Will Coronavirus Cause Us to Connect With Humanity or Draw Into Ourselves, Despair?
COMMENTARY: COVID-19 has presented us with an acute opportunity to experience empathy at a level we have never experienced it before.
This past morning, my friend Jim and I were talking in the locker room, as we often do. Jim is a wise gentleman in his mid-80s whom I met more than a year and a half ago when I moved into my new position at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center. The paths of he and I often intersect for a few minutes as I finish getting ready for work while he prepares for his morning swim. As he has often reminded me, “Every day is a good day.”
But this particular morning, our conversation was a little somber, given the previous weeks’ events, coupled with all the shutdowns and looming uncertainty. I asked him, as a man born during the heart of the Great Depression, if he ever lived through anything like we were experiencing now. His answer was unequivocally, “No.” Born and raised in Evansville, Indiana, despite having lived through numerous wars and recessions, he agreed that the circumstances upon us were new even for him. He and I agreed that it was a good reminder of just how blessed we were to have lived in a country where this could be the case.
As the day wore on, though, I found myself considering that there was more to be gained from this current situation than gratitude (which is undoubtedly important). I began to wonder if, buried under layers of anxiety, uncertainty and fear, there was even a more acute opportunity for all of us to experience empathy at a level we have never experienced it before.
Take for consideration what it currently means to be a citizen of Yemen. This past year, Yemen was named the most fragile country in the world, a place where the United Nations declared that half of the population is at risk for a devastating famine. The economy has collapsed, and the country has been in the throes of a civil war since 2015. Eighty percent of people in Yemen live below the poverty line. Diseases like cholera run rampant, where there are, on average, 10,000 new cases reported each week. Fourteen million people depend on aid just to survive.
Consider Haiti, which has been blasted by a series of natural disasters over the past few years. Estimates are that almost half of the population is malnourished, and the average life expectancy is almost two decades less than most developed countries. The gross annual net income for residents is less than what many Americans earn in a few weeks.
Or what about the Central African Republic, where citizens live, on average, barely over the age of 50 and most (90%) live in slums? It is a place where more than 60% of people are malnourished and where the infant mortality rate is a little less than 1 in 10 live births.
By now, some of you reading may be saying, “Look, I get it. I have heard this before. From a very early age, my parents reminded me that when I didn’t eat my food, there was a kid starving in Africa who would have loved to have the food on my plate. I know, I know — we all need to be more thankful and generous.”
Guess what? That’s not the point (although, certainly, we do need to be both). Walking around these past few mornings, I felt a gradual awareness that maybe the incredible silver lining of what we all are going through is one of empathy and connection at a level we have never experienced before. As my friend of 80-plus years noted, we have somehow avoided this particular degree of uncertainty and hardship we now face for a long, long time. Yet, suddenly, beyond our control, we find ourselves in the middle of circumstances that belie what has been ingrained in us about what it means to be an American.
Paradoxically, there are those of us facing this new, unknown reality, while in many places around the world, millions face an oftentimes much worse reality all too well-known. As we here in the United States and other countries are pressed to consider what we should do with our anxiety and fear, it bears recognition that this is how some people live — all the time. Does it change how we feel? Well, not necessarily. But does it give us an opportunity, even on the smallest scale, to move our sympathetic, “knowing” selves into a deeper quadrant of empathy and understanding regarding what it is really like to live as some of our brothers and sisters? Absolutely. The question is, will we accept this challenge and further connect with all humanity, or will we draw further into ourselves and our despair? No one should be ashamed to feel afraid. For myself, I have felt the anxiety permeating through my body over these last few days. It’s just that we should know and act like we are not alone.
Whatever the reason God is allowing this to occur, one thing is for sure: The last couple of weeks are a reminder that no matter how wealthy and insured we think we are, we are just a microscopic virus away from being humbled into a different state of mind and being.
I daresay there are few out there who aren’t excitedly envisioning the day in which we can sit together in the sun at the baseball fields and dine out later that evening with friends and family galore. Or maybe just go to a typical day of work that involves those “boring” meetings and come home to news of schooldays and after-school plays. Whatever your simple delight may be, I know I am not the only one who already sees these visions like an ice cream sundae with a cherry on top.
But in the meantime, somewhere in the world economies have long since collapsed and families have no idea what they are eating today and just where they will be tomorrow. Somewhere in the world, children haven’t been to school for years and their greatest source of entertainment is only possible when the guns have temporarily been silenced. It’s just now, almost 43 years into my existence, that I am finally starting to hear and feel the echoes of what my parents admonished me about decades ago.
Jim Schroeder, Ph.D., is the vice president of the Department of Psychology and Wellness and training director of the pre-doctoral internship
and postdoctoral fellowship at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, Indiana, where he resides with his wife, Amy, and their eight children.