Crisis has a way of bringing out the best and the worst in me: for instance, taking care of my partner when he’s injured or sick.
Case in point. Several years ago my partner, Brent, underwent Lasik surgery to correct his distance vision. As required, I had to accompany him to the surgery center that morning and wait for him to undergo the procedure so I could get him home safely and securely.
After an hour or so in the waiting room, a nurse called me up to the reception desk to walk me through the care Brent would need over the next 24 hours. This included keeping his eyes completely shut at all times, opening them only for eye drops that I was to administer every three hours. “In between drops, you will need to keep him lying on his back, ensure he’s comfortable, help him eat…even assist him in the bathroom,” the nurse told me. I straightened my spine, looked her in the eye and assured her, “I got this.” Satisfied that I appreciated the magnitude of the task ahead of me, she released me to go retrieve Brent from the back.
To ensure Brent was calm and comfortable while they opened up his eyeballs like a can of tuna, they had given him a deliciously chilling cocktail of two Ativan with a Valium chaser. So, he was feeling no pain as I came upon him lounging quietly in the recliner they had poured him into, his serene face masked by the most hideous pair of chunky black sunglasses one could imagine.
As I laid my hand gently on his arm, he turned his head lethargically and squeezed out one courageous syllable, “Bill?” “Time to get you home,” I replied as I lifted his legs around and slowly got him standing. Then, arm-in-arm, me and Mr. Magoo shuffled out into the waiting room. “Thank you” I said to the nurse still at reception. “Good luck,” she muttered back without looking up.
Bringing Out the Best in Me
Once home, I got Brent nestled into the post-surgery bosom of care I had created for him — fluffy pillows, cashmere blanket, iPod filled with audiobooks and podcasts, scented candle, a water bottle and bowls of snacks within arm’s reach. Sitting with him, I read my book, rubbed his feet, and looked affectionately upon him while he slept quietly. I set an alarm to remind me when it was time for his drops; but I found I didn’t need it, so in-tune with his care I was. My nursing instincts were that strong, almost primal, as if Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa had had a baby, and I was that child.
“Brent, it’s time for your drops,” I would whisper every three hours, as I coaxed him gently awake and got him to slowly open his eyes. In between, I spooned ice cream into his mouth, brought him Advil and more Ativan, accompanied him to the bathroom, refilled his water bottle. And throughout it all, Brent would thank me and say how much he appreciated all that I was doing. “Oh this? It’s nothing,” I assured him, while I silently reassured myself that it really was something: something quite remarkable actually.
I was in the zone. I was crushing this whole care thing, and was quite pleased and proud of myself for doing so. And I continued crushing it when I administered his drops at 4:00 PM, 7:00 PM 10:00 PM, even when I had to do the same at 1:00 AM.
Bringing out the Worst in Me
At 4:00 AM, however, the wheels started coming off. My circadian rhythm of care had clearly disappeared, because it was my phone alarm on its obnoxious own that woke me from the deepest of slumbers. Something had shifted in me, darkened, and I felt it instantly. Groaning heavily and audibly, I pushed myself out of bed, grabbed the bottle of eye drops, walked across the hall and up to Brent laying prone on the couch. “HEY!” I barked, “It’s time,” my voice void of the compassion that had been enriching it so admirably throughout the day.
Not at all rattled by my now prickly bedside manner, Brent silently and slowly opened his eyes to receive the drops. And after they’d been administered, and I was screwing the cap back on the bottle, Brent reached up, grabbed me gently by the arm and said softly, “Finish strong, Bill. Finish strong.”
It was not my finest moment. I had been doing so well up until that 4:00 AM feeding. But thanks to Brent’s quiet (and a bit self-righteous, if you ask me) encouragement, I was able to get things back on track and, indeed, finish strong. I didn’t finish quite as strongly as I had started, but I did manage to extinguish the dumpster fire of character that had begun to smoulder beneath the surface and resume Brent’s care in a way that made us both proud.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience as we head towards the close of, what I think we all can agree, has been the mother of all “annus horribilis.” The start of this COVID pandemic seems like so long ago: a distant memory, even though its full and brutal impact didn’t hit us here in North America until late February or early March. But what also feels like a distant memory is the individual strength of character and communal goodwill that first rose up to meet this pandemic head-on.
