I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy in general and particularly during Covid-19. I find it difficult to tolerate those without empathy. And nowhere is this lack of empathy more apparent than in the world of social media. It is one of the things about social media I have trouble with: the quick rush to judgement. It’s not that I always believe everyone is kind and means well, but I don’t automatically presume ill of people unless I know them personally or by reputation. Even that gets complicated for me. I may presume I know about someone, but that isn’t a given.
In addition to psychological conditions where people lack empathy, there can also be times when a person’s sense of empathy is overridden when they feel they or a loved one are in jeopardy. The Covid-19 pandemic is such a time for many of us. We are told that we must all work together to flatten the curve. When people are not following guidelines set out by health departments, it is maddening. Why can’t they just do everything necessary to prevent this virus from spreading? Why aren’t they following the guidelines? It is very difficult to understand why someone wouldn’t just follow the guidelines. It is easy to assume that if they aren’t following guidelines, it is because they are uncaring.
See this article by Dr. Julia Shaw in Psychology Today on “fundamental attribution error”: “just because someone is acting in a way that may lead to the death of others who become infected by COVID-19 does not mean they don't care if their actions cause people to die. But our brains naturally jump to that conclusion. We assume that people who act badly, are bad, even in uncertain and complicated situations like a global pandemic.”
I have a high sense of empathy. I’m not sure why. It’s so strong that I often feel physically upset when I hear about harm and injustice to people. But this pandemic is messing with my sense of empathy, and perhaps it is also messing with yours.
My emotions are close to the surface. I found it infuriating recently on social media when a friend wrote that if someone was not wearing a mask when outside, she would stay far away from them because she knew that meant they didn’t give a shit about her.
I wasn’t annoyed that she would stay away from them, and I absolutely thought they should wear a mask if they were able to, but I found the leap to their lack of caring about others to be unfair. I think there are many reasons why people are not wearing masks, including reasons I can’t imagine. I don’t want to automatically assume they aren’t wearing a mask because of a lack of care.
I admit that my annoyance was a personal reaction on my part. I am not wearing a mask; instead I do everything in my power to stay far away from people in grocery stores and any other space where it’s difficult to maintain the necessary distance. While doing this, I also feel anxious and guilty that I am not wearing a mask.
I am highly claustrophobic. In 2009, I was intubated for 14 days in ICU and restrained so that I could not pull out my Central Line and other lines that were monitoring my condition and keeping me alive. I have no memory of this because I had a dangerously high fever and the drugs they were giving me took away my short-term memory; however, my body must remember. For a long time after, I would lie curled up in the fetal position in bed, as if to protect my body. I clenched my jaw shut, and still do this occasionally. To this day I cannot lock the doors of small bathrooms for fear I will get trapped. It is getting better over time, but I am still dealing with claustrophobia.
I have been trying to get myself to wear a mask since we learned that wearing masks might stop people from infecting others. At first when I put it on, I felt faint and my heart started to race. I broke out in a sweat. I had nightmares about it. Despite that, I’ve been trying to get myself to wear one. I am at the point where I can put one on in my apartment and wear it for about maybe five minutes. I’m going to keep trying to wear a mask. If I can keep a mask on for longer, the next hurdle will be to keep it on while taking the elevator, which fills me with great trepidation.
But the other aspect, the main thing I’m writing about here is empathy. We are all feeling threatened. We all have circumstances that others do not understand. When I reacted negatively to my friend, someone I care about deeply, thinking that others are uncaring because they do not wear masks, I wasn’t even thinking about her circumstances. I had forgotten that she lives with an elderly parent. That every time she is close to someone who is not wearing a mask, she must feel she is putting this parent in jeopardy. That her parent will die if exposed. This is a frightening and awful possibility and it is borne out by evidence. Once she explained that to me, and it pains me that she had to explain that to me, I felt terrible. I realized that I had lost my sense of empathy for others because I felt judged as uncaring.
I’m going to try to remember to be empathetic, even with those who seem not to be showing empathy. And I’m going to try to remember that social media is a place where people, including myself, rush to judgement.
References and Resources
Psychology Today: “Why Some People Are Still Not Staying at Home- Research explains our psychological response to COVID-19” by Dr. Julia Shaw
Globe and Mail: “Coronavirus is the greatest challenge we’ve faced in generations. Altruism is how to overcome it” by Charles Montgomery
Vice: “Should I Snitch On People Breaking Social Distancing Rules?” by Manisha Krishnan