SAMO #1: Empathizing With A Virus

It’s not often that you find a concept that encapsulates you to the point where you desire to write the entirety of your huge English assignment about it, when there are millions of other subject matters to explore. For me, this concept is empathy. The notion that a human being is capable of such connection with others through intellect, emotion and effectiveness is amazing to me. In CST thus far, we have had various explorations of the third as well as empathy in itself. Amidst a pandemic, empathy’s meaning has broadened, which is evident in the research I have conducted for my first ever SAMO, how exciting! As I pondered empathy through various mediums such as webinars, psychology articles, videos, and podcasts, my eyes have been widened to be cognizant of, and include, the perspectives of another, while also connecting them to my own. You may be thinking, how are these practices of empathy any different from what we have been taught, or neglected to be taught for that matter. Well, the pandemic has created a foundation for our lives: a crisis. This global crisis has allowed us to have a common ground with those around us. Empathy comes into play when we take this foundation, and spin it into millions of variable experiences, where not one person can mimic another. The only way this mimicry, or the attempt to do so, is through exhibiting empathy. 

“One of the big ironies of this is that our forced disconnection is promoting us to connect with people in ways we never expected before.”

Carl O’Brien, Educational Editor for the Irish Times

My primary exploration for my SAMO was to listen in on a webinar titled, Living and Learning Empathy in COVID-19. This virtual conversation used the expertise of various speakers from The National University of Ireland as well as professors as University of Pennsylvania. These prestigious institutions used their own research and knowledge about empathy to spin it towards how it progresses during a global crisis. A quote that made me ponder my own empathetic outlook was a line by Carl O’brien, the Educational Editor for the Irish Times. In context of the pandemic, he states, “One of the big ironies of this is that our forced disconnection is promoting us to connect with people in ways we never expected before.” Who would have thought that our physical disconnection would perpetuate such an emotional movement in our world today. Many of us have probably heard this line before, however have we truly taken initiative to apply empathy in our own lives in order to make this statement true? Branching off of O’brien’s introductory messages, I was particularly stricken by utilizing empathy in conversations about the elderly amidst the pandemic, as well as the role it plays in online learning, which is evidently something we are all experiencing. 

Despite our lack of physical connection at the beginning of quarantine in particular, the relationships I held with my grandparents only developed. Prior to the stage of touching elbows as a hug or a high five, I found myself needing to put in more effort to empathize with what they were going through as seniors. My grandma Pam, or GMP as I call her, lost her spouse nearly 4 years ago. My grandpa’s passing was extremely traumatic for her, and it was aside from a global crisis. AS COVID-19 gained momentum, she found herself increasingly lonely. This was clearly illustrated through her daily texts, calls, and visits to our house with a mask covering half her face, unable to show the emotion she was feeling, unless we looked into her eyes amidst somewhat bland conversations of our super exciting daily lives. Infact, she is sitting across from me as I write this blog post. How ironic. On a real note, empathy only goes as far as we let it. If we sit around and expect others to initiate action, nothing will come of it. In this particular webinar, Dr. Kyle Peck from the U Penn discussed how we need to “expect the generations to see life from the perspective of others” and “share that frame of reference or share that pain or understanding with them.” In my grandma’s case, this pain was the loss of my grandpa and not completely understanding how to fill the void. Was there even a way for her to do it? Perhaps not, however I knew I had to use empathy to find the third with my grandma during these uncertain times. If you haven’t read my past blog post titled Paradise, it’s likely you have no recollection of the third. The third is a space we create with someone else in order to end our two stories in revelation and connection, as Jad Abumrad explains in his TED Talk with Dolly Parton. Abumrad’s definition of the third combines the struggle and wonder we must feel in order to empathize with someone on a cognitive and emotional level. The misconceptions of the third is that we mutually act in separate ways in order to create change, rather it is when we come together and create a new “entity” where it combines the ideals of both parties (Abumrad). With my grandma, she and I experienced struggle in different ways, yet hers was far more predominant and I knew I had to connect with her further in order to understand. I began to make visits to her home in Lincolnshire, where she lives in a townhome community with other seniors. She always told me that everyone in her community always does the same thing, and it’s hard to change her daily schedule. I pulled up to her driveway, and it was as though she was watching me through the window, as the garage door immediately opened and a smile was shown through her eyes, as her mask covered her face just like before. Empathy doesn’t have to be complicated. Empathy doesn’t have to be a windy road of steps to be taken to get to that mutual act of recognition. Empathy is simple: simplicity is truly bliss, which is something I have learned throughout my explorations of the third, and now, more specifically, empathy. 

