One year ago, I quoted a philosopher, Heraclites: “The only constant is change.” As 2021 ends, sometimes it feels as if not enough has changed, or not quickly enough: COVID-19 cases are surging (again) despite the availability of vaccines for one year; the wide-reaching threats of disinformation persist; and some public health and systems of care are again being tested to their limits. There is one thing that I hope changes as we think forward towards 2022: more humankindness.

A few years ago, I sat in an airplane seat after overnighting in a hotel room. Cramped and sleep deprived, I am on an early rebooked flight and not permitted to take out my check-in luggage (including toiletries and change of clothes). The airplane was delayed already by one hour for the short flight. When the seatbelt sign clicked off, I headed to the lavatory. On exiting, I asked a flight attendant for coffee. While airplane coffee is not exactly an elixir of life, it was the one thing that I needed at that one moment, apparently for more than only its caffeine. Their response: “Sorry, we can’t serve coffee for safety reasons.”

The flight attendant must have sensed a bit of my learned helplessness at the reply as I returned to my seat, which felt as sunken as I was feeling. I obviously had no alternatives: I could not brew or purchase coffee and a corporate policy would not permit the flight attendant to help. Or maybe, they recognized that some compassion should take precedence over risk-averse corporate policies. Not five minutes later, they found me at my seat with a paper cup of that horrifyingly bitter, hot, dark liquid. Receiving that cup with two hands, I mumbled a meek “Thank you” as tears welled up.

I imagine the countless examples of unseen kindnesses that we give, receive, or observe between people everywhere: such acts humanize in systems with an unintended (or even intended) consequence of dehumanizing. Everyone without exception has such a capacity for humankindness, treating each individual with kindness, respect, and empathy.

I’ll have some humankindness with my coffee any day, please.



COVID-19, Leadership, Administration, & Career Planning, Medical Ethics, SGIM, Social Determinants of Health, Wellness