It was the day after Christmas, and I felt deflated. The change had been too abrupt. I
needed a tonic, and not the gin-and type, though that would have worked, too, but
something spiritually uplifting and inspiring.
I had been saving “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in which Tom Hanks plays the saintly Fred Rogers, for just such an occasion.
In the theater, Hanks/Rogers was so nice I cried. I’m nice, but clearly I could be a whole
lot nicer even if I was only 10 percent as nice as Mr. Rogers, who was so nice that he
would have forgiven his own executioner then helped him raise the guillotine.
As the credits spun, I resolved to be a much kinder spirit in the New Year.
On New Year’s Eve I drove to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to visit friends. It was a lovely, easy New Year’s Eve drive. A terrible year for me was about to blessedly end. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the quieter part, was on the radio. It was extremely peaceful in the car.
Then, this being Massachusetts, a driver cut me off in a very aggressive maneuver. He must have been listening to Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny.”
“What the hell!!!” I screamed, only worse, and laid on the horn as he disappeared into
So much for nicer.
In the cozy safety of my car (and knowing the other driver would get off at the next exit
while I kept on) I had lost it, despite my best intentions. I could get away with it because
I felt safe in my cocoon of solitude, where I wouldn’t actually have to confront this
In a column two days later, Arthur C. Brooks of The Washington Post wrote about the
epidemic of loneliness and isolation in the U.S. The health insurance company Cigna
found in a 2018 survey that “half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling
alone,” leading to all kinds of serious health problems. Studies by the Kaiser Family
Foundation and AARP have reported similar findings.
Why, Brooks wondered, do people feel so alone when it’s easier than ever to stay in
“One reason,” he wrote, “is shrinking social contact with people we don’t know. Not so
long ago, strangers talked to each other a great deal in public – in buses, at the airport,
in line, at the bank. Why? Because there was not much else to do.” We were in no
This sounds a lot like nostalgia, but I wonder if there isn’t something deeper going on. I
wonder if we have more in common with those we consider our political and social
enemies than we realize.
Could that common ground be communal grief for what we have all, as a society, lost?
Nostalgia is a cheap, simple mood that we can turn on or off at will. A commodity. Grief,
on the other hand, is an extremely complex state of mind and spirit and soul that uncoils
itself from the core of our being only in its own time.
What made that guy in the car in Massachusetts so aggressive? What made me so
angry? Is there a point at which those emotions intersect that might reveal a shared
state in two complete strangers? And can we learn anything from that?
“I think the best thing we can do is to let people know that each one of them is
precious,” Fred Rogers said.
And, as Brooks said, we can’t do that without talking to each other. Sounds pretty
simplistic, but so what? What have we got to lose?
I think I’ll try again to be a nicer person this year, to engage those with whom I don’t
share political or religious points of view. But I won’t talk about politics and religion.
Instead, I’ll try to talk about the grief we may share for things lost.
I’ll get back to you in December about that. In the meantime, please don’t cut me off.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist, and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.