Janeane Bernstein has spread flowers, love and joy since she was young. These days, she also picks up dozens of would-be-tossed bagels each week and drops them off at local shelters. Bernstein has no illusion that this random act of kindness will solve the problems of housing insecurity or homelessness in the Bay Area or elsewhere, but she does know that it matters. And she writes about it in her new book, Better Humans, the title of which she hopes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It’s about leading a life with purpose-driven initiatives,” Bernstein says. “If you do anything for others—volunteering, helping someone experiencing homelessness, donating canned goods or anything to help chip away at some of the numerous issues or helping make one person’s life a little easier—you can be involved in a purpose-driven initiative.”
How does it work for those of us who might not shine during the holidays or who are feeling bogged down with feelings of aloneness over a breakup, isolation, the struggle to make ends meet, a health challenge or the weight of knowing that loved ones in other parts of the world are being killed in wars in which leaders refuse to accept a ceasefire?
Bernstein tells me it’s even more important in those circumstances.
“You really can reframe your life,” she says. She recalls being told by her mom she’d be a candy-striper at a hospital before she understood what that was. “I’d go and help out and deliver flowers to patients or read someone a card that a loved one wrote. Those little acts of kindness were so important—to the patients and to me. I couldn’t go through the day in a bad mood no matter what was going on in my life.”
At the end of the day, it’s about choosing to do something even when the results aren’t guaranteed and even when the circumstances don’t feel particularly fair or ideal. This is why we show up to protest even when we as individuals don’t have the capacity to stop wars or to prevent another police-involved killing or bring back a loved one we’ve lost. Those of us who do show up, do so because we feel that the alternative—not showing up—is not an option. We do this to show that we care, that we hope for justice and that we hope for change.
Earlier this month, my children’s paternal grandfather, who I’ll call A, suffered a stroke. He has spent the last few weeks on a ventilator. While everyone clings tightly to their hope for a miracle, hours have turned to days and days have turned to weeks, and loved ones are forced to grapple with the fact that all the hope in the world might not be enough to spare the life of this 67-year-old man.
My only connection to this family is that I’m the mother of A’s grandchildren, and yet I felt called to show up. I lost my own dad five years ago, on the heels of a Christmas that I wasn’t able to spend with him. I wasn’t able to be in the hospital to advocate for him or ask questions. I could do nothing to save him.
With A, I’ve driven back and forth across the Bay to bring my kids for visits. I’ve taken time off work to sit beside his wife and his children while asking questions and advocating for his care in a way I couldn’t with my own dad. I’ve offered some relief so that my children’s dad can go to work or do necessary errands.
As an eternal optimist and someone who, as Albert Einstein suggested, lives life as though everything is a miracle, I’m seeing the limitations of my support as the family weighs out difficult decisions in the face of a grim prognosis. If A doesn’t get the miracle we’re all praying for, he’ll transition—hopefully knowing the abundance of round-the-clock love we’ve sent his way.
In some indescribable way, the act of showing up has simultaneously triggered feelings of healing and contentment. Spending an abundance of time with a family from whom I’ve been estranged has given me perspective and humbled me. It so often takes death or a traumatic event to inspire those of us who are left behind to make amends or repair relationships we’d previously abandoned.
I contemplated all of this while listening to Bernstein’s suggestions for how to be better humans in the post-pandemic world as she conversed with Kelechi Ubozoh, co-editor of We’ve Been Too Patient, from Oakland. Both Bernstein and Ubozoh shared a simple yet profound holiday survival tip that left me wondering if operationalizing it could keep families in a more harmonious state all the time.
“The spirit of this quote that I love is that boundaries are a way I can love me and I can love you at the same time,” Ubozoh says. “Sometimes during the holidays, we want to give folks grace, but maybe we decide not to have the conversation that always leads to a fight or a rupture. Maybe this year we’ll do puzzles or other activities together or be in the same space and still spend time together in a way that serves us.”
It’s left me thinking about how much easier my conversation with my own family flows when we’re side by side going on a post-dinner walk, making our way to school in the morning, playing a game or, yes, solving a puzzle together, than when we’re sitting across from each other while firing off questions.
Ubozoh, who is also a mental health advocate, says that in the same way that one-size-fits-all approaches don’t work for making and implementing policies, they don’t work with familial or friendship structures either. The key, she says, is about redefining what works for us.
“We can still be in space[s] with each other, but we get to create a different kind of space,” she says. “Maybe it looks and feels a little different, but maybe it’s healthier. It gives us power to be ourselves while still being in community with our families who we love, even if we have complicated relationships with them.”
If we can do this, and be present by engaging in little acts of kindness and deeds as simple as the ones Bernstein suggests, such as writing a meaningful quote or note and handing it to a stranger or a loved one, not only can we be better humans, we can make someone else’s day, creating a ripple effect and inspiring those around us to be better humans.