I can’t think of one experience in my lifetime that involved the whole world, every nation, all peoples. The impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything most of us alive today, with perhaps the exception of our grandparents and their experiences with World War II, have experienced. Since the virus began to spread and became a global threat, the common phrase I’ve seen in emails, on social media platforms, and even in television ads is “we’re all this together.” There is no place in the whole world that hasn’t been touched by the coronavirus. All of us, all over the world, are struggling in some capacity as it relates to this virus and the impact on our lives or on the lives of the ones we love.
Every single one of us is facing challenges right now. Maybe we’re homeschooling kids while working from home, or maybe we’re out of a job, having marital problems, or struggling with loneliness in isolation. There are endless challenges. But I’d like to suggest that these challenges also present us infinite opportunities to show grace, empathy, mercy, and compassion. And what’s more, the universality of the pandemic—the knowledge that we’re all in this together—has, I think, primed us for showing empathy.
The importance of empathy
Yoram Solomon, author of The Book of Trust, wrote a piece for Inc. a few years ago about why empathy is the most important skill you need in the business world. Several of his ideas made sense to me: being a better negotiator by learning about people, empathizing with their ideas and situations, and coming up with solutions through putting yourself in the position of the customer. But the reason that spoke to me the most deeply was that relationships are based on trust, and that trust can be effectively built up through empathy—being vulnerable enough to let your guard down, to ask questions, to thoughtfully listen to answers, and volley back and forth constructively even though you may disagree with someone else.
Learning empathy in this way, opening yourself up while listening to what someone else has to say, can go a long way toward more peaceful relationships and open doors to constructive conversations, no matter how contentious an issue may be. This intentional movement towards empathy goes way beyond the business world. The impact of building trust through empathy in our own small worlds right now has the potential to be huge. It can positively affect our immediate relationships within our families, our circle of friends, our teachers and students, our neighbors.
So what does that all have to do with this current pandemic? Because once this is over and everyone goes back to their own lives, if we have learned how to empathize with each other and worked on becoming trustworthy, kind, and considerate, we could emerge from this time into a better world.
The global pandemic has provided us many opportunities to practice empathy. I’ve seen generosity in spades during this crisis. I’ve seen restaurants, who are greatly hurting right now, give free food to others. I’ve seen businesses offer their services simply to help others without expecting anything in return. I’ve seen kids and their families send cards into nursing homes to people who are suffering from incredible loneliness and isolation.
All of these acts of generosity have their root in empathy: being aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of others. But these acts of generosity also foster empathy in turn, because sacrificial love and empathy go hand in hand. You need to deny selfish feelings and emotions in order to focus on understanding someone else. I’ve found this to be challenging sometimes, even before the pandemic. For example, if I’m trying to work and my kids keep interrupting me, I don’t always want to take the time to meet their needs because I’m busy. But they may be struggling, too, and I might need to make a small sacrifice for their benefit. This is a small thing, but when it happens multiple times a day, I lose my patience quickly.
Learning self-sacrifice through a shared experience
Self-sacrificial love is a tough choice. But I think that in some peculiar way, the coronavirus pandemic has not only created a multitude of opportunities for empathy and self-sacrifice, but also in some ways made it easier. When we know that literally everyone right now is suffering in both big and small ways, we already have a shared experience with everyone around us—“we’re all in this together.” Knowing that everyone I interact with is facing some kind of obstacle because of the coronavirus makes me pause for a second to consider my response in interactions with others. Is it one of impatience? Or one of empathy? Am I listening and waiting until I can tell my own nightmare story, or really being present to my friend’s struggles?
Knowing that the whole world is facing the coronavirus pandemic together, it’s a lot easier to set aside my own feelings to take time to empathize with someone else. I know that many people are going through challenges, and I know that many of our challenges are shared; invisible walls of comparing situations have been broken down. For me, this has brought an element of peace. I know I’m not alone in this fight.
Knowing that we are “all in this together” binds us in ways that are lost in our daily lives when we are going in different directions. When people ask each other the common question, “How are you doing?” now, I can hear in their voices a slight change of tone. They are really asking the question, not just asking it because it’s what you do when you say “hello.” When people post that seemingly innocuous question online, comments flood in with real answers.
What’s going to happen after this pandemic is over and we go back to our regular, busy, non-quarantined lives? Will we still ask that question in a way that shows we want to know the real answer? Will empathy and generosity and grace still abound? I sincerely hope so.
While a significant challenge at this moment in history, the coronavirus pandemic has also given us a great opportunity to become people of love and mercy, to set aside selfish desires and wants and to walk with others in their messes, even if we can’t fix their problems. Outside my own family, I can practice this kind of love through offering to pick up groceries for an elderly neighbor, taking time to bring food to our local food pantry, or checking in on someone who I know lives alone.
My hope is that after this is all over and the dust settles, we remember what it was like and how we looked at others differently, considered their sufferings, and responded with empathy and kindness.