Updated: Apr 20
Sporting events canceled, people told to work from home, gatherings of large groups banned, schools closed, Broadway goes dark and because of insufficient leadership and testing many in the US are undergoing self-quarantine. This is our new normal, for now anyway. Former Surgeon General of the United States Vivek Murthy notes the disturbance to our social interactions can lead to depression and an increased sense of loneliness from the isolation.
His comments got me thinking about the relationship between loneliness and empathy. While researching the correlation, I came across a 2018 survey done by the BBC that found those individuals who are most empathic can also be the loneliest, “In the survey two kinds of empathy were measured. One was empathy for people’s physical pain – how sorry you feel for someone who has accidentally slammed their hand in a door, picked up a scalding frying pan or been stung by a wasp. The other was how much empathy you have for other people’s social pain – for someone who’s been bullied at school, not invited to a party or dumped by their partner. There was no difference in empathy for physical pain between the people who felt more or less lonely. But the people who said they often or very often felt lonely scored higher on average for empathy for social pain. Maybe because they have experienced for themselves what it feels like to be left out, they empathise more with other people who find themselves in the same situation.”
In my memoir, My Random Death, I’m open about experiencing stretches of depression and bouts of loneliness. Back then, the fatal flaw in my thinking was the depression will last forever and envisioned myself in a room with no doors or windows. No way out. Speaking with friends and family but not wanting to lean on them too much, I worked with therapists and came to understand those thoughts of mine about depression lasting into perpetuity was harmful thinking. Don’t do it. Lesson learned.
Seemingly counterintuitive, depression can be rewarding. It can give us an opportunity to get grounded, be close to our soul and listen to our authentic voice. So while we are in the Time of Coronavirus and isolated seek out family members to talk with on the phone, engage in ‘chat groups', use the time to listen to podcasts, text your friends, and come up with original ways to stay connected. One fun example is from Italy. Although a street appeared empty of folks walking or milling about, it was filled with song. People quarantined in the buildings lining the lane leaned out of their windows and sang to each other or in unison.
My previous blog addressed the trying times for empaths while Trump occupies the Oval Office. Compounded by his regime’s botched response to the coronavirus, his incompetence now affects all Americans. Although the World Health Organization declared the pathogen a pandemic, Trump mainly viewed the global epidemic as a threat to his financial and political future. His myopic, self-serving lens failed to protect people’s health and our general welfare. We’ve witnessed a lack of leadership back in November 2019, when he failed to send a team of scientists and epidemiologists to Wuhan in the wake of the highly contagious infection. Instead of taking a sample of the virus’ genome when it was offered by China, Trump said no thank you. A recent NPR article claimed testing was suppressed because Trump fears the number of cases would be too high and might effect his re-election chances. To fill the vacuum Individuals and communities respond to a failure of leadership by taking charge, being responsible and in some instance irresponsible. We all learned or re-learned how to wash our hands properly. It’s something I remember being taught by my parents and in my pre-kindergartner classes.
Due to the stress of these time, some folks have reverted to fear by hoarding mountains of toilet paper. A fist-fights between women went viral when one grabbed the last roll. Perhaps for some adults a short period of isolation will help them self-reflect and gain empathy for others. As Rodney King famously stated during the Los Angeles Riots, “Can’t we all just get along”.