If you’re a parent or just your average germ-obsessed adult, there are certain times throughout the year, like right now, when you think a lot about the spread of sickness. Maybe you wash your hands more frequently or avoid certain high-traffic areas because you’re convinced everyone is transmitting contagions. I classify myself as a mom who also happens to be mildly germ-obsessed, which is not an easy cross to bear, especially when your kids could care less. No parenting book ever written could prepare you for the things that you hear yourself saying.
“Put that filthy toilet plunger down now! Sheesh! This is a DISGUSTING public restroom.”
“Did you just pick up and handle a USED tissue off the floor of Walgreen’s?! We’re in the pharmacy, for mercy’s sake!”
My OCD panic has little-to-no effect on my kids. Yet, I continually react, knowing the real threat of catching a ferocious flu.
“Where’d you get that dirty plastic whistle?”
“It’s a treasure I found on a pile of dirt on the playground!” TWEEE!!!
And the next thing you know, I’m up all night with sick kids as an illness works its way through our whole family over the course of a VERY LONG month. (Read a previous blog post about our tango with the flu this year.)
If contamination spreads that rapidly, what about other things? Someone recently told me that divorce is contagious. Hmm. I know malaise can spread in my house faster than you can say, “swine flu.” We all know how contagious fear is. Eeeewwww! Spiders are scary. Tag, you’re it! But what about positive things, say—goodness or happiness? Could joy be counted as a contagion? Could virtues spread just as easily and as quickly?
Years ago, my brother and I met up in New York for a work conference. Our relationship is often fraught with tension, but we were glad to be reunited. In between seminars, we were strolling through Times Square, checking out the scene, when we were approached by a college student wearing a David Letterman sweatshirt. She asked us if we’d like to see the Letterman taping that night. She wasn’t asking everyone who crossed her path. I think she was assessing who would make good audience members. We were young, attractive professionals, dressed in our business casuals as we confidently paraded through the Big Apple. Looking back, we must have personified care-free youth. (Note: this was way before my aforementioned motherhood and subsequent germ hang-up.) We gratefully took the tickets and decided we’d give it a go.
On arriving, we realized we were not the only people who had been asked. We joined the daunting line that snaked around the old Ed Sullivan theatre. We were a bit dismayed by the crowds and the notion that we’d have to make the next cut. My brother and I both worked in television at the time, so we were no rookies to the business. I suggested to him that if we smiled huge gleaming smiles and looked like we were having the time of our lives, we would snooker our way in. So we started to laugh and acted as if we were the most charming, happy people in the whole world who had just heard the most fabulous joke. We plastered on huge smiles and tried our very best to exude unbridled cheer. It worked. Someone in charge of casting the audience grabbed us and led us inside. We made it all the way to the front row right next to the band! The person in charge of revving up the audience before Letterman’s arrival reminded everyone to laugh and smile MORE, which didn’t seem possible. I smiled so much my face began to hurt. But something strange was happening. My brother and I were giddy with anticipation when Dave made his riotous entrance. We were not only acting as if we were on cloud 9, we really were. By the time the first guest, Tom Cruise, came out, we were either high-fiving each other or bent over guffawing. I hadn’t laughed so hard since I was a kid. My belly ached.
As we exited the theatre that night, I remarked that that was the most fun I’d had with my brother in a long time. On the walk back to our hotels we laughed more. “What about when the bassist threw me his pick?” “So AWESOME!” It was an evening I will never forget because the tension and difficulty magically melted away. Happiness took hold and spread through each of us and seemed to infect an entire audience.
The great saint of our time, Mother Teresa, who ministered to the world’s most impoverished, knew a thing or two about the outbreaks of sickness and disease. But she also understood the contagious power of kindness. “We shall never know all the good a simple smile can do,” she wisely observed. As in my case, just smiling had set something big in motion for my brother and me. There was no stopping that momentum. We were happy—all due to some smiling and laughing. When my brother laughed heartily, I couldn’t help myself. I too was bursting with it.
Christ’s mysterious and miraculous incarnation also set something in motion, something that was unstoppable, that continues 2,000 years hence. Despite death, savage persecution, corruption, rupture, and insipidity, the momentum builds and spreads.
“This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. —John 15:12
As we slog through these last weeks of sickness-laden winter, let us continue on our Lenten journey by remembering to be carriers of goodness and love to those we encounter. Let’s start with a smile and see where it takes us. God loves us and asks us to spread that love. Actually, he commands it.