Sunday, April 12, 2020

Empathy during a pandemic

The truth is that we are not actually "all in this together". People have the illusion that everyone is in a similar situation at the moment. In fact, we are all having different experiences of the pandemic, the lockdown, and the way we are spending our time.

In order to have real empathy, you have to understand and appreciate the differences between people and their circumstances. I think that extreme situations like this one bring out people's true personalities. Some people are expressing themselves in entitled, judgmental, and misguided or "tone deaf" ways, which shows that they don't have empathy for other people's situations. Here is how these people can learn empathy and change their attitude.

The first group that has been guilty of this sort of lack of empathy includes many wealthy and famous people who have been trying to portray themselves as having the same sort of experiences as the rest of us. They might feel as though they are just ordinary people, but their wealth gives them privileges the majority of the population doesn't share. First and foremost, wealth gives people a sense of security. They are not going to starve or end up homeless or in debt. These are very real concerns for many less privileged people, even some who until recently considered themselves middle-class professionals. Just knowing that you have enough money to last you several years (or decades) even if you never work again is something that the wealthy might not realize they take for granted.

Famous people have been trying to keep the focus on themselves in a very narcissistic way. At times like these, they don't realize that flaunting their luxury homes and exotic lifestyles is certain to alienate many people. Yes, they might be in lockdown like the rest of us, but in much more comfortable circumstances. This is not about you.

What the wealthy can do at this time is donate significant amounts of money to good causes. Vaccine research, hospital funds, any sort of charity. Those who are really empathic will do this quietly, behind the scenes, because it's not about them but about the cause they support. Do it for its own sake, not to promote yourselves!

The wealthy also have the power and influence to work behind the scenes in companies they are involved with to help employees get paid while in lockdown, prevent job losses, and apply generous procedures to staff members who are sick or have sick family members. Caring for the less fortunate is a sign of empathy.

A second example of lack of empathy is a message that has been circulating on social media and has prompted a lot of discussion. I have seen this message, with its reply, but don't know who originated it:

* Edited to add: Here is an article that brings a source for the original quotation, Jeremy Haynes, and in this photo, the response below the deleted line was written by my sister-in-law, Jill Pretorius. I have seen a few different versions with similar sentiments.

The statement "You didn't ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline" is the sort of tough-love motivational nonsense that demonstrates a lack of empathy and sensitivity and judges other people.

The response, that we are going through difficult times and it's not a competition, starts to answer the judgment, but doesn't express the response as clearly as I want to do now.

The original post's assumption is that we are in quarantine and therefore now have time to do the things we used to say we didn't have time to do.

First, not everyone is in lockdown and not everyone who is has time.

There are essential workers who are spending just as much time, if not more, working. They don't have the benefit of this extra time we are all assumed to have.

There are people who are now working from home. While this might save them some commuting time, using the unfamiliar and inefficient online platforms might end up taking just as much time and might be just as exhausting.

There are people who have lost their jobs or their freelance income. So yes, maybe they have more time, but they are likely to be looking for ways to earn some money just to survive, rather than spending time on personal development.

Many people have their children at home with them. It would be nice to imagine that the children spend their usual school hours studying online, but in reality, online learning is not equivalent to being at school and parents have to educate and entertain their children most of the time. This doesn't give them extra time.

The next assumption is that with "discipline" you can achieve what you want in any circumstances. The reality is that for most people, this is not just some free time they can use. Most people are, justifiably, worried about getting sick, about their loved ones getting sick, about being isolated from family and friends, about possibly losing their jobs or income, about the cancellation of important events they had planned, and in some cases they are experiencing strained relations with their family members or roommates as a result of the lockdown.

Discipline alone doesn't enable people to develop the right state of mind to study or set up a business. It's something we can strive for, but not something we must do in order to prove ourselves worthy. Yes, personal growth and development is an ideal, but it should never be something we force ourselves to do if it makes us feel worse as a result. There is no obligation to become more "successful" as a result of this lockdown.

The most important thing we can do right now is follow instructions and reduce the risk of getting sick or infecting other people. We have to take care of ourselves and our families. This includes being empathic and understanding, rather than entitled and judgmental.

Some will be able to take advantage of the situation to develop new skills and work on creative projects. Good for them! But don't assume that those who don't do so "lack discipline". There are many reasons why this is not the ideal time for most people to live up to these high expectations.

If you find yourself wondering why someone does or doesn't do something, think about the whole range of circumstances of that person's life rather than just assuming it's "laziness".

I hope we can all learn to practice more empathy and compassion during this time.

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