In This Pandemic, Be a Compassionate Listener

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of first-person essays by members of the Duke community reflecting on a year living with COVID-19.

As we approach a year of being in the pandemic, I think about my father. He’s that guy who cringes when the person beside him sneezes, so I’m accustomed to living with the idea that others are potential vectors of disease. Because his phobia is not clinical, it has been met with levity in our family. But, I really miss the levity of my father’s germ phobia during this pandemic. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed such a change in human interaction, and it has saddened me. Maybe you’ve noticed too, the fear and suspicion that we now all seem to have of one another — it seems that so many of us see each other as vectors of disease.

You know the scenario; you go to the drugstore, see another person coming your way, you both freeze and nervously wait for the other to pass at a safe distance. I do miss the days when we could encounter another human being and we could smile and nod or smile and say hello. Being from the South, where it is normal for total strangers to say hello to one another, it is so striking to hear silence in public places that before were filled with folks exchanging greetings with total strangers. I sometimes worry whether the pandemic has changed our human interaction beyond recovery. Since I’m not a fatalist, I am hopeful that we will get back to seeing one another beyond their potential to infect us with disease — I am hopeful that with more and more modeling of love and care, we will get back to a place of seeing something beautiful in each other.

Yes, during this pandemic, things have fundamentally changed. Thus, I’ve been more focused on acceptance these days. Acceptance is not vapid acquiescence but resilient resolve. Resolve to create a better existence by every decision and action we make. Resolve to come out of this stronger, with greater appreciation for the people in my life. Acceptance allows me to reset my attention, intentions and adjust my attitude. Thus, I have accepted that things may never get back to “normal” but I anticipate a better “new normal” and envision what I can do to help create it.

During my training and volunteer service as a spiritual care giver for Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services in Massachusetts, I learned the futility of trying to recover some ideal of normalcy but to appreciate the gift of acceptance. My new normal entails deep compassionate listening as we all will need to process our grief from so much loss we have experienced during the pandemic — loss of loved ones, livelihoods, sense of meaning, and purpose.

My hope is that when we encounter each other we will begin seeing compassionate deep listeners, and not vectors of disease. How do we cultivate deep compassionate listening? By 1) Understanding that listening is an expression of love; 2) after asking how someone is doing, stand still and stay long enough to hear how they are actually doing; 3) totally focusing our mind non-judgmentally on what the person is saying instead of focusing on what we will say next — by emptying ourselves of self-absorption and being fully present to the other person.

My resolve is to see deep compassionate listeners when I see others; my hope is that they will be exactly that and that I will be the same for them.

Wylin Wilson is an associate professor of theological ethics at the Duke Divinity School. Her work focuses on the intersection of religion, gender and bioethics.

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