Leading through the Portal to Claim our Humanity
by Kathleen Osta, Managing Director, National Equity Project
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
- Arundhati Roy, The Pandemic is a Portal
This Extended Moment Calls for Radical Compassion
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased uncertainty and anxiety at a global scale. It has driven home and made more viscerally clear the ways that we are all connected; that our human fates are quite literally linked. The extended moment we are in provides us with a potentially once in a lifetime opportunity to increase our global empathy — to practice radical compassion — and to pay attention to our collective well-being.
How might we, in this extraordinary moment, embrace this opportunity with curiosity, humility, and courage? To claim our own humanity and help to heal our fractured communities? How might we prepare now for the future we want beyond this pandemic?
We can begin by allowing ourselves to be touched by and feel our shared vulnerability — and in so doing, awaken our compassion. Author and environmental activist Joanna Macy says,
“Compassion boils down to not being afraid of the suffering of your world or of yourself. It involves being open to what you’re feeling about that suffering (grief, fear, rage, overwhelm) and brave enough to experience it… Compassion is what impels you to act for the sake of the larger whole — or put more accurately, it is the whole acting through you.”
To practice what Tara Brach calls radical compassion — to lead through the portal — we must start by confronting the painful fact that while we all feel the effects of the current crisis, we are impacted differentially along lines of race and socioeconomic class. And, even harder, this is by design. More than intellectually acknowledging this, we must be willing to pause and feel this truth.
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
- Mother Teresa
Our policies and practices as a country provide a buffer for some and exclude others at the interpersonal, institutional, and structural level. Who the “other” is has shifted over time and been used for political advantage and to consolidate racial and class power. The predictable outcome of long standing structural racism, is that African American, Latinx, and Native people, working class and people living in poverty are experiencing the harshest effects of this pandemic.
With no social safety net in place (e.g., paid sick leave, health insurance not tied to jobs, affordable childcare) for most low income people, the economic, psychological, and physical toll of this pandemic is not just frightening and inconvenient, it is devastating. Working class people (only now deemed “essential”) who can’t work from home and can’t afford to socially distance, and who are disproportionately people of color, are getting sick at higher rates. Inequitable and inadequate access to consistent, quality healthcare means that more people of color have underlying health conditions and more are dying.
This is what our policies and practices have created and this is what we must face when we look out our windows at the crisis we are in. When we look in the mirror, we must be willing to see ourselves in the faces of those most unprotected among us, not as neutral observers, but as actors whose action or inaction now will determine our collective fate.
Practicing radical compassion means confronting these inequities, feeling and healing from the effects of systemic oppression and taking action to create a world where everyone belongs. It means taking steps now to expand what john powell calls our “circle of human concern” to include everyone.
The pandemic has increased uncertainty and fear for most of us, but for many of our young people and families, especially those who belong to groups we have stigmatized or marginalized, this anxiety, uncertainty, and fear is nothing new. The pandemic only exacerbates and makes more visible what many people in this country contend with every day in our communities. How might we use the moment we are in to deeply internalize our shared fate and increase our compassion and care for one another across all lines of perceived and real difference? How might we use this global crisis to re-order our priorities and lives in ways that increase our collective well-being?
Leading Through the Portal from the Inside Out
All meaningful and lasting change begins on the inside.
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
One way is to start by looking within. To pause and check in with our own hearts, our own bodies. To notice the effects of the uncertainty and fear that we may be experiencing and feel our own anxiety and suffering. We may feel uncertain about how to keep ourselves or our families healthy and safe, we may be experiencing grief at being far from loved ones who need us, we may be worried about our job security, and concerned about our kids’ education, and many of us feel betrayed by leaders who are not making decisions with our best interests in mind. We may feel scared, angry, helpless, confused and distrustful. How does this impact us?
When I am still, when I quiet these thoughts, what sensations do I notice? What feelings? Can I just be with what I am feeling? There is an intelligence there, there is wisdom we can draw on in this moment if we are willing to feel it. Sitting with our emotions, our vulnerability, is the portal to awakening and compassion. As author, teacher, and psychologist Tara Brach reminds us, these feelings are not a mistake. We have the capacity for this suffering to wake up our innate wisdom, compassion, and love. By noticing and reflecting on our own emotions during this time of heightened uncertainty, we can begin to feel our interconnectedness with all those that are suffering and who suffer the harms of systemic oppression in all of its forms.
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.
- James Baldwin
How might we, at this extraordinary moment in human history, take an “equity pause” to notice and reflect on how our system operates, who is protected and who is harmed? What are the stories we tell ourselves about how inequities came to be and why they persist? What might be different if we saw ourselves and our own children and grandchildren in the eyes of those suffering the most harm?
How might we organize our lives at the interpersonal level and lead change at the institutional and structural level with the awareness that we belong to each other — that every human being is worthy of our attention and our care? What might be possible for ourselves and for future generations if we decide to live and lead with this value? What changes would we make now?
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
- Haruki Murakami, Author, Kafka on the Shore
This capacity, this love, already exists within each of us. In the current chaos of a pandemic, examples of community care and social solidarity abound:
- New practices like “senior hours” have sprung up to allow our elders and other customers who may need additional assistance shopping to shop first without crowds and with more support.
- Neighbors who did not know each other have created phone trees and contact lists and organized to be sure elders and others in need have someone to call for assistance and to be sure everyone is accounted for and receives support and care during these trying times.
- Medical workers from across the globe have come out of retirement to serve and have quarantined themselves from their own families in order to care for those who are sick. They have held the hands of people who are dying and reassured family members that their loved ones did not die alone.
- There have been collective displays of appreciation and honoring of medical workers, teachers, grocery store clerks, truck drivers, farmers, — all those who have always been “essential” to our daily lives.
- Families have re-connected, friends have reached out, people are talking about how to care for those who are homeless and wondering why we allow the number of people who do not have a place to call home to continue to grow in our communities.
- Schools have become food distribution centers overnight and teachers have turned their kitchens into classrooms, checking on students’ wellness and focusing on relationships and learning over content coverage and grades — all while often taking care of their own children and families.
- Cities have suspended evictions and utility companies have turned on water and halted water and power shut offs. (Pause here to notice and reflect on what it feels like as you think about people being forcibly removed from their homes, people here in the United States without running water.)
These changes, made almost overnight in response to COVID-19, let us know that change is possible and that we can create systems that are caring and humane. The crisis has brought forth the best in so many of us.
How can we sustain this care and safeguard our humanity once this crisis is over? How might we commit to staying awake to the experience of those furthest from opportunity in our communities and reimagine our systems to care for everyone? How do we need to prepare and reimagine now, knowing that once COVID-19 recedes, the overwhelming likelihood is the system will revert back to an oppressive equilibrium? How might we organize now to take leadership for legislation, policies, and practices that are human centered, that care for everyone, and that nourish and sustain our collective well-being?
We have an extraordinary opportunity at this moment in human history to pause and feel our human connectedness — and to consider how we might respond to both the suffering and the possibility of the moment in ways that create communities of belonging and care.