Creative Empathy in a Pandemic

One thing about a pandemic: It’s inclusive. We cannot survive it, move beyond it, by protecting merely some people. We have to protect everyone.

Of all the disruption, paradox and chaos that have been unleashed by the coronavirus, this is the most stunning: It has something to teach us that we could never learn on our own. My God, we are one planet — one people. This isn’t idealism; it’s the most pragmatic social organizing principle possible.

As Robert Reich pointed out regarding the American public health system:

. . .we have a private for-profit system for individuals lucky enough to afford it and a rickety social insurance system for people fortunate enough to have a full-time job.

At their best, both systems respond to the needs of individuals rather than the needs of the public as a whole. In America, the word ‘public’ — as in public health, public education or public welfare — means a sum total of individual needs, not the common good.

But health equals wholeness. Without collective health, we have humanity shattered by greed and paranoia, that is to say, social hemorrhage, or what Randall Amster called business as usual: “The simmering cauldron of political vitriol, reifications of otherness, escalating inequality, endless war, even more endless waste, and a rapidly warming world hasn’t exactly set us in good stead to weather the storm.”

But here we are — all of us — stuck in isolation, disconnected from our parents, our children, our grandchildren, one another, even as we value them more than ever. There’s no knowing how long this will last or what outcome awaits us. But if the best of who we are is able to prevail, we may find ourselves living through an extraordinary shift in human consciousness, a rewriting of our own mythology — as we come to understand that we manifest life-enhancing power with, not over, each other.

The word for this is love, a cynicism-producing word when linked to politics and social order. I use it cautiously, aware that its opposite is also alive and well, and that many (most?) people still believe that self-protection at some point means going to war . . . against a disease, against your neighbors.

USA Today, for instance, recently noted that in many parts of the country people are stocking up on guns and ammunition as well as toilet paper, reporting long lines outside gun stores and a big burst in online ammunition sales., for instance, has experienced a 68 percent increase in sales between mid-February and early March, according to the paper.

And retailers are being forced to limit the amount of ammunition people can buy right now, USA Today reported, quoting one man who had recently purchased 250 rounds of ammo — the maximum allowed — at an indoor gun range in St. Louis. The man complained that “‘They were completely out of the cheaper bulk ammunition.’ . . . He also bought a 9mm handgun to protect himself in case someone tries to steal his groceries if there are further supply shortages.”

While, unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of this kind of paranoia going around, our suddenly self-isolated world is also experiencing the opposite of this paranoia: something seemingly unique. I call it creative empathy.

We need to reach out and connect with one another now more than ever, at a time when doing so can be unbelievably complex. But consider some of the things people are doing, at both individual, collective and institutional levels.

As Common Dreams, for instance, reported:

Italians under lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak crisis have inspired people around the world by singing and creating music together from balconies despite not being able to leave their homes.

A montage video showing Italians serenading one another in high rise apartment buildings and playing music together was ‘a kind of triumph of spirit,’ as one Italy-centric Twitter account put it on Friday.

Indeed, this sort of thing is happening in a number of places. Common Dreams mentioned both Lebanon and Spain. Part of the joy and excitement I feel about this is that it transcends borders. If possible, we would clap and dance and throw our voices across all the national borders on the planet.

What else? At the institutional level, the city of Detroit, in response to activist demands, has reinstated water service to thousands of people who were cut off for not paying their bills. And, all over the world, prisons are slowly and at least temporarily opening their doors. Iran, for instance, has so far released 85,000 prisoners. And the sheriff of Los Angeles County, according to NBC News, “is releasing people from prison early and is asking officers to cite and release people when possible, instead of arresting them.”

At a slightly more personal level, Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, who is serving a three-year prison term, has asked to serve the rest of his term at home because the coronavirus outbreak has made prison conditions utterly unsafe, according to NBC. His lawyer recently wrote to the federal district judge that the Bureau of Prisons is “demonstrably incapable of safeguarding and treating . . . inmates who are obliged to live in close quarters and are at an enhanced risk of catching coronavirus.” While there may not be much empathy here — this is Cohen trying to save himself — the public nature of his complaint could have much larger ramifications. The lawyer added: “In the absence of Presidential leadership, judges should act thoughtfully and decisively.”

Fair and compassionate treatment for prisoners? Where will this stop? Abdullah Shihipar writes in the New York Times: “We could come out of this feeling more connected to each other than before.”

And Ken Butigan declared:

The greatest social movement in human history is coming. Each of us is called to join it. It is a global movement, a movement of movements . . . rooted in the blood and tears of millions who have spent their lives throughout history clamoring for justice, working for peace, laboring for a world that works for everyone.

Just as all of us are, of necessity, isolated from each other, we are all participants, via our creative empathy, in this shift in human consciousness.

What examples of this empathy have you noticed? Let’s share.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.