While many things have changed and shifted in the past few weeks as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, there are others that remain the same. All the changes around me have offered up many chances to practice building skills that contribute to a more connected and empathic world.
Here are a few that have been front and center in my life:
See the whole picture
This is something that comes up a lot in uncomfortable conversations across a range of topics. Yes, there is a time and place for you to talk about how annoying it is to have to do 40 hours of Zoom meetings in your tiny apartment with three roommates. That time and place is not, however, when your friend who is a healthcare professional is sharing how scary it is to not have the right kind of mask while at a hospital. It’s not that you and your friend can’t talk about these things; it’s just that you have to care about each other enough to see the whole picture.
This virus – and our response to it – has infected so many systems, organizations, communities and relationships. Some of us – those on the frontlines and those who cannot distance – are at the epicenter of the physical impact of this virus. Some of us – those who have already lost their livelihood or are facing layoffs – are at the epicenter of the economic impact of this virus. We are all – to some extent – swept up in the trauma and anxiety that comes with change and uncertainty. This makes it harder – and more critical – to see the whole picture and to live in it together.
Practice empathy in all directions
Oftentimes, we reserve empathy for people who, at least on the outside, have it “harder” than we do. This is a moment to practice empathy in all directions. Empathy breeds empathy, and we could all use some more fucks to give about each other in this moment. Speaking of fucks to give, it’s also okay to have zero right now. Maybe your day job is taking all the energy you have to give. Maybe you are saving your fucks for your kids or your parents. Maybe you just used as many as you can use in a single day. If your fucks have run out, don’t worry, they will come back. And if someone doesn’t have any fucks to give you, don’t take it personally. Empathy is not a zero sum game. There is enough to go around.
Empathy is both emotional and practical. We can’t practice it unless we can slow down our own reactions enough to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes. For example, I just received an email from my daughter’s kindergarten teacher laying out a schedule and curriculum for next week that probably won’t work with everything we are juggling. I felt overwhelmed, but paused and imagined what it must be like for these teachers to miss the faces of their students, work through the weekend to adapt kindergarten curriculum to an online format, likely with few resources or support, and to wonder about the health, learning and safety for a bunch of kids whose families you may or may not know. We’re all doing the best we can here, in trying circumstances. And I’d rather walk through the world mistaking someone’s negative actions for good intent than the other way around.
Embrace all the coping styles
We talk about this in crisis response for sexual violence. There is no wrong way to respond to being sexually assaulted. There is also no wrong way to respond to a global pandemic unlike anything the world has seen in recent history. Some people want to desperately hold on to some sense of normalcy. Others don’t have that option. Some want to hole up in their room and cry. Others want to connect virtually and socially and talk and talk and talk things out. Others want to lose themselves in bad television and eat Doritos. Some need to plan for the worst case scenario. Others want to dream for a more peaceful future. There’s no wrong way to cope. Let’s give ourselves and each other some space to cope, and find the moments of light and laughter as often as we can.
While we may not be talking about sexual harassment and violence prevention as much as we did a month ago, we can continue to build and utilize the skills that will ultimately result in a more meaningful world in times of crisis and beyond.
A thoughtful article— but I was confused in the paragraph where you talked about empathy and giving out ‘fucks’. That didn’t work for me.
Thanks for taking the time to read it. My point – and I get that the “giving a fuck” language won’t work for everyone – is that it is important to recognize and tend to emotional burnout, which for me comes in the form of not being able to show up for as many people as deeply as I’d like. But with rest and renewal, that ability always returns.