It pays to be kind during a crisis

This crisis could serve as a bridge to inclusion and advocacy.

By Susan Pollack

Published: Sat 21 Mar 2020, 10:19 PM

Last updated: Sun 22 Mar 2020, 12:20 AM

I've been haunted by a recent essay claiming that pandemics kill compassion. The argument is that while disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes bring people together, the fears engendered by a pandemic drive us apart. This past week, as I've watched the city that I live in suddenly transform into a virtual ghost town as all the schools, restaurants, shops, offices, libraries and gyms have closed, I am beginning to get a glimpse of how this can happen. The things that we depend on to keep us happy, social, and stable are gone. So much of our identities are rooted in our work and our friendships and relationships. And that has altered dramatically.

I was standing in a long line at the pharmacy waiting to pick up a prescription, when a man ahead of me started yelling and screaming at everyone behind him that we weren't standing six feet apart. We were too close. We could infect him. The store was not safe. He berated the pharmacist for not policing us and then took his complaint to the manager. He began to unravel before our eyes. In his eyes, the line of everyday citizens became potential enemies who could harm him and threaten his well-being.

As a clinical psychologist, I wondered what was happening for that man-did he have an illness that compromised his immune system? Had he just lost a job? Did he have a sick parent, child, or partner? What was behind his panic? As our worries about safety, concerns about limited resources in our overcrowded hospitals, and our fears about economic collapse increase we can understand how rage and violence can multiply. It is easy to get lost in our fears.

I wonder if we should reframe the idea of social distance. Yes, we need physical distance to protect ourselves and each other, but can we create space and not emotionally isolate from each other? At this moment, perhaps more than any other in the history of our planet, we need to see our interconnection, our common humanity, and work together to help and support each other.

This uncertainty grips us all. I listen to my patients wrestling with what is safe in this new normal. It is hard to know. We are all panicked. We are all worried. And things change constantly. As one client put it, "what seemed paranoid yesterday seems sensible today." In my practice, I am seeing a dramatic increase in loneliness, anxiety, depression, panic, insomnia, and PTSD. Watching the man rage and panic at the pharmacy made me wonder if we are beginning to see what psychologists call the "negativity bias" on steroids. We are wired to anticipate danger. For our ancestors it was a saber tooth tiger, for us it is a deadly but invisible and unpredictable virus.

Historically, we have turned against each other. Many of us in this uncertain time, driven by anxiety and curiosity, are watching the many apocalyptic movies on contagion or reading the historical classics, such as Boccacio's Decameron or Daniel Defoe's report on the London plague of 1665. These commentaries about previous pandemics depict the fear and danger of death over-riding the bonds of love and affection for each other, even to the point of parents abandoning their sick children.

Malcolm Gladwell has written cogently about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which overwhelmed entire cities and towns. More Americans died of the flu than were killed during the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. People died so quickly that cities had to convert streetcars into hearses.

What is striking is that when it was over, people didn't talk about it. It was as if the trauma was so intense that we became silent and numb. There were surprisingly few books or plays about the Spanish flu given the enormous and devastating loss of life. When we look at how much has been written about the First, Second, and Vietnam Wars, we would have expected a more significant cultural and historical legacy-a reflection and an analysis of our behavior. Journalist David Brooks speculates that this might be because we didn't like what we had become. As a country we became overwhelmed and shamed by our heartless behavior.

Yale historian Frank Snowden, who studies epidemics, believes that pandemics raise important questions about our values, holding a mirror to our society. These philosophical questions that he points to are worth asking as we face a new pandemic: What is this trying to tell us? What is our responsibility toward one another? Let me add my own question to his: What do we need to do so we don't turn away from those in need?

And yet, in all pandemics, doctors, nurses and health care workers respond with remarkable dedication, heroism, and compassion. I take comfort in the fact that compassion can be trained. It is an antidote to despair. We can learn to be kinder to others and to ourselves. In fact, studies show that those who reach out to others are less likely to have PTSD after a catastrophe. And as we widen our circle of care, we can impart this lesson to our children as well. We can teach them to care for our neighbors, to donate food, to reach out to families in need, and as importantly, to understand that illness is part of life, and that our actions and behavior make a difference in our interdependent world.

This crisis could serve as a bridge to inclusion and advocacy. If we bolster our own inner resources, work together to become less depleted, we will be able to keep compassion alive.

We are at the point where skillful and compassionate behaviour can impact the course of this disease. This can be a chance to reset our values. May all beings be safe, may all beings be well, may all beings live in wisdom and compassion.

- Susan M. Pollak is a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, Cambridge Health Alliance.

- Psychology Today

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