We Got off to a Good Start
Looking back on Spring 2020, I remember being regularly moved by stories of Italians singing from their windows, kids going door-to-door offering to buy groceries for the elderly, successful companies and sought-after consultants putting their businesses on hold so they could make masks and gowns for healthcare workers. Every morning, I would smile at my social media feeds, awash with videos of talented families, couples, and individuals sharing masterclass parodies of musical numbers, all of them riding a torrent of creativity breaking through the dams of our lock-downed lives. And every evening, I would tear up as we all went to our balconies, our windows, our front steps, banged some pots, and cheered in unison for our healthcare professionals, our first responders, our essential workers…and screamed against any possibility of this pandemic taking us down.
Even something as banal as a business trip had potential to transform into a meaningful experience that would, for a moment, give a jaded traveler like me all the feels and fill me with hope…as I wrote about back in March after such an experience in the Air Canada lounge at Newark Airport.
As bad as the pandemic was, it felt like there was something profoundly good happening in society because of it. People were kinder, more patient, more empathetic, more generous. I certainly felt kinder, more patient, more empathetic, more generous. It seemed like we were all, everyone around the globe, sharing a similar experience: all of us forced to pause, and in that pause, to reflect and regroup as we figured out how to navigate through this utterly unique situation, individually and collectively. And strangely, though we in British Columbia (and in so many other places) were mandated to distance, isolate, and hunker down at home, I can’t remember a time where I’d felt more connected to my friends, my family, even my colleagues. In truth, I can’t remember a time where I’d felt more connected to the rest of the world.
Make no mistake, the situation sucked. And as tough and troublesome as it was for me and my business, I know any hardship I experienced paled in comparison to what so many others were experiencing. But despite all our respective problems and challenges, I went through most days during that Spring and Summer thinking, “We’ve got this”: that we were rising to the challenge, and it was bringing out the best in us.
And then, this Fall, I started feeling that same waning of resolve, character, and goodwill that I’d felt that early morning with Brent. I was growing increasingly fed-up with it all: fed-up with the distancing, with the masking, with not being able to see my family in the US. And I was getting more fed-up with others around me, less patient with them, less empathetic, less generous…less kind. And when numbers started hockey-sticking back up across North America, Canada, and my home province of British Columbia (which had done so, so well during the initial wave), I got even more fed-up, thinking, “Why bother?”
A Chance Encounter Reminds Me
And then a week ago in the grocery store , as I was hurrying along and following the one-way arrows in the aisles (another thing I was fed-up with), I came-upon an elderly woman looking up at the top shelf of canned goods in front of her. I scurried around her, determined to finish my shopping as quickly as possible. But a few steps after passing her, Brent’s voice whispered in my ear, “Finish strong, Bill. Finish Strong.” I turned around, walked up to her and asked, “Do you need some help?” “Oh yes,” she replied. “I can’t seem to reach that can of pumpkin up there on the top shelf.”
And after I retrieved the can and placed it in her cart, she warmly squeezed my arm and said, “Thank you so much,” before catching herself and pulling her hand away, “Oops, I keep forgetting we’re not supposed to do that. Oh well…we’ll be fine.” And off she went.
We will be fine. I know we will all be scarred by this past year, each in our own way, and some having experienced incalculable loss. But I also believe we will be stronger, more gracious, and more grateful because of it. Yes, this pandemic has brought out some of the worst aspects of humanity, but it has also revealed some of our best. And with vaccines starting to flow and curves starting to peak, I see hope rising on the horizon. And in its glow I am inspired to dig deep, to strengthen my resolve, and to rediscover the patience, empathy, generosity and kindness I had at the start of this all…and that reappeared, briefly, in aisle seven of Safeway last week.
With hope on the horizon, I am determined to finish strong, knowing with great certainty, I will feel better and be better for having done so.
Have a wonderful Holiday Season. And please (to quote a now celebrated phrase from our now celebrity BC Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry) be kind, be calm, and be safe.
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 12 years, BB&Co has been providing Effective Presentation Skills and Leadership Through Storytelling training to organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Dell, Prudential, and others. BB&Co’s training helps managers, salespeople, finance directors, engineers and others understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and presentations and, with that, their ability to persuade, engage and inspire others.