The other day I was standing in line at the pharmacy, waiting to pick up a prescription. It was a long line and it was moving slowly. People were getting irritable. Suddenly, a man ahead of me turned started yelling at everyone behind him: “There isn’t enough distance. There needs to be at least six feet! This isn’t safe! We’re all going to get sick!” He kept yelling, shaking his fists in the air. People panicked and left. His anxiety became contagious. The woman behind me shook her head. “I heard people are carrying yardsticks to enforce distance. I’m just glad he didn’t go postal on anyone,” she said, looking worried.
I understood her concern. Not only are people hoarding toilet paper, but they’re stocking up on guns and ammunition. It’s hard to deal with so much uncertainty. There has already been so much loss, and so many deaths. What will happen to the economy? How long will this last? Will COVID-19 sicken my family, friends, and colleagues? How can I take care of them? When will schools reopen? Will I be laid off from my job? When will I be able to see my loved ones again?
As a clinical psychologist, I began to wonder what was happening for the man in the pharmacy. Thinking about all that we’re facing and all the stress we’re under, I also felt empathy for him as he began to unravel before our eyes. Did his partner have the virus? Had he just been laid off? Was he was picking up medicine for an ill child? I thought of a line from a poem called “Compassion” by Miller Williams. “You do not know what wars are going on / down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Historically, we do not respond well to pandemics. In earthquakes, hurricanes, and blizzards we come together and support each other, care for each other, feed each other, hold each other. In pandemics, however, we isolate and turn against each other, often abandoning others when resources are scarce. This was the case in the flu epidemic of 1918, and we’ve seen this happening now in places.
When the enemy is invisible and anyone can infect us, or potentially kill us, “social distance” can easily morph into emotional distrust. I’ve noticed during my daily walks that some people not only cross the street to keep their distance but actually turn their backs, neither making eye contact nor smiling in response to a verbal greeting. In this time of panic and isolation, I worry about the ways we may be depriving each other of warmth and kindness, even from afar.
I’m hearing similar worries from clients and colleagues. “The world had become so lonely,” commented Anne, a recently divorced client with no children. “I thought I’d be dating again, but this isn’t the time for Match.com, or parties, or anything. Working from home is isolating. I took comfort in my yoga class, the gym, my favorite bar and restaurant, and my church, but that’s all gone. I’m trying to connect with friends on the phone, but it isn’t the same. When I run into the supermarket to get groceries, no one talks, no one even has a kind word. They don’t even ask, ‘How are you doing?’”
My colleagues are feeling stressed and overworked. “I was thinking that maybe I’d have some downtime, catch up on the pile of books on my nightstand, but everyone in my caseload is anxious and frightened,” Joseph told me. “People are worried about losing their jobs. Their kids are angry and defiant, and suddenly parents have to home school them and provide structure, discipline, and entertainment. And all this while trying to meet work deadlines. It’s too much. I’m seeing a real increase in exhaustion and depression. And I’m not sleeping well either. I don’t want to burn out and get sick.”
It’s said that pandemics kill compassion. Historically this is true. But now, more than in any other time, we still have a chance to come together, work together, and support each other. We need each other. So how can we remember to notice each other and extend kindness to our neighbors and friends? How can we keep compassion going in this time? After all, not only does compassion benefit others, but research shows it improves our own emotional well-being as well.
Often generating acts of kindness, like donating financial resources or simply smiling at someone from across the street, begins with cultivating compassion in ourselves. How? Mindfulness teachers suggest focusing on integrating doable mindfulness practices into your daily life: “small moments, many times,” as one of my mentors liked to say.
I particularly like the suggestion to use the time we spend washing our hands during this pandemic to build up mindful compassion in ourselves. So, rather than sing the rather insipid “Happy Birthday to Me” song for 20 seconds, why not repeat these compassion phrases instead? I’m finding that this simple version helps my clients feel more connected and less helpless as they go through their day.
Soap and Water Compassion
1. As you stand at the sink, about to wash your hands, take a moment and connect with any sensations in your hands. Feel them from the inside out.
2. You may want to wiggle your fingers, make a fist, clench and unclench your fists. It’s good to bring awareness to your hands during this pandemic.
3. As you soap up, say to yourself, “May all beings be safe. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be peaceful. May all beings live in ease.” Repeat once or twice.
4. Before you finish and dry your hands, you might want to end this way: “May all beings rest in kindness, cooperation, wisdom, and compassion.”
Remember, you don’t need soap and water to do this practice. It works well to say these phrases when you wake up in the morning, before you eat, and when you’re going to sleep. And my colleague Joseph is doing this before and after every teletherapy with a client. We are all in this together.
Susan Pollak, MTS, EdD, is a psychologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s cofounder and senior teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance. She’s the author of Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself and coauthor of Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy.
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