A call for empathy in a pandemic

Lockdown and the pandemic have been hard on all of us. For each of us our physical and mental health has been impacted in slightly different ways depending on our experiences in this time. Many of us may be feeling better mentally as lockdown eases but more nervous for our physical health. In each decision we are weighing up the risks, we are making slightly different assessments depending who we are and what we need to get through this tumultuous time.

I am aware that people within my social circles are living in such different ways; some more relaxed and others being a lot stricter. There are people across this spectrum in all age groups, sexualities and ethnicities. Therefore, I am wary of sweeping statements or generalisations that could be hurtful and untrue. On social media I have seen a lot of angry comments against those of a different view; some feeling that we should all be going out more for the sake of the economy while others suggesting that any social mixing is creating unnecessary risk. Both views, coincidently, are aiming for a form of healing and betterment but from different perspectives.

What do these angry comments have in common? A dehumanisation of ‘the other’; as if the entire character of another person is summed up by their choices in this strangest of times. I fear the divides this encourages and how the language used impacts our understanding of the humanity of another. We are now in a situation where something as simple as a pub trip puts us into two opposing camps. For me it raises the age-old question of how do we disagree well? How can we see the humanity of the person behind the action we don’t like?

The base line is empathy. We have to try to understand where someone else is coming from, try to imagine what life might be like for them and what experiences have led to their current actions and choices. From this place of greater empathy far better conversation and understanding can begin.

In a time when we are all at risk of being more separate we must work harder at staying connected. To me this doesn’t mean scrolling on Twitter or TikTok; it means calling your Grandma, it means sharing how you are really feeling with a good friend or forgiving the hurtful words of someone you know is anxious. All this can feel like tremendously hard work but it is worth it for ourselves, others and society as a whole.

On the Michelle Obama podcast a recent guest, Michele Norris, said ‘We shouldn’t be aiming for normal but should be aiming for better’. I have thought of this often over the last few days, to me it means greater empathy and greater connectivity because life is tougher for everyone at the moment.

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