When it comes to kindness during COVID, the eyes have it
She needed a little help. I could see that in her eyes. I wanted to help, and I hoped she could see that in mine.
Recently, I was out for a run along Valley Drive in Hermosa Beach. Just as I crested the little hill at South Park, I saw a woman walking toward me on the sidewalk. As I gave her a wide berth while passing, our eyes locked over our masks for a moment and I thought I read some something in her glance that told me she was looking for something.
I kept going because she didn’t say anything, and during this pandemic, the last thing you want to do is get into someone’s space when they don’t want you there. But I am also at an age that when I am out running I look for any excuse to stop and catch my breath, so that’s what I did at the corner after I was safely away from her.
As I bent over panting, I noticed she looked at me, looked at the street signs, then looked at her phone, and back to me again. I sensed – again through the look in her eyes – that she was trying to decide whether to ask me for help, or possibly offer it. I tried to communicate with the look in my sweat-soaked eyes that I was a friendly, non-threatening, middle-aged man who was just trying not to have a heart attack at the top of a small hill.
Just as I was about to ask her if she needed directions, she said, “Excuse me? Do you know where this address is?” and extended her phone.
“Sure,” I said, not having seen the address yet. I grew up in Hermosa Beach. Of course I would know how to get her to where she needed to go.
We kept our masks up and did the COVID two-step so that I could get as close as possible to safely read her outstretched phone. The text message she was showing me was in Spanish – which, embarrassingly enough for a man who is half Mexican in descent, I don’t know how to read – but I could discern the address, which she also told me verbally.
I experienced that brain freeze that happens when you know a place so well that you don’t formally know the location of any specific address. I recognized the street name but had trouble with describing the best way to get there without using the landmarks of my personal memory.
I could have said, “Ok, you know where that little house used to be where I helped my first girlfriend, the one I had in sixth grade, fold copies of The Daily Breeze for her afternoon paper route? It’s condos now, but you take a right there, and then you go past that house where that kid lived who always wore those clunky black dress shoes to the Cub Scouts meeting and you take a left. I think the place you are looking for is right across from those apartments that had that raised brick patio in front of it, the one you definitely don’t want to try and ride your skateboard off of because it’s a lot higher than it looks.”
Of course, at this point, I know you are thinking, “Why not just plug the address into Google Maps?” Well, first of all, I assumed she had tried that with her phone, and I didn’t want to touch her phone with my sweaty hands. Why didn’t I use my phone? Because I grew up in Hermosa and I will be damned if I let Google tell me where to go in my hometown.
She peered over her mask, watching patiently as I wracked my brain. I looked over my mask at the local landscape, getting my bearings. After a moment or two, it came to me. I was pretty sure I knew how to tell her how to get where she needed to go. I gave her directions, speaking louder than I probably needed to and gesticulating with my arms more than I needed to. The era of masked communications brings out the thespian in all of us.
Somehow, whatever she saw in my eyes and took away from what I said gave her the comfort that I was a nice guy and the confidence that I was correct in my instructions. She thanked me profusely and we went our separate ways.
When I got home, I gave in and Googled the address. Sure enough I was right. The way I sent her was the way she needed to go.
The whole encounter made me think about how essential kindness is in these terrible times. I think of kindness as the entryway to compassion. Kindness is how we respond in the moment, before we know much about what another person may be struggling with. Kindness is the grease that reduces friction in a time of so much conflict.
As we make our way through a socially distanced world, so many of our interactions with strangers – or even friends and acquaintances we don’t immediately recognize – happens over the edge of a mask. When we express kindness in our eyes, and see it expressed in those looking back at us, we feel less alone. We make that real social connection that is essential to humans, and too often is the opposite result of so-called social media.
Unlike a smile, showing kindness in your eyes is hard to fake. To show it is to also ask for it. It’s an expression of vulnerability, of being willing to both offer and accept help.
I share the story of my encounter with the woman who needed directions not to pat myself on the back. I got far more out of that moment than she did because I could tell she was willing to help me if I needed it – and at the moment I may have looked like it. Better yet, at a time when it’s easy to be a little afraid of each other, she was willing to reach out – with a look of kindness – and trust a stranger.
I gave her directions to a specific address, but she showed me the way we can get through this challenging journey together.