“We have the capacity for empathy. It feels good when we exercise it. Things go so much better…yet it wears off after a while and I need a booster shot.” Alan Alda
This is a quote from Alan Alda’s book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventure in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating. The book chronicles his work in helping scientists and doctors become better communicators through his knowledge of theater improv games. How does a scientist convey his research to a grant committee, gaining their interest and using terms they can understand? How do scientists communicate and lead a team once they’ve graduated from school? How does a doctor connect to his patient? Alda feels the key to good communication is empathy.
I can rally behind a battle cry for empathy in the current climate of criticism and attack that is prominent in our world. And I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a little short on empathy myself this week. We’ve entered the year 2022 and somehow the Covid Pandemic traveled through the portal with us, bringing a rise in cases everywhere. The new year doesn’t feel new in many ways. Our family is still weary of navigating the covid crisis differently than most of our community. We are still weary of making different choices from our church, our homeschool community, and the community of friends who drifted away from us last year because of the pandemic. We are tired of feeling “other”, always the minority within the majority. In all of these groups, it used to be our common interests and beliefs that unified us. Since the pandemic started (as well as the intensified political debate), it’s felt like the emphasis has shifted to what we DON’T have in common.
We also have decision fatigue. Should our kids go to their homeschool tutorial in person or zoom online as we watch family after family in the tutorial test positive for covid? Should our older daughter go to the YMCA to workout? Should we attend a small group at church, even though we will probably be the only ones wearing masks, designating us once again as “other”? Through the last two years there have been pockets of the pandemic when the otherness and decision fatigue faded back a bit and gave us some breathing room. The cases were down, our social life was up, and my husband and I would look at each other with a similar hope- maybe these masks are going out for good? And then, Omicron.
As the Pandemic goes on and my own weariness deepens, it’s easy to forget that Covid is the reason for this weariness, not the people in our community that feel differently than we do. If only the leadership would lead differently, if only there wouldn’t be so many large unmasked events that force us to weigh the risks against the potential disappointment of our kids. As much as I’d like the majority to understand our little minority group within the Evangelical Christian world, I admit I’m having trouble seeing their side. To me and several friends it’s clear as day that the masks are helpful for the church (and the greater community) right now, but members of the congregation feel just as sure about their contrasting beliefs. If both sides can only see the absolute truth and sense of their own version, where is the empathy?
We could all use a reminder that Covid is the enemy here instead of each other’s personal choices. Empathy seems a helpful step in that direction. If I’d like empathy directed at me, shouldn’t I also try to cultivate it in myself? Emily P. Freeman, in A Million Little Ways, says, “When we live free we are able to give freedom. When we live love, we are able to give love.” It seems to easily follow then that “When we live empathy, we are able to give empathy.” Just like Alan Alda, I need a booster shot. Not a covid booster (I already had mine), I need a booster shot of empathy. And even if we can’t all agree on the covid shot, I hope we can all agree that a little more empathy (or maybe a lot) would be a good thing.