amazing therapy team at Beaumont and a pioneering doctor named Edward Dabrowski, Knox has made incredible improvements the last two years. He can walk and even run lightly with minimal challenges.

And he was in the middle of that therapy last month when the world changed. Just like that, airplanes were dangerous. Foreign travel was limited. Haiti closed its borders. America did the same.

And so, for the time being, Knox is a permanent part of the household.

Which means, like so many parents around the world now, we must tend to a child all day long. There’s no school to occupy his time. No friends to play with. No birthday parties, playdates, movies or arcades to entertain him.

Just us.

And yet the days are so much brighter with this little boy around. We catch him singing to himself, or inventing imaginary voices with his toy animals. We hear him laughing wildly at silly cartoons. We revel in reading to him in our laps, assembling jigsaw puzzles, working on his English. At meal time, all he wants to do is help make the spaghetti, or crush oranges in the juicer, or stir sugar in the coffee. His delight in the simplest things is infectious.

This is because even our new limited, shutdown lives in America are a whole lot better than the average life in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Our “fallbacks” in this crisis — TV shows, microwaved dinners — are luxuries for most Haitians. A suburban house, for an 8-year-old orphan, feels like a palace, all those rooms and shelves to explore.

The other night we were sitting at the dinner table, laughing as Knox delighted in a bowl of ice cream (he insisted on spraying whipped cream, which was like watching a kid ride his first bicycle) when we all said to one another, almost at the same time, “Hasn’t Knox been the saving grace of this whole mess?”

And I realized we had found our one thing.

Our humanity saves us

If not for this pandemic, we would never have had so much time with this inspiring child, who was abandoned at birth. We are so grateful. And feeling gratitude during a crisis is the beginning of resetting your compass.

I can wrap my arms around the idea of Knox lighting up our darkness. Perhaps you can do the same with the children in your life. Or the relatives with whom you are hunkered down.

Or perhaps it’s the reading that you’re finally getting to do. Or the walks in the neighborhood you haven’t taken for years. Or the bicycle you got out of storage. Or the phone calls to old friends. Or the photo albums you’ve finally had time to organize.

Don’t get me wrong. These things don’t counter the hardships of a novel coronavirus infection, the burden of watching a loved one go through it, the worry about financial futures, the loss of a job, the loneliness of a world without contact.

But if all we do is swim in those sad waters, we will lose sight of any shore. We will drift into people we don’t recognize, and do things we never thought we would do.

Our humanity will be what saves us in this pandemic. Small acts. Like the people who leave toilet paper on their porches for delivery workers. Or the sewing machines now humming to stitch masks. Or the folks who serenade one another across apartment house balconies.

One thing. Find it. The one positive. The one joy you’d forgotten about. The one part of the day that brings you peace. And cling to it, the way I cling to little Knox every morning when he greets me with a hug, or every evening when he gets to watch one hour of a cartoon movie, and he lies in my lap on a pillow.

Human touch matters. Human kindness matters more. It is our way out of this madness. And our way back to ourselves.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

1 Comment

  1. Marlene

    Such a heartwarming story. Thank you. I’m so happy for Knox, you & Janine.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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