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[Coffee Warning: First, you may need one or two cups of coffee to get through what I am about to write freestyle. Second, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I have not had my coffee this morning but awoke with these words in my head that I need to share.]

“A deer stuck in the headlights.” I think all of us, at many times in our lives, have felt like a deer stuck in the headlights. For those of you from foreign lands who may not be familiar with this expression, it emanates from the reality that while driving down a country road in the dark of night, a deer may be crossing the road ahead of your fast-approaching car. The deer may stare directly at your car – without fleeing – both blinded by the headlights and paralyzed with inaction to avoid impending doom. When we humans become “deer stuck in the headlights,” – we find ourselves both captivated by something ominous yet unable to move, one way or another, which may ultimately hasten our demise.

We must find a path to escape. We must take one step forward to make progress. To survive. There are things we all experience in life that is so big and so challenging, that are so beyond comprehension, that are so inherently frightening and fear-generating, that we all – me included – can become deer stuck in the headlights. Paralyzed by fear. Unable to move.I remember feeling like that after Hurricane Katrina.

I remember watching the news reports from the safety of my Manhattan apartment. Watching an entire region of our Nation decimated. Watching fellow citizens stuck on rooftops to escape rising waters and awaiting
rescue. Watching fellow human beings in a major city crying out in hunger and thirst in sweltering heat in a convention center – while no one seemed to be able to reach them, or care enough about them to reach them, provide for their basic human needs.

How is it possible? How can something so expected like an act of nature – whether a hurricane or a predictable virus – paralyze a Nation?

The enormity and complexity of the catastrophe at the macro scale turn each of us mere mortals into deer stuck in the headlights – for a moment until we find a path forward. To help in some small way. To reach out. Connect. And lift one other person out of their misery.

THAT is what makes us human—the ability to LOVE our neighbor and demonstrate that love through selfless action.

Two weeks after Katrina, I saw a CNN story about an extraordinary family in Slidell, Louisiana. A young mother and father and their two young children. The little boy had Leukemia. His younger sister was the bone marrow donor. They were awaiting the bone marrow transplant procedure, but the hospital system was overwhelmed by
the storm. And to top it off, their house was destroyed.

When the reporter asked how they could handle the pressure of trying to save their son’s life while also losing their home, the young mother responded in faith. “They say you’re not given more than you can handle.”

The father, a sturdy Cajun man, responded with sheer resilience. “Ya gotta get stronger in a situation like this. It’s the only way we gonna survive.” YA GOTTA GET STRONGER IN A SITUATION LIKE THIS. IT’S THE ONLY WAY WE GONNA SURVIVE. Those words from Tony “Bubba” Nata Jr. changed my perspective on life forever.

That is what Resilience is all about. Now let me talk about Compassion. Check that, let me talk about Extreme Compassion.

Like Hurricane Katrina, this COVID pandemic has made me feel like a deer stuck in the headlights. Where do we begin? Where do we start to help? Where do we find a path – or carve a new path amid emotional and physical debris – to go forward, make progress, start to heal, and start to rebuild? And how do we measure the pain?

The loss of life. The emotional trauma who have lost loved ones, who are isolated, and those called to heal us all but could never be prepared for the emotional and psychological trauma of a pandemic. Whose toll rolls across our hearts, minds, and souls like never-ending waves in a tsunami of darkness and fear?

Where do we begin?

And then we found the Johnson Family. They stood vigil for weeks outside their father’s hospital window. Making hearts with their hands. Waving. Blowing kisses at the nurses in the window. The nurses who held their father’s hand on their behalf as he took his final breath. Nurses, who, in another world and another time, would have watched the immediate family perform this sacred task.

This last connection of love. But this particular virus will not allow the natural order to take place. This virus separates family from loved ones as they lay dying. So the nurses, the hospital staff, they play this sacred role. They give of their hearts, their souls, to total strangers, on others;

Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. While the Johnson Family and so many other families around our Nation and the world stand vigil, outside the window.

But what makes this story so extraordinary, at least to me, is that after Rene Johnson died, the Johnson Family kept standing vigil outside the window. But this time for the nurses.

Day after day, week after week, month after month, to make hearts with their hands, to wave and blow kisses, to give the nurses the strength and love and Compassion and sheer fortitude to carry on in this war against a virus that is tearing families, our Nation, and our world apart.

Yet at the same time, bringing us closer together through acts of love and
kindness that is so much stronger than any virus, than any act of nature, than any catastrophe.

Love will always win—every time. And so, on what would have been Rene Johnson’s birthday on Tuesday, July 14, we painted Stars of HOPE with the Johnson Family of Manchester, New Hampshire, and the nurses, doctors, and hospital staff Catholic Medical Center. They so lovingly cared for their father and gave of themselves to let Rene know he was truly loved.

In this magical moment of true unity, as the family painted a Star of HOPE that proclaimed, “We love ICU,” the ICU nurse from the COVID unit painted a Star of HOPE that proclaimed “ICU THANKS YOU.”

Think about that. ICU Thanks You. We are ALL in this together. We must be. It’s the only way we gonna survive.

Jeff Parness
New York City
July 16, 2020

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