The day before yesterday, I logged onto Facebook and discovered—the same way any new post in a feed is a discovery—that my manager from a 2016 summer job had passed away a few days prior. Although I wondered, and even assumed, his death was not COVID-19-related. It was a reminder that amid all of these reports of death, people are still dying.
I went for a walk later that afternoon. It was a spirit-lifting day with a sky whose blueness demands to be seen, standing out deep and smudgeless behind the glowing tree leaves of spring. A red cardinal perched on a white fence. An orange-chested robin sailed in and out of the spilling yellow sunlight. It was in the 60s, warm enough for a t-shirt, cool enough not to sweat.
There are many things that are true simultaneously, although they do not seem like they should be able to coexist. Separated by time, space, and cognition, they are given room to be true without contradiction.
For instance, that day, on that walk, under the setting sun, I felt clear-headed and at peace. I felt prepared. Adjusted. But the setting sun was not only setting. It was rising too, somewhere else, upon some other person who—as I have many times in the past few weeks—woke up under the sharp weight of nervousness.
The weight of that anxiety is powerful enough to desaturate even the most idyllic day and even the most indifferently beautiful nature. It can eat you up. I have felt it, as I have felt anger, helplessness, and hopelessness. I have also felt grateful, and calm, and motivated.
I have felt sadness at the miniature sacrifices that must be made. No parties or potlucks. No eating out. No hugs, no hookups, no haircuts.
I have managed not to feel guilty about my sadness over these small inconveniences, because making those sacrifices exists concurrently with a recognition of why those sacrifices are necessary and a gratitude for a life empty enough of tragedy that smaller annoyances shine through.
It is upsetting then, to see those same small annoyances lead to misdirected indignation among protestors (those against the stay-at-home orders), indignation that overpowers the recognition of a potentially much broader and less recoverable harm. Entitlement must be present in order to equate the protection of vulnerable people with authoritarian oppression, as if being asked to care for others is an affront on the right not-to-care. This is upsetting. To demand human sacrifice for the sake of consumerism. A selfishness so profound as to trade a few thousand human lives for a haircut. This is upsetting.
It is upsetting because it is possible to be upset at the temporary loss of luxury, to be worried about economic instability and financial uncertainty, to be skeptical or even distrustful of the government, to be willing to sacrifice some personal freedoms for the sake of vulnerable members of the population, to be at home, and to be all of these things simultaneously. It is possible to be angry at the government for its mismanagement of this crisis, to be terrified about losing income and livelihood, and to feel these things without endangering others in the process.
In my neighborhood, there are three twenty-something men who live in a house on the corner and who work out in their front yard, lifting weights on a bench press on the sidewalk leading up to the front door. In this time of isolation, there are more people strolling, biking, jogging, and existing outdoors than I have seen since moving here, all (most) of them circumventing a six-foot radius when they pass one another. There are families with baby strollers, parents with children (children who are more than happy to have an early summer but sad not to be able to spend that summer with friends), people with dogs (dogs who are ecstatic about the new normal). There are gardens and plants being tended, DIY projects accomplished, drinks being shared on front porches.
Alongside anxiety, uncertainty, anticipation, fear, irritability, and anger, there are people returning to simple things that pass the time and bring them joy.
While many are adjusting to a new normal of staying home and limiting social contact, many are also adjusting to a new normal of living without a loved one. Minor annoyance and life-altering tragedy live together, concurrently, separated only by context, and sometimes not separated at all.
The people who believe that being asked to stay at home is the same as oppression are not only selfish. They are also worried. Some of them have a desire to work, to provide for themselves and their families, and believe in the rights of the individual. Maybe they are fearful for the financial safety of their spouses, their children. Maybe they are fearful of the encroachment upon their desire for liberty, however problematic that conception of liberty may be.
Perhaps I should extend compassion to these people as well, these people who act selfishly. Perhaps I can be both angry and compassionate at the same time.
Yesterday, I took another walk. It was overcast, threatening to rain the entire day but never quite getting there. It was cool enough for a light sweater but warm enough that I broke a sweat when I went for a run soon after. At 4pm it was already dark, and at 7pm it was the same. There was no one outdoors as I wandered the neighborhood, but there was plenty of cozy yellow light emanating like a calm sigh from within people’s homes.
As families sit down for dinner, some families enjoy the opportunity to be together, to spend time cooking and to linger over conversation. Some families do not, or no longer do.
To endanger people’s lives is not a human right.
To live is a human right.
Furthermore, the right to live takes priority over the right to work. We can live without work; we cannot work without life. If in this society we cannot live without work, then this demands systemic change, and that demand must be made in order to limit human suffering, not by increasing it. People want to work, but they do not want to die if they don’t, just as they don’t want to die if they do.