Throughout all the mediums I explored, I noticed that they all presented a similar theme: observation. When we observe others, whether that is through listening, asking questions or just wondering, we open a gateway of possibilities to expressing empathy to the “other.” Psychologically, it has been proven beneficial to connect with someone you usually wouldn’t and create a connection through the stories they tell, or don’t tell. This message is clear in Psychology Today’s article, titled, “Practicing Empathy in a Pandemic.” How fitting. Dr. Jamie D. Aten states, “Look for one or two things you have in common. Place her at the center of your engagement. Willingly “hold” her story, spoken or unspoken.” This strong message of observation and listening holds true in my daily life, as I, as well as my peers, have ventured through online learning. In the past couple months, students have become perceptible to observation from adults in our communities. I recently reached out to one of the administrators from my overnight camp, which I hold very close to my heart, wondering if she could write a letter of recommendation for me, as she has seen my growth and leadership firsthand. Before even getting into the details, she responded to my Facebook message with such care and genuine interest for my well-being. In my research, these cordial virtual exchanges have become increasingly sincere during the pandemic, which is a point that Dr. Ann Echols described in the primary webinar that I explored. My camp administrator exhibited her kindness in communications by writing, “How have you been doing navigating this year? Everyone’s health okay and mental health hangin’ in there?” This message at both the beginning and end of her response made me feel so cared for and loved, despite being miles and miles apart. This third space we created with each other perpetuated a prolonged conversation of each other’s well-being amidst a global crisis. Each professional that I had the pleasure of listening to in my SAMO exploration discussed that adults, and fellow students for that matter, need to be conscious of others mental health during the pandemic, since it is equally as critical as physical health, although we haven’t always learned it as such. Online learning has definitely taken a toll on my mental health, with an increase in anxiety and instability in my emotions in my daily life. This thought has pushed me to look back at Ashley McCall’s, “What If We Radically Reimaged the New School Year,” where she longs for empathy in the education we receive, particularly during a time of constant engagement with our screens. She uses rhetoric to persuade schools to exhibit empathy, particularly with the teaching of social-emotional learning as well as “prioritizing hard truths and accountability” (McCall). These hard truths are the hardships each and every American is enduring during the pandemic, whether they are telling their story of struggle or keeping is hidden and absorbed in their inner consciousness, tucked away from outside observation. 

“Sometimes what’s most specific to us is the most universal.”

Annie McNamara, Fred Rogers Center

Whatever the case may be, it is each and everyone of our responsibilities to offer anything we can in order to contribute to the well-being of others. No matter how different we are adapting to or experiencing this pandemic, it’s essential that we venture into the lives of others to help them in any way possible. “Sometimes what’s most specific to us is the most universal,” Dr. Annie McNamara from the Fred Rogers Center explains. This phrase was expanded upon by each speaker in the webinar, showing the specificities of the elderly, students, the immuno-compromised, and other possibly marginalized groups amidst the pandemic. This one-in-one hundred years kind of crisis makes us all have a common ground, yet how we react to it or experience it is what makes us unique. These unique factors should push the expression of empathy to the top of our minds, as it may be the only thing that can carry us into a “new normal,” whatever that may be. 

Empathy is the junction between “us” and “them.” Our societal connection, despite physical separation is visual, hard evidence that empathy is, indeed, possible. No matter the crisis, no matter how different we are from one another, must help those in need and have some kind of altruism present in our lives. Empathy can save us. Empathy is happiness, and connection, and compassion. The pandemic cannot stop us from expressing the love we have for others. Infact, it should be accentuated and emphasized in the face of adversity. 

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