Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus
Has the pandemic increased or decreased empathy in our lives and our world? As usual, the answer seems to be, both.
At the local level, within our own neighborhoods and communities, we are seeing outpourings of compassion for those we know and live with. Empathy is strengthened by connections, so when we see on our neighborhood Facebook page that a child who lives in our neighborhood is going to have a lonely birthday, we rally round and all put balloons in our windows for her to see as she walks by. We worry about our 90-year-old neighbor who we know lives far from her children. We bake her a pan of lasagna, and leave it on her porch, and then wave to her and shout from the sidewalk, “Hello, how are you?” when she steps out to get it. We can easily imagine how hard it is to be alone at such a time; we can easily understand how a nine-year-old would be disappointed to not have a birthday party with her friends.
We connect more than ever on social media. We sympathize with a co-worker who posts that her family will be staying at home rather than taking their long-planned vacation. We see pleas for people to make face masks for health care workers, and someone posts a photo of a family member who is a doctor and is putting their life on the line for all of us; we respond affirmatively, making that empathetic connection. Our local food shelf tells us that some in our community need extra help since they are now unemployed, and we bring our donations in. We order pizza from our favorite neighborhood pizzeria, wanting to help them in these tough times. Maybe we know the owners. We can see the face our of favorite server in our minds, and we empathize with her. We post humorous videos to help others feel better. (Use of humor is one way we can tell young children experience empathy, by the way. Often, when a three-year-old sees a friend crying, he will bop himself in the head and then do a pratfall–guaranteed to cheer the crying child up!) We post photos of gorgeous landscapes, sharing appreciation for our beautiful world. We connect, despite the social distance, because we need to, now more than ever.
And then, on the other hand… People start hoarding supplies, taking from others what those others also need. They cut off their feelings of empathy for others, putting up that defensive wall of “us” vs “them”. In all crises, this one included, some people act selfishly, deliberately turning off their concern for others. They congregate in large groups on beaches because they do not want to stop their fun, their enjoyment of the moment. They shut off their regard for others. Some of our leaders seem more concerned with how this epidemic affects them personally, rather than feeling and showing empathy for those they serve.
Honestly, it is harder to maintain one’s empathy for others when one is overwhelmed by sadness, fear, anxiety and a feeling of powerlessness. But every time we make an empathetic connection with another person, that counteracts the negative feelings a bit. If we can feel that we are all in this together, our hope increases. If we reach out in empathy to someone we know is suffering during this pandemic, our own positive feelings grow. Perhaps we expand our circle of empathy to include those in other countries, maybe those in poor or war-torn countries who are suffering even more because of this pandemic. We pay attention to what is happening there, or maybe we send a donation to an organization such as Doctors Without Borders that is dedicated to helping those most in need around the world.
Sometimes, deliberately trying to expand our empathy for others, even when we don’t feel we have the emotional reserves to do so, actually helps us feel better. And sometimes, being honest in sharing our feelings and experiences, we ask for empathy from others, and feel stronger when we receive it. Or we see that others are experiencing the same things we are, the same trials and the same joys, and we know that we are not alone.
Truly, it our empathetic connection to others that will ultimately get us through this global crisis.