Yesterday, I cried on FaceTime with my friend. We were at some point discussing the reality of our parents’ inevitable death, pandemic or not, but that did not make me cry. Nor did the general anxiety over the coronavirus. Rather, I cried out of gratitude for my parents’ love. The love and death of my parents are ideas I have been tangling with since before the pandemic, but these ideas seem especially pertinent now, and the conversation between my friend and I seemed subconsciously linked to the current moment. Death can leap up at any moment and confront you, and sometimes you don’t react right away.
The conversation did drift in and out of stray thoughts about the pandemic. My friend pointed out that people are acting as if there is a scarcity of human rights.
This seems to be a part of the American ethos, that giving and taking are one and the same. That giving rights and resources to someone else happens concurrently with the stripping away of one’s own rights. Giving someone work means they are taking away my job. Pooling money for the greater good happens only when my hard-earned income is ripped from my hands. Isolating myself to protect vulnerable people from a virus can only mean my own rights and freedoms are being stripped from me. As if the right to life, to work, to happiness and comfort, is a limited supply and the high demand has led people to panic and hoard.
Lives do not have to be lost in order for other lives to be lived.
The exercise is to understand the pain of others with as much clarity as you give witness to your own pain, without losing yourself in the crowd. To simultaneously absorb the hurt and the needs of others without your own hurt and your own needs dissolving into a blur. The two must coexist.
Why is it, for instance, that the news of my manager’s passing aroused little more in me than curiosity and a vague, mild pensiveness? There are three reasons I might point to. Time: it has been several years since I’ve spoken to him, other than coming across his ample Facebook posts on my feed. Space: I have not been in the same room as him since leaving that job in 2016, and for the most part have not even been in the same state as him for the past two years. Cognition: the two preceding reasons created cognitive distance between his pain and my reaction. His presence in my life had become blurry enough to dull the emotional clarity of his death and prevent it from piercing into me.
This is not a ground-breaking observation, that we care more about the health and safety of those closest to us than we do about acquaintances, strangers, or past coworkers. But it is an observation that I believe merits deeper and constant reflection.
There is a foundational piece of literature in psychology that I teach to my English 101 students as an introduction to auto-ethnographies, entitled “The Formation of In-Groups” by Gordon Allport. While its thesis is fairly straightforward, it was groundbreaking at the time of its publication in 1954 as a chapter of Allport’s book The Nature of Prejudice. The thesis of the article asserts that a person forms a (generally positive) attachment to the in-groups to which they belong—family, hometown, state, country, race, gender, etc.—and that often the in-groups with which a person has closest contact are stronger and more important to them. While there have likely been a plethora of complications, refutations, and elaborations introduced to this concept since 1954, the underlying idea remains that people develop implicit preferences and biases in favor of groups to which they belong, and that it is more difficult to feel loyal to broader in-groups than it is to feel loyal to smaller ones. A person likely feels more loyal to their family or closest friends, for instance, than they do to their home state. A person might feel more loyalty toward their own country than they do toward the whole of mankind.
What Allport recognizes near the end of the article is that “concentric loyalties need not clash. To be devoted to a large circle does not imply the destruction of one’s attachment to a smaller circle” (44). It is natural, then, for us to form deeper connections and loyalties to ourselves and our closest loved ones. However, this can exist simultaneously with a loyalty to the broadest in-group: humanity. We can feel deep empathy for strangers from other families, neighborhoods, states, and countries without losing our loyalty to ourselves and our loved ones. We do not have to hoard our empathy and leave none for the people who truly need it.
I hope only that we can prevent ourselves from being caged into one truth and can open ourselves to the possibility that many truths can exist concurrently, even when those truths seem at odds. We have heard the tired old platitude that “others have it worse,” but what makes it tired is that it fails to address the fact that we can be simultaneously upset about our own situation and empathetic toward others’ trials. Again, the two must coexist.
This is not to say that I failed morally in my lack of emotional distress over my manager’s passing, nor should it be necessary for any of us to absorb and experience the pain of any and all tragedies that befall any and all people. Rather, my hope is to use such moments as opportunities for reflection: reflections on how to broaden my empathy and compassion, even perhaps to those who themselves have conditional and narrow conceptions of empathy. Reflections on the many aspects of my life for which I am grateful. Reflections on the limits of my perspective and experience, and on the ways in which I can expand those borders and bring some further clarity to the blurry outer reaches.
It is getting dark now. The sun has already set, and has already risen somewhere else. Even as nighttime descends here, and even as morning and midday and afternoon are happening too, the sun is still busy setting elsewhere, still busy rising over yet another country or city or family or person. It will be in a synchronous state of setting and rising, at all times, always.
- Allport, Gordon. “Formation of In-Groups.” The Nature of Prejudice, Addison-Wesley, 1954, 29-47.
John Hanley is a writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and received two Bachelor’s degrees in Creative Writing and French from Louisiana State University in 2017. He recently received his MFA in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University, for which he completed a collection of short stories. He is currently at work on his first novel.