Compassion in the Time of Pandemic

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Image created by Guilherme Santiago. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives — help stop the spread of COVID-19.

In a week’s time, I will turn 25 years old in the midst of a global quarantine.

I can’t say I could have predicted how this year would unfold when I made my resolutions only 4 months ago. Even two months ago, COVID-19 was only a word and an international news story, far removed from Canada.

Now, there is a stillness in the city. The normally busy street in front of our home is silent, so that birds’ calls and children’s voices carry in place of rumbling engines and irritated honks. Other than that, though, and the daily articles with rising death tolls and new case numbers, life seems unremarkable.

We go for daily walks around the neighbourhood and cross the road to avoid neighbours with the same idea. We come home from the grocery store- only one of us on any one trip- and immediately wash our hands and wipe down our items. My mind struggles to wrap its head around the threat, feeling a little like a child playacting. Am I doing enough? Too much? Too little? I suppose only time will tell.

If I’m being honest, as much as it frustrates me to see those ignoring the need for social distancing, I can make sense of why they do. This is not a tangible danger- at least not until it has arrived- and requires a certain amount of faith in what our governments and news are telling us. Faith that has, in my experience, extremely eroded over the past decade.

This is exacerbated, too, by an ingrained concern of appearing silly, or stupid. There’s a hesitation that crops up in me every time I step onto the street and the person I’m passing doesn’t react or shift towards the other side. My mother struggled a few days ago with wearing a scarf around her face on her trip to the grocery store, as feelings of embarrassment arose around the fact that she would look as if she were “overreacting”.

As a society we’ve prioritized an attitude of self-control, of projecting absolute confidence and avoiding anything that could be misconstrued as “emotional” or “hysterical”. It is absolutely fascinating to me, then, that in a world where fears of domestic terrorism and nuclear war ruled, it would be a pandemic that laid us flat.

A pandemic requires a heightened consciousness towards our body and the space it takes up in the world. A pandemic asks of us to be aware of the impact our actions have on other people and the consequences we can enact through ignorance. I’m sure I’m not the only one to see the bitter irony in that.

Looking at the other end of this ordeal here- an end that still remains shrouded in uncertainty- I see an opportunity here to leave behind a system that has fallen like a house of cards when given a push. If there’s one thing the past few months have illustrated, it is that each of us as individuals are stronger within community, and that a “dog-eat-dog” attitude has no place in the future of this world.

Of course, though for most of us, our external worlds are on pause (and a tremendous thank you to all essential workers who do not have this privilege), the digital world is a behemoth only growing in size. And though it may feel as if this world is less real than the one outside our doors, it’s important to acknowledge that here, too, your actions have consequences.

I know this can be difficult. It’s a struggle to pause your judgment and reconsider when modern social media is tailor-made for split-second reactions. I don’t believe anyone is immune to the attraction of easy, binary emotions and the feeling of “righteous” anger swelling inside of you. Still, though, I believe strongly that this has illustrated that this current time of aggression and “you versus me” attitudes needs to come to an end.

This is what I have been doing when I feel that reactive, defensive response coming on: I hold back, I take a deep breath. I ask myself these five questions:

1. What do I actually know? And am I certain I know it?

2. What am I feeling? Why am I feeling this?

3. How does this serve me?

4. What am I contributing to the world by reacting like this?

5. What could I do instead?

Most of the time, I don’t post after asking myself those, or I post something very different from what I would have initially.

We are attracted to certain stories because we know them well. There are heroes, and there are villains. The news capitalizes on this because it makes for a bounty of social media interaction, be it outraged comments or tearful praise. Certainly there are many out there doing very heroic things right now- be it the hospital staff, grocery store workers, janitors, delivery drivers, street outreach workers- the list goes on. They are not the martyrs we try to make them into, though. They are human beings, doing the best they can, sometimes for very little pay.

There’s that wonderful quote I keep seeing, from Mr. Rogers:

“When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people that are helping.’”

I’d like to take that one step further. Be a helper. In whatever form that takes- be it avoiding posting that severe comment or tipping your pizza delivery person extra well. You could campaign for better pay and more safety measures on the frontline, or donate to your foodbank, or join your local Caremongering group. Take that passion, that anger, that fear sitting inside of you and channel it into something good.

For the sake of a more compassionate tomorrow:

Be a helper.

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