Humankind has become a very dangerous species. We need people who can sit still and be able to smile, who can walk peacefully. We need people like that in order to save us. — Thich Nhat Hanh
Troubled times can bring out the worst in us. When we are afraid, when we feel control slipping from our fingers, we revert to our primitive behaviors. Our bodies, still holding onto the traumas, fears and anxiety of being a little child with no control, take over for us and send us into fight mode. We make our energy as big as we can to ward off the danger.
Thus, we fight in the grocery stores over toilet paper. We buy out the gun and ammo stores. We cast blame on others. Our panic, ready and waiting in our primitive brain, shuts down the logic and calm stored in our frontal lobe.
We spin off into behaviors that not only do no protect us, they have the potential to harm us and others. Our primal instincts have taken charge and we are helpless to stop the spiral.
When I read this morning that there are people in Oregon flooding the 911 lines because they are out of toilet paper, I wanted to take the world in my arms and cry. We have created for others the very thing we feared for ourselves. By protecting ourselves, we have hurt others.
It is easy to harden our “us and them” mentality at times like this. Protecting me and mine at all costs seems not only reasonable but necessary. When we are thrown into sudden uncertainty, as this new coronavirus has done to all of us, we tend to shut down the part of our brain that feels compassion and empathy. This is when we make decisions that can harm us all.
How can we shift our thinking back into the part of our brain where we feel empathy for others? How can we help, rather than hurt, ourselves and others?
Tapping Into Our Compassion
Christopher Bergland, in an article in Psychology Today says, “Because our brain’s neural circuitry is malleable and can be rewired through neuroplasticity, one’s tendency for empathy and compassion is never fixed. We all need to practice putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes to reinforce the neural networks that allow us to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
All the major religions teach compassion for others. And when we are operating from our best selves, most of us are capable of at least some measure of caring and empathy for others. It is critical that we tap into that ability now before we tip the balance in favor of utter chaos and anarchy.
In America, we have independence poured into our bottles when we are babies. Individualism is god and taking care of our wants and needs trumps any consideration for how our actions impact others. It’s why we can buy cheap goods that are made with child labor in abhorrent conditions without a thought.
The COVID19 pandemic is showing us how dependent we are on one another. We are not separate, nor are we an island unto ourselves. We are all interconnected in ways both terrifying and beautiful, as Lynn Ungur said in her beautiful poem, Pandemic.
We Are All in This Together
If we can tap into that reality it will go a long way toward bringing a sense of stability to the situation. In other countries, where they have a more developed sense of community and dependence on one another, there is a greater sense of “we are all in this together, and we are doing it for the good of all.” There are beautiful videos of Italians singing folk songs to each other through their open windows to keep up morale.
Meanwhile, American beaches are packed with spring breakers, and people with confirmed cases of the virus are defying requests to self-quarantine. There is still a sense that none of this will affect us, that we can continue to live as normal and no one has a right to tell us otherwise.
This is where a sense of compassion could shift our thinking from me and mine to us and ours. It is our world that is at risk, it is our society that stands to lose if we don’t all do our part with a sense of responsibility to everyone we share the planet with.
So, we stop and look around and see how many people are suffering and we ask, “How can I help?” We are thoughtful about what we buy and think about how our actions will affect others. We reach out to our older neighbors and offer to do their shopping for them. We check on our neighbors who now have small children at home all day and ask, “How are you doing?” We share our toilet paper.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and teacher who escaped Viet Nam during the war, tells a story about how one person can change everything.
This is his story.
Calm in the Storm
I like to use the example of a small boat crossing the Gulf of Siam. In Vietnam, there are many people, called boat people, who leave the country in small boats. Often the boats are caught in rough seas or storms, the people may panic, and boats may sink.
But if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression — face, voice — communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says.
One such person can save the lives of many.
You Can Be That Person
None of us asked for this. It just happened. We don’t need to waste our energy railing against it. Life is going to be different, and there is nothing we can do to change that. People will suffer, mentally, financially, physically and spiritually.
We need to support each other. We need to be kind to one another. We need to recognize that people are afraid and are acting out of that fear. We need to be the calm person in the boat. We have the ability to be the ones who change the tide. We can tap into our compassion, and our calm, and guide the boat safely to shore.
We need people like that in order to save us.