Cultivating compassion and community while navigating the rhetoric and realities of COVID-19

Living in Canada, the confusion about how to conduct ourselves during these times that are mired by COVID-19, is adding to the prolonged experience of psychological and physical isolation brought on by the pandemic. Efforts to glean through the political rhetoric and public health directives, further constrain, if not, erode, human connection. However, in the context of the global pandemic, the necessity for wearing masks, washing hands, and physical distancing, and the pressure to plan ahead, before leaving home to do errands, are realities of survival (mostly of the privileged, and I count myself in this category). Navigating through the rhetoric and realities of COVID-19 must be done with compassion, in order to preserve, if not to enhance, human connection.

Humanity vs. vectors of malady and disorder

A fact during the past 8 months of the persistence of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is how humans are repeatedly categorized as both vectors of malady and vectors of the economy. The simultaneous threats of COVID-19 and of ongoing economic volatility are real. We remain steeped in the language of vectors while we fight for human connection and for our lives. The World Health Organization uses the term vector to describe how insects carry viruses which they transmit to humans and to other animals. Yet, now we hear the word vector in relation to humans transmitting COVID-19 to each other. Vectors are also used to explain how the misalignment of human actions, when equated to vectors of the economy, stifle economic growth and recovery. Equating humans to vectors is not deeply helpful; it does very little to mitigate the erosion of trust in the formal messages received from governments, public health offices and institutional leaders, and the news shared among friends, about the safest behaviours to protect ourselves from the novel coronavirus. How do we stay connected as humans, rather than as drivers of contagion, or of capital?

I remember being steeped in the language and application of vectors in my college physics and linear algebra classes. I learned then, and have relearned, more recently in David Lindley’s book Dream of the Universe, that vectors have both direction and magnitude, for example, like velocity, which is a vector quantity and measure of a change in position over a change in time. Now, I see vectors come up in conversation synonymously with COVID-19 and the so-called ‘bad’ decisions being made by people when they forget, or choose not, to wear a mask, or when an individual may determine that in-person, physical-distancing-be-damned connecting with others in groups, which puts them and the community at greater risk to the novel coronavirus, is better than literally feeling their way through physical and social isolation.

Since vectors have both direction and magnitude, when people apply their efforts “in the same direction”, the strength of their contributions (i.e., their magnitudes) are added to each other and the impact of their contributions grow. In theory, when humans as vectors deviate in direction, disorder ensues. In my (hopefully) logical and layperson’s interpretation, this is why a ‘herd mentality’ toward following public health instructions to social and physical distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing (exemptions to mask wearing aside) is promoted to ‘flatten the curve.’ By contrast, the opposite behaviours, like meeting in groups, closely, and without masks, have a detrimental negative impact – an opposite effect on efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ and thereby contributing to spikes in the COVID-19 virus and new waves of the virus flowing in the population.

So the story goes, that if we all align our vectors, we would achieve the optimal flattening of the curve, and if we align our efforts to find work, buy locally, share, donate, and spread wealth, we will boost the economy. But in my heart, I feel that all that does is to blame the individual rather than to recognize the systemic barriers that prevent so many people to not only be part of the overall effort, but to be in the same field of possibility.

Being alone, loneliness, and the spectrum of emotions

There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Plainly, being alone is a physical state, and being lonely, or feeling lonely, is a psychological one. The physical state of being alone is equated to the physical distancing of not being with a loved one (e.g., a human or non-human animal). Being lonely is a state of distress about the state of one’s social relationships – when we feel that our relationships are less than what we desire them to be, either in quality or in quantity. A friend of mine, upon reading an earlier draft of this article, asked me: whether there is more willingness to bring compassion to those who are alone vs. those who feel lonely?

Heart of the CommunityHer question raised more questions for me, like whether people are moving forward from their awareness of mental health and mental illness and taking practical steps to include one another, for example, by providing workplace disability accommodation or just taking notice to actually ‘see’ each other and pay attention that one of us is “feeling blue”, or more than that, experiencing depression. But that pushed me further into a mindset of social service and health care design for those who experience loneliness, and for a change, I wanted to escape from my default “let’s fix this” mode as a professional planner, and to go more deeply into the multifaceted and complex issue of loneliness. In order to do that, I thought about how feeling lonely is a human emotion that informs, in part, how we relate to each other, and in thinking this way, loneliness is neither a good, nor a bad thing. Loneliness is not easily addressed by technical solutions. In turn, societally, inter-personally, and in a humanistic sense, how do we take practical steps toward compassionate action to address each other’s feelings of loneliness rather than to, perhaps more simply, efficiently, and technologically, address physical separation and being alone, through let’s say, the design of public space to help everyone thrive during COVID-19?

