Is Being A People Person Making You Sick?

I could sense the sun rising with its bright morning rays coming through the spaces between my shuttered windows, as I lay in bed, not quite ready to throw off my cool comfy sheets. I slowly rolled over to face the windows and let the sun touch my face. After a few minutes of invigorating warmth to coax me fully awake, I was ready to start the day. I opened my eyes. Or, at least I tried to. My right eye happily popped open as usual, but my left eye was stuck in the closed position. I touched my eyelid and felt a crusty, sticky mess. I used my fingers to pry open my eye, blinked a few times and sat up, eyes wide open to what I feared could be happening. A quick trip to the bathroom mirror confirmed my immediate suspicions. I had what looked like pink eye.

I called my friend to cancel a lunch date, telling her of my situation. “What are you five?” she laughed, and then on a more concerned note asked, “What have you been doing that could have given you pink eye?” “What have I been doing?” I asked myself. Nothing really out of the ordinary, I thought, and then recalled the last few days in more detail:

A woman with a cane was trying to bend down to pick up her newspaper, which she dropped on the sidewalk. I picked it up and handed it to her. A man with a walker needed help navigating the curb. I gave him a hand. I held a door for someone whose arms were full, helped a mom with a stroller up a few steps and high-fived a kid on the street after watching his friend make a great shot in a street-court basketball tournament. I recalled pushing a shopping cart at the grocery store, sitting on a park bench to drink coffee, and taking my phone to a restaurant bathroom – also potential pink eye-causing culprits.

The fact is that living your life and interacting with people you meet during your day puts you in contact with more than you might bargain for. So what does one do? Stay home? Not an option. Interact from a distance? This is not a true and caring way to connect. Many of the people you’ll meet everyday require your touch, your hand and your hug as part of the help and connection they need. And you need that too – we all do! I hadn’t realized how much I came in close physical contact with people every day, until I really thought about it. I was always in close proximity to so many people I didn’t know – like someone, obviously, who had pink eye! So how do you connect with people and not with their viruses or germs?

Our immune systems are as individual to us as our fingerprints and there is no such thing as not, ever, getting sick. The typical adult gets 2 to 3 colds a year and takes an average of 5 sick days from work. The best advice out there is to keep your distance – at least 6 to 8 feet – from someone with a cold or flu, limit hand-shaking, wipe down all shared surfaces with an anti-bacterial and eat alone, far from someone who could cough or sneeze germs into in your vicinity. I concluded that I was a walking medical-textbook example of how to get very sick. But the truth is that you can’t help someone from 6 to 8 feet away – you can’t open a door, tell someone they look great and lend a hand or heart without being right there, with your arm around a shoulder. Acts of kindness come with up-close and personal connection.

My doctor gave me an antibiotic to take for a week and a protective gel to put on my eye itself. She asked me how I thought I got it and when I went down my list of possibilities, she took a deep breath of resignation. “Don’t touch your face unless your hands are thoroughly washed and keep a bottle of hand sanitizer on you at all times – and use it,” was her expert advice.

There is no such thing as a safe distance from which to help people and show compassion, care and kindness. Life is messy and that’s the fun of it. Along the way as you touch, hug and help people you meet, remember that you, most likely, will get a cold or pink eye or some other minor communicable infection. What you give, however through your love, care and compassion will be so much greater. Pink eye goes away. Showing kindness lasts forever.

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