Anonymous stranger in Cape Town ignites hope in passers by

About four days before lockdown started in South Africa, I took a jog in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. I soon became overwhelmed by the prospect of isolation and how we as a nation would cope in the coming weeks.


We went from dreading Day Zero in 2018 to dreading Patient Zero in 2020 with multiple crises in between. It felt unfair. I continued heavily around the grassy common.

A Hug of Humanity


Then something incredible happened. A sign, just at the corner of the path, offered a message in pastel colours: "Smiles are contagious too". I stopped jogging and I smiled. I looked around to see if anyone else felt the tangible happiness emanating from that poster. I was alone, yet I had not felt so "together" with a stranger in a long time. If anyone was watching, they would have seen a beautifully raw gesture of humanity.


Standing by myself, on a corner of the 2.7 kilometre path, I felt embraced by the empathy of that sign. Looming catastrophes didn't feel so close anymore: a collapsed economy, no South African Airways, no reliable electricity supply suddenly didn't feel like such a dead end anymore. Instantly, I knew that someone else (armed with cardboard, pastels and cable ties) was enduring my reality too. We would be fine because it was our reality together.


This is the immense power of being human in times when we are kept apart. It is common to feel overwhelmed by the pain of the past, the possibilities of the present and the trajectory of the future. Our survivalist instinct to cope and connect seems to bring out an appreciation of those who, co-suffering, reach out with empathy and kindness.


Shared humanity, such as what I experienced during my jog that day, can be felt as if a person (or many people) were closer than two metres. Human attributes of smiles and gestures of kindness are how we connect when we must stay home to protect each other. Let's not forget the Wi-Fi either.


I want to thank the anonymous South African for reaching out and hugging my soul with that cardboard sign. Thank you for reminding those of us gripped by anxious, fearful and dark contemplations that panic is contagious, but so is a smile.


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