To take compassionate action to address loneliness means working through one’s own feelings, in order to welcome both the possibility and the necessity for connection with others, and also, acknowledging that human connection means inviting emotional risks, that is, a scariness, associated with experiencing discomfort, conflict, vulnerability, or even, glimpses of joy. I do not believe that it is possible to make sense of our collective abilities as members of society to build trust, and to be generous to each other, without opening ourselves up to the full spectrum of emotions which can include anger, joy, grief, awkwardness, desire, and loneliness. So, let’s open up to bringing emotion into our understanding, and into our experiences of space.

I really like the term “holding space” better than “making space.” Holding space for someone requires an intention to be present for someone else, without judgment, while maintaining a focus on the present, and being accountable for one’s own feelings too. “Making space” is like “making room,” or even “designing space”; they are not the same things as holding space, which is about the act of meeting people where they are at, while being fully aware of oneself sharing the physical and spiritual space with and for another person. It has to be a conscious decision to hold space with and for someone else, and for yourself simultaneously…and it can be hard, but, as I am learning, not impossible to do, even from a distance.

How to cultivate compassion and community?

Cultivating compassion for oneself and for others, and building community take work; it’s harder to cultivate compassion when we are overwhelmed. It is especially hard to have compassion for others whose ideas are so very different from one’s own. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky has noted in her book Trauma Stewardship, that one must attempt to build compassion and community and to practice compassion in order to manage feelings of overwhelm in ourselves and around us. Lipsky explains how compassion doesn’t come from “a place of blaming and judgment” and it can be a “fierce compassion” which can include reporting unethical behaviours or approaching a friend with self-destructive behaviours to get help and, if possible, helping them to get that help (p. 197). Compassion is crucial to enabling connection to ourselves, and without it, we are not able to connect with others, or with the many facets of our lives and the world. Lipsky goes on to say, “The world does not need more hostility; it does not need more judgment; it does not need more walls between people, species, or nations. And so we can always contribute to the betterment of the world if we initiate compassionate action in the face of wrongdoing. We remember that we are fundamentally connected to this earth and its life, whatever the circumstances” (p. 198).

Becoming vectors of light and human connection

DaycareRather than thinking of vectors of disease, I am opening up to thinking about, and experiencing, vectors in terms of time, distance, and energy exchange. I feel fortunate to be able to bike, for a change, instead of walking or taking the bus, through different neighbourhoods and quiet streets to travel from my home to the downtown core of my city. From my bike, I tend to do small things to connect with others, like ringing the bell of my bike to say “hello” (instead of “hey, watch out!”) and wave at the tiny tots in the daycare centre’s yard, and hearing my greetings being sweetly returned. At the supermarket, I try to remember to grin as much as I can so that my eyes widen on my mask-covered face so that maybe the cashier can see my gratitude if they may not hear my words. All of that matters in order to feed the human spirit – my own for sure, and theirs, hopefully. In turn, I am conceiving of the vectors of human spirit and the kind of light energy that sunlight brings to break through cloudy moments, and overwhelming experiences of isolation. Cultivating compassion is a practice, and it can be especially hard when I am low on energy to give to others. When that happens, I know that I need to recalibrate and go back to my basics: cook good food; get good sleep; find some trees to admire or even to hug; receive kind words from my sister over the phone; fit in some playtime with Kiri, my poodle-friend; clear my calendar for quiet recovery time in silence. All these actions ground me, and help me to build enough energy for myself, energy to share, and ultimately, enough energy to manage. With energy, I know I have capacity do these things for myself, and can do what I can, within my capacity, to help someone else to take actions of care and compassion for themselves.

Even as an introvert, every moment that I am able to be with people – at a safe distance – which can sometimes feel like stealing myself away from the quiet that I enjoy, or connecting with my weekly meditation group online through which we create a “microculture” of both accountability and mutual encouragement and care, are value-added, and are what Lipsky calls “compassion in action.” Honestly, I never thought that I would become dependent on technology to feel connected (at my age, anyway). I try to see technology as a tool for connection rather than the connective tissue itself. As an academic, I would often refer to people as the social infrastructure with which we build community. However, now, still as a social planner, I am starting to see even more clearly how the people that I connect with, and the energy that I receive from them, are the actual connective tissue. And I connect with them to foster gratitude and compassion, from a distance or through a screen, for now, so that the smiles and tears transmuted through stories, and transmitted through vectors of light and human connection will fill me up, at least until the next time that we are able to connect.

Let’s try to be vectors of light to illuminate and uplift the human spirit whenever we can, to cultivate compassion and community, staying safe, and doing our best to be kind to ourselves and to others, to enhance human connection.

Bold HeartFurther reading:

Lindley, David. 2020. The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost its Way. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Lipsky, Laura van Dernoot. 2018. The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Lipsky, Laura van Dernoot. 2009. Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Viswanathan, Leela. 2020. Planning in an age of overwhelm. Y Magazine, Issue 6, Fall 2020, 11-12.

Warner, Mona L. 2019. Ayurveda’s Three Pillars of Health: A Map to Health, Resilience, and Well-Being. Self-published with (Archangel Ink).

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