What do yawning, laughter, enthusiasm, and kindness share in common? They all can be referred to as infectious. Neuroscientists have measured through brain scans the contagious impact of viewing others acting with kindness. While the neural basis for contagious yawning is still not understood, the phenomena are not limited to humans, as it has been observed in other primates and in dogs. Dogs and monkeys may not purchase tickets to a comedy club but they enjoy a good laugh and as in humans, the dog who laughs last, laughs best.
The COVID-19 is no laughing matter. When the medical community changes the label of a virus from epidemic to pandemic its meaning is that the virus is spreading worldwide. The connotation of the prefix “pan” also connects it to Pan, “the god of the woods” who was, “the source of mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots.” It is from Pan that we get the word panic.
As the death toll rises and the virus spreads there will be a significant disruption of normal activities, the extent of which is still unknown. Ships have already been quarantined, school systems closed and bans placed on air travelers. There will be more guidelines on how to take precautions from being infected. At a minimum people need to become aware of who and what they touch, most importantly being acutely aware of how reflexive it is to touch our own faces. It takes disciplined awareness to refrain from touching one’s own face unless the hands have been thoroughly washed.
Those who want to deepen their spiritual awareness can expand their concern for others who have already suffered from this virus. It is also a time to reflect on the power of infectious kindness. There is an ancient saying about the effects of a butterfly fluttering its wings—the way it was always phrased in my childhood referred to that butterfly being in China. One person went to a food market in China and ate meat from an animal carrying the coronavirus and the effect is now being transmitted worldwide.
Consider the impact of a person, you, fluttering your hands, doing a favor, speaking or acting with kindness. You will never know who will be infected by your kindness, but kindness, like laughter, has a way to spread virally. Smile and the world will spread your smile.