Peanut Butter Cookies Make Us Strong by, Marci Lucia, September 1, 2022

2022 September 14
by DoMC

“Peanut Butter Cookies Make Us Stronger”

For those of us who live in New York City the pandemic began abruptly.
Within weeks we were quarantined inside our homes not knowing if going
to the grocery store would kill us. Or we were leaving our homes to go to
our jobs at the grocery store, or the warehouse, or the hospital, not
knowing if showing up to work would kill us. Suddenly, we wore masks
everywhere outside our homes. Suddenly, even masked, we avoided
walking within six feet of each other. Suddenly, all of this meant life or
death, for ourselves and for each other.
I met my neighbor Anthony during that time. I first noticed him standing
outside in his little front yard. He looked dazed. Heavyset with an
overflowing belly and a square Italian jaw, his paper mask was askew. No
one else was around. We nodded at each other as I scurried past on my
way to the grocery. Next time I saw him I went back inside my home and
came out with a notecard on which I had scrawled my name and phone
number. I shoved the card at him. I hoped that I hadn’t also given him
Covid. We didn’t even know at that time if Covid could be transferred
through surfaces.
Anthony called me the next day. I learned that he lived alone. Until recently
he had cared for his father who died right before the pandemic began. I
began to leave small gifts of food for Anthony – peanut butter cookies,
apple crumble, dumplings – in a Tupperware container on his doorstep. He
returned the Tupperware and left comic books from his extensive collection
for my two-year-old twins with handwritten notes of thanks. We spoke when
we saw each other, standing masked, six feet distant, me on the sidewalk,
and Anthony behind his gate. Besides my family, he was the only person I
spoke to for days.

It turned out that the notecard I shoved at Anthony didn’t have Covid.
Meanwhile my friendship, he later said, meant the world to him. Otherwise,
he was alone. In my version of the pandemic, I wasn’t alone but I was
isolated with my family and bore round-the-clock responsibility for the care
of two-year-olds at their energetic peak who couldn’t meet a playmate or
enter a playground. My conversations with Anthony eased my isolation and
doing nice things for him made me feel good at a time when feeling good
was rare. In this unexpected friendship, Anthony and I supported each
other. We each made the other stronger.
We each know privately what Covid has done to us. We survived a
pandemic, but we are not okay. We were isolated for long periods. We lost
loved ones. We were scared, and maybe sick. Some of us are still sick
after months, or years. We missed birthdays and weddings and funerals.
We missed coming together here at First U. We know that during Covid
rates of addiction and mental illness and suicide surged across the U.S.
We know that rates of anxiety and depression in children shot up. The
pandemic may have led in part to angry, fed up people busting into our
national capital in an insurrection.
But what about “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”? Many know
that this is a paraphrase from the 19th century German philosopher
Nietzche. Others may know it from Kelly Clarkson’s pop hit “Stronger”
released in 2015. It’s pervasive in our culture. Pop stars including Kelly
Clarkson but also Kanye West, Shontelle, 2Pac, Asia, Megadeath and a
surprising many more have included this phrase in their songs. You can
find a compilation video online.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. We want to believe that
adversity strengthens us. Makes us better people. More capable. Even
more spiritual. So we reflexively reach for this idea. On Facebook,
someone announces divorce, the death of a loved one, mental illness,
cancer, and their friends say, “You will be even stronger after this.” We say
this even to people whose lives are actually in jeopardy: the domestic
violence victim; the stage-four cancer patient; the former marine with

PTSD, now actively suicidal. “You have already been through so much.
You are so strong.”
We want adversity to be meaningful, because that would give meaning to
our suffering. Our suffering though is both inevitable, and inexplicable. After
I gave birth, I cringed when I heard my newborn cry. I wished at that
moment that my child would never have to suffer. The nurses laughed at
me. “She’s a baby!,” they said, “Of course she’s going to cry.” She’s
human, they might as well have said. We all suffer – hunger, tiredness,
illness, aging, death, our own and others’. Human life is filled with
And adversity breaks us down. As a parent, I instinctively understand that
meeting my children’s needs for security and love is what will best prepare
them for life. And research supports what parents know. Researchers have
observed that children raised in loving, nurturing families live the longest.
Conversely, children growing up in families with violence, abuse and
neglect – with adversity – are more likely to develop addictions, diabetes,
heart disease, and cancers. These children are statistically more likely to
die early. It turns out that which does not kill us, kills us sooner.
When we say to someone in pain “this will make you stronger” we ignore
this shared humanity. After all, we each know how hard life can be. We
also relieve ourselves of responsibility for their suffering. We don’t have to
do anything for people who are suffering if suffering makes them better
people. Let’s approach each other instead with a compassion that arises
naturally out of our shared human connection. Sometimes, this will mean
letting another person know that we are present for them. We can simply
say to someone in pain, “I’m here”. Other times we will be challenged to
understand our connection to another person and think through what we
can do to relieve their suffering.
As the pandemic continued – and we continued to face something which
could kill us – we saw the ways our choices affect one and other. Those of
us who were able to work from home did and avoided transmitting the virus

to others. Others of us went to work, and so we all had access to food and
toilet paper. Some cared for our elders, and others cared for those who
were sick from Covid. As usual, poor folks, and especially Black and brown
folks, were often forced to take on our collective risk and so more of them
have died from jobs that exposed them to Covid. Many pushed for a
discussion of race and class that exposed this reality.
The ways we took care of each other may sometimes have felt small, but
they mattered collectively. Some of us ordered takeout from local
restaurants which had lost business because of pandemic closures. Others
paid nannies and house cleaners throughout the pandemic, even though
these employees couldn’t safely come to work. A friend who was
diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic reported that his neighbors
were masking up and driving him to chemo treatments. I can’t drive so I
walked 30 minutes to my friend’s house to leave peanut butter cookies on
his doorstep.
I am happy to say that we Unitarian Universalists don’t dismiss suffering.
This is central to our Unitarian Universalist faith. We don’t believe that
suffering makes someone more likely to go to Heaven as Christians
historically did. We don’t offer relief from the cycle of lives and the suffering
that accompanies them as Hindus do. We aren’t waiting for an afterlife to
make things better. Instead, we focus our attention on alleviating suffering
during our lifetimes. We believe that we can make the world a better place.
So let’s stop saying “Your suffering will make you stronger”. Instead, let’s
ask ourselves, “How can I make this person stronger?” Or, even better, let’s
ask, “How can we make this person stronger?” I’ve already seen how folks
at First U might answer these questions. During the pandemic, some folks
called up fellow congregants to ask how they were doing. Other First U
folks delivered home-cooked meals to one of our congregation who had
cancer. Some folks initiated an Immigrant Solidarity Committee and
throughout the pandemic they hosted Central American refugees in their
spare rooms. And others joined the protests to stop police violence against
our racial minorities.

In all these actions, our fellow congregants show us where we find meaning
in adversity. It doesn’t make us stronger, but it does connect us to our
shared humanity. It connects us to every other person, regardless of
gender or age or race or country of origin. Our suffering is our entry point
into empathy and through it we are compelled to compassionate acts.
When we choose to acknowledge suffering, not only our own but also one
and other’s, we see how we can change lives. As suffering connects us to
our humanity, we realize we can make each other stronger. And we act.

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