This is Part 2 of an essay series. Read Part 1 here.
Several weeks ago, Madonna referred to COVID-19 as “the great equalizer.” While the irony of her communicating this message from her rose-sprinkled, oversized bathtub in her New York City Upper East Side apartment is not lost on us, she makes a point. A virus does not discriminate. Not against different races, religions, sexes, or sexual orientations. A virus does not care who it hurts or kills; its sole purpose is to survive. A virus infects a host, multiplies, and works to infect more and more hosts. Viruses are smart, sneaky, and lethal — past known viruses have claimed millions of human lives collectively over thousands of years.
Discrimination is something that society has dealt with for centuries. Racism, sexism, misogyny, ageism, homophobia — all of these unjust and prejudicial treatments of others still exist today. Unfortunately, humans have not made the progress many of us feel should have been made by now. Discrimination and prejudice are established and grow on the basis of fear. Fear of the unknown, of being uncomfortable, of losing power to the other party, of one’s life being altered too significantly, or of having to let go of one’s own values. Fear is present when we refuse to accept others as they are. We are afraid because we do not understand them and we likely have not taken the time to. At the core of discrimination is a lack of understanding. We might not understand why a person has certain beliefs. Or why they act the way they do. Or even why they have certain feelings they feel they need to act on or ‘rub in our faces.’ And with lack of understanding, and an unwillingness to try to understand, come thoughts and feelings of resentment, dislike, and even anger. These thoughts and feelings separate people — colleagues, neighbors, strangers, and even family and friends. That separation can do significant damage to long-term relationships and the mental health of individuals. If we want strong communities, strong countries and strong international relations to ensure global future prosperity, we need less separation and more connectedness. As my parents used to tell me repeatedly as a child, “Treat everyone the way you want to be treated.” For me, this has always meant treating people with kindness and without discrimination, just as I hope people will treat me.
Mr. Rogers started every episode of his show with, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” with good reason. This question acts as an open and inviting invitation for all viewers to come into his home and join him on a journey each episode. Mr. Rogers is regarded as one of the most warm, loving, and welcoming people and personalities of our time.
Mr. Rogers is quoted as saying,
We’re trying to give children a positive way to deal with their feelings. No one can grow unless they are accepted exactly as they are.
If we learn from Mr. Rogers, a positive way for us to deal with discrimination, anger, or hate is acceptance. Once we take the time to listen, understand, and appreciate one another for our uniqueness and varying points of view, we move towards acceptance of that person.
Unfortunately, there are still many examples of people not being able to accept others for who they are in this world. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, is a fantastic example of a global leader who has received accolades for how she has handled this pandemic and for her handling of naysayers and the media as well. When she announced her pregnancy, she was incredibly discriminated against, some stating she should resign. People online (mostly men) could not understand how it would be possible for a woman to both have a newborn baby and run a country effectively. Ardern responded honestly and pointedly, “I’m pregnant, not incapacitated.” Nearly two years into motherhood and with COVID-19 effectively eliminated from her country, Ardern has proven to non-believers that a woman can be a global leader and a mother, and be successful at both. And importantly, she has shown that with strong leadership and guidance, people’s behavior — in this case, physical distancing — can very effectively save lives.
Ellen Degeneres is an out and proud lesbian and a deliriously happy woman. But she wasn’t always. Ellen suffered years of discrimination and rejection. She lost her first sitcom because she made the decision to be public with her sexual orientation and many people could not just accept her as she is. She fought hard to get to where she is now, hosting one of the most successful daytime talk shows in history. She has a production staff, interviewees, and millions of viewers who love and accept her for who she is — a hilariously funny, loving woman. Who happens to also be a lesbian. Ellen signs off each of her shows by saying, “Be kind to one another.” She does this to spread kindness and good. There is no doubting the positive impact that Ellen has had on millions of people’s attitudes and behavior to one another over many years.
It is important for us to understand that acceptance does not have to mean adoption. Many people fear that if they accept someone who is different than themselves, it chips away at their own belief system, making them a weaker person. The opposite is true. If you are someone who has a strong belief system and you are able to meet, get to know and get along with someone else who has varying views from yourself, this makes you a mature, intelligent, and strong individual. Your mind is more ‘open.’ And being ‘open’ means being empathetic, kind, and supportive. Scale this to billions of people around the planet, and you have a very strong global community.
So what critical life lesson can a microscopic virus teach us about how we treat others? How not to discriminate. What can we do on an individual level? For several weeks and months, the most powerful act that we are doing is staying home. Staying home means reducing the spread of the virus, the result of which saves lives. In many parts of the world, the curve is flattening. This is positive news and incredibly encouraging. As we move into the coming months, we should be considering how we can take the incredible progress we have made in caring for one another to the next level. Let’s become ‘change agents’ for acceptance and kindness. Let’s go out into the world — safely and physically distant — and do some good. Say “Hi” to our neighbors, greet strangers with a smile, make donations to charities, or buy a homeless person a meal. Let’s do this with an open mind and without judgment. If you find that you are being closed-minded to someone, take the time to learn more about the person whom you might be passing judgment on. You may not know their story. Understanding others better can lead to dissipating your fears. Because one less person discriminated against, is one step closer to the people of the world becoming more united. A more united world is a stronger world. And a stronger world is one that is more connected and thriving. This virus has taught us many lessons thus far, certainly that we are #StrongerTogether.
This is Part 2 of an essay series. Read Part 3 here.