Three years ago, I took an Uber to downtown Boston to give a book talk at a large law firm. The driver mentioned that this would be his last ride. A full-spread buffet remained untouched when I arrived at the elegant conference room. No one ate or shook hands, and people sat as far from one another as possible. I was in the first act of a tragedy called “COVID.”
In the three years since that fateful day, I’ve spilled many words about the changes in our culture. We aren’t as friendly or as tolerant. We pick sides and stay committed to the “truths” of our echo chambers. We’re more insular. Who needs movie theaters when you can stream shows? Sometimes a jigsaw puzzle can substitute for an evening with friends.
But I am ready to accept that my social muscle needs rehabbing. I need to find a reserve of energy when I hit the two-hour mark with friends, where I have been known to silently plead to my husband, “Can we go soon?” He knows the face. Fortunately, I am not unique in wanting to retreat. Others have shared the same need. I’ve decided, though, that it’s time to improve my social fitness.
In a somewhat odd turn of events, I wrote my first novel during COVID. I created a quirky, lovable 14-year-old boy who beta-readers told me was neurodivergent. This was not my intent, but I accepted their judgment. Alfred, the protagonist, has a coach to guide him in ways that feel unnatural but turn out to be helpful.
I will take a page out of Alfred’s journey — literally and figuratively — to build my social muscle using six of Coach’s rules. Namely:
Don’t be a know-betterer: That’s the person who supplies us with facts and a loud conviction that they know better. COVID has hardened this tendency.
Be generous of spirit: In a land of scarcity, there are ways to be generous that don’t require money. Shovel someone’s sidewalk. Grocery shop for the infirm. Bake cookies for the downtrodden. Do a coffee klatch. Read people’s writings — Lord, there are so many writers today!
Ha-ha matters: Find and share the humor in our day. It brings joy and works for all ages. How many Einsteins does it take to change a lightbulb? It’s all relative.
Accept the zigzag: Life is not a straight shot, so don’t expect it. It’s two steps forward, one step backward. Everyone with a bit of life knows this — whether it’s about work, family or our atrophied social muscle. Peace lies in acceptance.
Hear the unspoken: Some of the most important words are the ones that aren’t said, but we still need to hear. This takes skill — some combination of intuition, logic and paying attention to soft clues like body language and eye contact. Ironically, hearing the unspoken is not in any job description, and yet it’s a difference-maker.
Walk in someone’s shoes: These familiar words are from Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s another way of saying “empathy,” which has become popular — maybe because we need more. The park bench in my town’s center has a plaque that says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Walking in another’s shoes will enable other behaviors, from not being a know-betterer to having a generous spirit to maybe even hearing the unspoken.
But how will I put these rules into play? The other day, on a whim, I walked into our neighborhood bakery, whose challah is world-class. I had been baking challah over COVID — another new behavior to occupy time and space — and while good, my challah was nowhere near the quality of Michael, the baker. I needed to tell him that.
Michael asked me a few questions about my process and then suggested one significant process change. He closed by giving me some fresh yeast and saying. “Let me know if any of this helps.”
It did, so much so that there is no going back to the old way. Better, though, Michael modeled “generosity of spirit” at the heart of my new rules by giving me time, guidance and even yeast. It took me back to what my wise dad always said.
“What goes around, comes around.”
I will pay Michael’s generosity forward. Newly inspired, my social fitness is about to improve, along with my challah.