Brave New Compassionate World

Navigating uncharted waters during the coronavirus outbreak has challenged us all. Many Americans are familiar with “first world problems” like nabbing the best vacation deals or worrying about getting that promotion at work. But now, shuttered stores, job loss, and even restricted availability of some basic supplies is creating a startling reality.

Even more daunting is the panic that wells up in your throat at night, the fears for yourself and your loved ones, and even shame over “selfish” urges to hoard as many paper products and canned goods as possible. And there is that dogged uncertainty. What news can you really trust? Are you a carrier and don’t even know it? Are you overreacting or not taking social distancing seriously enough? Routines are disrupted. Safety and a sense of normalcy seem to have disappeared.

And in the midst of our own personal struggles, we know that everyone has a story to tell — a fear, a disappointment, a loss. Isolation from loved ones, loss of human contact, decimated retirement accounts, job loss, crushing boredom, the absence of physical touch, cancelled vacations, weddings and graduations, and even postponed memorial services because mourners cannot gather to grieve. 

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. – Plato

First-world problems — once so pressing — pale in comparison to the greater need for survival — our own personal survival and that of the world around us. Like wartime survivors and refugees, we are learning to jettison the irrelevant and hold on to what is most essential. This episode in history unites the entire globe and is unique as it cannot be parsed through racist, ethnocentric or nationalistic biases. We are all in this together.

How can we maintain some equilibrium as we weather this crisis?

  1. Find your “inner calm.” Whether you ascribe to the British WWII phrase, “keep calm and carry on,” or to Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation on calmness (“Breathing in, I feel calm. Breathing out I feel at ease.”), identifying what will comfort you, your children, and others around you is critical. Some find that pacing themselves, and avoiding too much news and social media is a first step. Now is the time to make room for meditation, exercise, a spiritual practice, a creative outlet, a comforting routine, and connection with loved ones (even through virtual resources), to maintain a sense of calm.
  2. Check your assumptions at the door. Your situation may be vastly different from what others are experiencing. Some without jobs are grappling with boredom and loneliness; others are working 14-hour days at medical centers or stocking grocery shelves for minimum wage. Many are grieving lost opportunities and disappointments. Others view this “pause” as a guilty pleasure, granting them time away from work or school. Don’t assume that you know what others are feeling. Ask them instead. And anger toward those who seem insensitive, who are hoarding food and supplies, and who are “out for themselves” will only make you feel worse. Try to appreciate that what seems like “selfish” behavior often stems from fear.
  3. Listen to the scientists! You may hear conflicting messages from political leaders. But the scientists and epidemiologists in charge are the voices of reason. Take their advice seriously. Tune out social media, panic-driven accounts, personal rants, and hearsay. And set aside only a small part of the day to attend to this information — a constant stream of news will merely increase anxiety.
  4. Use some of your free time (if you are not one of those front line first responders working non-stop) to self-reflect and expand your horizons. Yes, there is plenty of time for Netflix and other distractions. But using this time to engage in a creative pursuit, a household project, or personal self-improvement (such as increased exercise or an online educational class) can be beneficial. Create some structure with a daily schedule that includes exercise, enjoyable activities, a productive effort, and some spiritual/relaxing/meditation-based pursuit. And if you are busy working on the front lines, it is even more critical to find some time to relax and to pace yourself.
  5. Build your inner resources, self-compassion and strength. Now is absolutely the time to eat right, exercise, get adequate sleep, and gather wisdom from reliable sources about improving your health. If you meditate or have a spiritual practice, focus on building and supporting your own sense of strength and calmness. Remind yourself that you will get through this, that you are loved by those close to you, and that you have weathered rough times before. Find compassion for yourself, and accept that your fears are normal and understandable; however, they are thoughts and feelings that do not have to control you. There are a range of meditations apps and programs that can offer support during this difficult time, such as those from meditation experts Kristin Neff and Tara Brach.
  6. Engage in empathy and compassionate acceptance for others. Yes, you might not agree with some of our political leaders. Yes, you might feel angry about other people’s decisions. But everyone is scared right now, and the more you tap into your deep well of empathy and compassion, the calmer you will feel. For every disappointment, there have been a wealth of stories highlighting others’ kindness and generosity — closed businesses that continue to pay their employees, neighbors helping neighbors, donations to food banks. Isolation, blame, scapegoating and bitterness will not get us through this and should not be our legacy. Connection and compassion will help us endure.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama XIV

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