Limited empathy

Crisis starves us of our ability to care

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Apathy is an easy-out during a national emergency.

Maybe this isn’t the case for everyone, but personally, I feel like the intensity level of everything in my life is turned up to a 10 right now. What I mean by this is that things I used to give moderate thought now consume so much of my mental space. Something that might have only been a mild concern for me two months ago now seems like impending doom.

There is so much to care about right now; the safety of health care workers, family members staying healthy, economic stability, mental, emotional and physical health, friends and future plans. With so many things demanding attention and care in our own lives and so many topics demanding the same in the media, it can be difficult to know what to care about most.

It gets to the point where I ask myself: “How am I supposed to care about anything when it feels like I have to care about everything?” If empathy were like a fountain, mine seemed to be drying up and it doesn’t appear I was the only one.

There are people taking to the streets demanding an end to social distancing with the full knowledge that people will die. And for every positive story of a neighbor getting groceries for the elderly, there is another story of a grocery clerk being screamed at or a skeevy landlord using this time to increase their personal wealth.

It can be so tempting to get bogged down in the negativity, the unending list of problems and pains of this time and lose the ability to care for others altogether. People are losing the capacity to care and seeing everything through a lens of survival and self-preservation. However, it is imperative that we don’t let this happen.

Instead of losing sight of the good in the muddy pools of so much bad, we have to learn to prioritize causes we can control and alleviate our anxieties about the things that we can’t. That doesn’t mean abandoning all hope, but it also doesn’t mean trying to solve a pandemic by taking two-hour anxiety showers. 

The following are not moderate solutions for caring but are suggestions to help us maintain our most human trait: empathy for others.

The most prevalent issue and the one that seems to make people most anxious are the steps everyone must take to social distance and isolate themselves. Not only are these measures taxing on us, but they are far more taxing when we have to watch other people selfishly defy these measures.

During the last week of “anti-lockdown” rallies, far-right protesters have taken to the streets to demand their ‘freedom,’ touting that their right to haircuts is more important than others’ right to live. This line of reasoning coming from the pro-life party would almost be funny if it wasn’t so disconcerting.

The anxieties of health care workers, of parents, the elderly, the immunocompromised and the decent humans among us have been rightfully heightened due to these protests. How could any end to lockdown be seen when there are hundreds willfully denying CDC guidelines?

Those individuals who protest on the street and your friends who break lockdown protocol, all those people who feel like their life is more important than others, are putting their own lives at risk too. If they don’t personally get sick, someone close to them will. While I don’t think death or serious illness is ever a just punishment, many of these protesters are going to witness the consequence of their actions in their contracting coronavirus personally or passing it to a loved one.

Basically, people will either realize the idiocy of their ways or they’ll continue screaming for their right to golf all the way to their grave. The point is that it is out of our control. This doesn’t mean everyone else should stop following CDC guidelines. In fact, if some of the population is being irresponsible, it’s even more reason to be diligent. However, sitting at home and pounding sand because Brock and his AK-47 are gracing the cover of “The Apocryphal Patriot Times” won’t do anything but further frustrate you.

To quote Queen M herself, “When they go low, we go high.” Yes, the dimwits are going lower than they have before, but that’s all the more reason to rise above.

Concern over family and friends can also be very overwhelming at this time. Most people are feeling the loss of the presence of someone in their life right now. People are separated by cities, states and even continents from those they love.

People miss out on celebrating their 21st birthdays, on seeing their cousins find their Easter baskets, on weddings and baby showers, on vacations and graduations, on all these things that can seem inconsequential in the midst of a pandemic but are a real and valid loss to people. 

For NDSU seniors, they’re having to finish their classes knowing that there is no graduation ceremony to celebrate their success. It’s difficult to want to go and help the world with its problems when an important part of your world or an important person in your life has been taken away.

It’s okay to grieve the loss of an opportunity or to really miss a loved one even if they’re only a phone call away. You can recognize that there are worse things going on in the world than your canceled vacation but still feel sad about it.

The trick is to not get bogged down in these alterations and changes. Not being able to see a friend or loved one is difficult but it is also an opportunity to get to know someone in a new way. Write a letter, play a game or watch a movie together over FaceTime or Zoom. Have conversations you didn’t have time to before all this began.

If everyone takes on the attitude that their personal freedom is more important than life than we won’t just lose hundreds of thousands of American lives, we will lose our humanity too.

Don’t set the expectation that you will come out of this lockdown a changed person, with achievements under your belt, new friends and strengthened relationships. But also don’t think that everything has to fall apart. 

Not to sound too cliche, but it’s important to realize what we can and can’t control during this pandemic. Finding what we can control is the trick to finding what it is we should care about. You’re allowed to get angry that people are breaking guidelines, that friends and family are at a distance, that you’re stuck inside, out of a job, whatever the case may be.

Every little thing that is annoying and frustrating is valid, but we can’t spend every waking minute angry with our situation and the situation of others. Pessimism is easily accessible, but so is optimism.

I recognize my position is influenced by my privilege. I recognize how easy it is for me to ask people to see the good right now while I still have a job, while I am still (relatively) healthy and have a place to sleep and food to eat. However, it is for the sake of all those people who aren’t in the position I am in that I must implore everyone to continue to care.

If everyone takes on the attitude that their personal freedom is more important than life than we won’t just lose hundreds of thousands of American lives, we will lose our humanity too. If stories of essential workers dying and citizens struggling to get by day-to-day lose their impact then we will never recover from this time.

So please don’t shelve your compassion for others or prioritize your own desire to get a haircut over the needs of so many. Empathy is not like a fountain drying up, not if we all learn to care about the things we can control and care about them together. Empathy is limited when it’s you against the world, but when it’s all of us, we have no limits.

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