I have spent a lot of time reflecting on compassion this year. It’s been impossible not to, as I read the news each day. 2020 has been–well, it’s been 2020.
I have felt such anger and frustration at the lack of national leadership, the claims that public health measures are “anti-freedom,”and the prevailing sense of entitlement that has led people to flock to restaurants, bars, and airports. Racial justice, wildfires, the election . . . the amount of pain in this country is overwhelming.
I feel powerless to do anything besides protect myself from COVID-19. I have the luxury of being able to do so without a tremendous amount of sacrifice, especially since I am mostly housebound. I miss my family desperately, but the stay-at-home advisory has been pretty easy for me overall compared to what most people are going through.
So I’ve been taking all of that–missing my family, frustration about the pandemic, outrage about systemic racism–and I’ve been channeling it through a compassion practice I learned from Toni Bernhard. She has written about it in her books, including How To Be Sick, and in articles such as this one. The practice is called tonglen, and Toni describes it this way:
Tonglen is a two-for-one practice because you simultaneously cultivate compassion for yourself and for others. Here’s how it works. On the in-breath, breathe in the suffering of others. On the out-breath, breathe out whatever kindness, compassion, and peace you’re able to offer.
It is easy to feel compassion for families touched by COVID-19, the healthcare professionals who care for them, and for essential workers (especially those who work in education, delivery/logistics, food chain, and healthcare settings). I breathe out my gratitude and my hope that they will be safe.
There are others that do not receive much attention, or whose suffering is invisible to many of us. I breathe in the stress, frustration, and lost opportunities of children whose schooling and/or daycare has been disrupted, especially those who rely on school for safety, food, or specialized services. I breathe in the concern felt by people who live in congregant situations (care homes, jails), people who live in crowded spaces, and people whose living situations are unsafe or unhealthy in any way. I breathe in the effort, strain, and guilt felt by the women (it is largely women) who are the social safety net in the United States, who are now teachers, mediators, caretakers, and household wizards, on top of everything they did before.
I breathe out resiliency, flexibility, and courage.
But I have really struggled to feel compassion for people who resist the public health measures that are necessary to get us through this pandemic. I’m not just talking about anti-maskers, but also the people in positions of power like politicians and business owners who refuse to put these measures in place.
There are two public health goals right now: minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission and minimize the burden on the healthcare system. The necessary steps are very clear: wear a mask around anyone who doesn’t live with you; wash your hands frequently; avoid (if possible) or minimize the amount of time you spend in close proximity to people who don’t live with you; and avoid high risk environments, including restaurants, bars, and gyms.
The steps are clear, but executing them is not easy. This requires sacrifice from all of us. It would be hard, even if we were all on the same page. Instead, politicians have resisted putting these policies in place or opposed the policies when they are instituted. Business owners have opposed them too, or made it difficult for employees to keep themselves safe. And yes, individuals have refused/ignored/opposed/resisted these measures as well.
This upsets me. I know what it is like to be stuck at home, unable to do what I want to do and preoccupied with health concerns. I know what it’s like to lose my income and not know if or when I’ll get it back. I know what it is like to be separated from people I love. Yeah, it’s hard, but you know what else is hard? Getting sick, losing people you love, or being disabled. Trust me, wearing a mask is easier. So why can’t everyone just get with the program, make the necessary sacrifices, and cooperate?
I breathe in my frustration (and theirs), my anger (and theirs), my disdain for others (and theirs). I breathe in my fear, and I breathe in theirs.
Because that is what I think must be at the root of it: fear. Politicians are afraid of losing elections, campaign contributions, political capital, and power. Business owners are afraid of losing customers and cash flow. They are afraid they can’t afford to install protective measures or to lose any productivity. They are afraid that they will lose their businesses altogether if the pandemic drags on.
And people in our communities are afraid for so many reasons right now. Afraid of losing their jobs, or not finding new ones if they are out of work. Afraid of losing their homes and health insurance. Afraid of the long term consequences of the economic recession. Afraid because they cannot access their normal support systems, such as through church or social gatherings. Afraid because they do not trust our institutions or the people in power. Afraid because they don’t know what is going to happen or how long this will last.
Fear is distressing and uncomfortable. It triggers our physical “fight or flight” response. Fear can paralyze us, exacerbate anxiety or depression, or lead to trauma. Fear can also make us feel angry and want to lash out. The longer we are afraid, the worse we feel. It’s hard to bear.
I breathe in our fears. They are so heavy, but I hold it for a moment. Then I breathe out understanding and grace, and hope for the same in return. We are all frustrated and afraid. We are not our best selves right now.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S. It’s a holiday weekend, and traditionally the start of the Christmas season. It won’t be the same this year. For everyone who is lonely or missing people they love, and for everyone burdened by grief, uncertainty, anger or fear, I send you the comfort that none of us is truly alone. I hope that your burdens will get lighter soon.