Opinion: Is kindness another casualty of the COVID pandemic?

Seeing people toss aside civility when face-to-face feels like a sad new reality I wasn’t prepared for.

Ottawa Citizen 3 minute read July 28, 2021

People in COVID-19 masks pass a positve sign reading "Choose Kindness" in Edmonton. Ian Kucerak / Postmedia

“What’s wrong with you?” A well-dressed older gentleman in a wide-brimmed Tilley hat yelled, radiating rage as my daughter and I slowed to a stop behind him on our bicycles, awaiting an appropriate moment to pass.

I apologized profusely, gesturing at the cars parked between the bike lane and the sidewalk, explaining that my daughter was afraid of being on the road, and I didn’t want to be separated from her on our weekly ride to pick up buns at the local bakery.

“Are you afraid of cars?” he veritably screamed. My eyes smarted. I would have preferred a ticket. At least that I could have protested with logic: busy road, unprotected bike lane, scared child. There was no reasoning with this man. I thought about hurling one of my Cobs gourmet buns, but even during a fit of pique they are too delicious to waste.

This interaction, and others like it, have left me feeling shaken and off-kilter. I believe deeply in kindness. Yet, I fear its value as a currency has plummeted since we’ve been collectively shut up in our homes. I worry the pandemic is exacerbating tiny frustrations suppressed over many months – and now that people are out in open air, the oxygen is fuelling these nascent sparks into downright explosions.

Another day, my friend and I were walking our bikes through a wooded trail. A woman stood on the other side of a creek while her dog, having just taken a dip, slinked towards me. I didn’t want to offend, so I looked to his owner to call him back. She just smiled smugly and watched as my nice white shirt absorbed swampy dog water.

“It’s a dog park,” she hissed. “The dog is fine where he is. You should move.”

Common courtesy has fallen by the wayside. I had hoped we’d emerge from these many months grateful for making it out on the other side, anticipating new interactions with joy. And while this is true in some cases, the feral underbelly of human behaviour is also crawling into the light.

I wonder if part of it has to do with months of virtual communication, and the thrill of anonymous critique. If you’re willing to put your thoughts out into the world, whether in a newspaper, or on a blog, or in a social media post, you’ve got to be able to close your ears to unnamed trolls looking for nothing better than a target for their ire. It’s the price we’ve come to accept for a “connected” world.

But to see people willing to toss aside civility when face-to-face with fellow community members feels like a sad new reality I wasn’t prepared for. While my first instinct was to anger, on reflection, I wondered what could make people aspire to such unpleasantness?

“How unhappy must they be?”

And that’s when it hit me. Everyone we meet is fighting a singular battle and if we cross them at the wrong moment, we’re the unwitting collateral damage – an outlet for frustration, hopelessness, or lack of control.

If we can try to remember it’s not likely about us, perhaps we can dig deep and redouble our kindness towards the next passing stranger. Smile brighter. Pass on a compliment.

Rudeness amounts to nothing more than a fleeting moment of self-indulgence. But kindness is a daily practice that can reshape our corner of the world. The next time I see that man in the wide brimmed Tilley hat, I plan to wave and say hello. (Perhaps from across the street.)

Suzanne Westover is the manager of strategic communications and a speechwriter at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.