Why “Take Care of Yourself, and If You Can, Someone Else Too” is My Go-To Mantra in the Pandemic

·6-min read

Among the many pandemic-induced changes is how once-perfunctory greetings have assumed greater meaning. The standard “how are you” is no longer just an opening statement. It’s often packed with genuine concern, underlying so much: Did you or a loved one get COVID-19? Did you lose someone to the pandemic? Did you get a vaccination yet? How are you coping mentally? Are you able to focus on your job? You do have a job, right?

It’s also a polite check-in before moving on to the relatively unimportant business for which the communication was initiated, such as assignments and how that deck is coming along. Similarly, signing off is no longer just a bunch of standard words. “Regards” has been replaced by the more meaningful “take care” and “stay safe”. It’s so internalised now that one needs to mentally rewind to 2019 to think how strange it seems to end a professional email with a hope that the recipient stays safe.

There are many variants of either starting or ending greetings, and my favourite is:

“Take care of yourself, and if you can, someone else too”

This is American author Stephen Dubner’s sign-off line from the popular Freakonomics podcast. It seems innocuous enough, but it’s a line that stuck with me through the pandemic, for several reasons.

It seems innocuous enough, but it’s a line that stuck with me through the pandemic, for several reasons.

To begin with, look at the order of prescribed care: yourself first. This is not selfish at all. We all need to look out for ourselves – physically, financially, and especially mentally – at a time like this. And then comes the second bit: If you can, someone else too. What I appreciate the most about this is the voluntary nature of it, which makes you want to do more. It passes no judgement as to whether you do, fully understanding that for many people, taking care of oneself can by itself be a full-time occupation. As another one of my favourite podcasters, Scott Galloway, is fond of saying, “Fix your own oxygen mask first before helping others”.

The open nature of help to offer – the quantum, the recipient, the nature – is liberating, too. This could mean just helping a friend by lending an ear for their anxieties. It could be taking the stress off your spouse by doing chores they normally would. It could mean showing empathy to the delivery guy by giving a generous tip or just asking him how he is doing. It could be donating to a good cause or simply using your social media reach to amplify requests for medicine (or a job). It could be taking care of strays by feeding them. And for those of us who are civic-minded and selfless enough, it could mean going on-ground and helping people out, at the risk of contracting the virus (or, predictably, harassment).

The point of all this being: helping others comes in various shades and there is no minimum order size.

The point of all this being: helping others comes in various shades and there is no minimum order size. If nothing else, it gives you a sense of happiness and satisfaction (“the most selfish thing you can do is to help someone else,” as the adage goes). This is important especially during these times where we might feel helpless, especially after subjecting ourselves to doomscrolling. Helping someone – even if it’s a small thing – helps you retain some sense of control, some sense of joy in giving, and feel a little less paralysed. I myself can testify to this, having donated a decent bit of my monthly income to various causes, it helps take the edge off particularly bad news and makes me feel that I’ve helped someone, somewhere. It definitely helps me sleep a little better at night when otherwise there might be a sense of despair.

This is echoed by those who do much more than I do. “Helping others means a good night’s sleep, a feeling of satisfaction that we’re among the people who are doing our little bit,” says Paritosh Pant. He’s a friend who runs an NGO called Feeding From Far, which has been tirelessly distributing ration kits and food to Mumbai’s most disadvantaged during the pandemic. Not resting on their laurels of distributing 17 lakh meals, they’re aiming for more with renewed vigour during the second wave. While they’re actively raising funds, there is no shortage of motivation. “The feeling of joy to see so many vulnerable families seeing hope in us. Thousands around the world trusting us with their money.”

Similarly, another friend, Parul, has been actively involved in on-ground coordination of supplies in the ravaged state of Goa. For her, too, doing good was a way of taking back a little bit of control. “With the Covid situation escalating exponentially and its impact on work, personal, family, health and related circumstances, I felt like I’d ceded control. This seemed the thing to gain it back. Draw from my strategic ops, starting-up and scaling, organisational, consulting and content skills to teach and learn. Doing good was incidental.” She ended up being a key part of the core team at Covid Care Goa, who she described as “the most professional task force I’ve had the privilege of knowing”.

I’ve also had a few friends – many who I haven’t spoken to in years – reaching out and just checking in how I was doing. One of them confessed that doing so makes them feel a little more connected and was for his own sanity as much as for any notions of altruism.

It all makes me think that at a larger level, social service can be inculcated at a small level, at home itself.

It all makes me think that at a larger level, social service can be inculcated at a small level, at home itself. When I listen to podcasts featuring some very generous people, it strikes me how this behaviour trait often sprouts from some simple act of kindness at home, rather than seeing a motivational film of the Red Cross in action.

The jury is still out as to whether COVID-19 is making us more net empathetic or selfish as a species. While there is evidence to both, the extremes are what is highlighted. Arguably, a thousand small acts of kindness will lead to better outcomes in the long run, than one giant act of generosity. I’ll end this piece in the only natural way: by reiterating what has become a go-to line for me, and I hope it works for you, too, in whatever interpretation: Take care of yourself, and if you can, someone else, too.


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