Let’s think back…
The start of 2020 saw us all divided by vastly different cultures; belief-systems; lifestyles; fears; celebrations; foods… everything.
I’m talking on a global scale: 6th Jan saw many of us across UK & Europe grumbling as we started our first full week back at work for the new year. Meanwhile, torrential rain hits Angola leaving 41 dead.
I’m also talking on a national scale: here in the UK, Brexit discussions and opinion differences maintained strained tensions across the country, even within friendship groups and workplaces.
And I’m even talking on personal levels: as ever, family feuds, breakups, and friendship splits continued. Peers of the same schools came from vastly different backgrounds. Colleagues competed for promotions.
So how is now looking…
Fast forward 5 months and we’re all even more physically divided than ever. And yet, I reckon, also even more closely connected than ever.
I mean, I don’t think there’s been a time in living history where the entire world has shared a uniting force, has there? Let alone, a uniting battle. All of us; every single country is fighting the same invisible enemy.
Terrifying? Absolutely. Devastating? Yes, somewhat. Awesome? Yeah, kind of.
Right now, when we ask somebody ‘how are you?’, it’s actually not in some feeble attempt at small talk… we genuinely care about the answer. We genuinely hope that it’s ‘yes, I’m good thank you, keeping well’.
Whenever we go to complain about our boredom; our financial concerns; the cabin-fever; our fear of an unknown future… most of us find ourselves caught by an immediate guilty awareness. We remind ourselves of our own relative fortune… that there are others considerably worse off than ourselves. I’ve seen this thought process take place in myself, and virtually every person I’ve spoken to since quarantine began.
Okay, this next bit may sound like a digression, but stick with me, it’s relevant I promise.
This Is Water
So, 6 years ago, my decision to study English Literature was confirmed when a good friend of mine shared a US college commencement speech with me that quite honestly (and without clichéd exaggeration) changed my life. This speech was This Is Water by David Foster Wallace. (DFW from now on).
If you haven’t already, I urge you please to listen to what he has to say here.
That said, he does have a fantastic knack for over-intellectualising things so I’ll summarise my own takeaways and their relevance to our current situation in a considerably less artful and genius manner:
- Okay to start with, DFW discusses our default thinking-mind as human beings: fundamentally, we are each at the very centre of our own versions of the universe. This basically means, firstly, that anything at all that happens in our periphery is happening to us in some way. We will always be, to some degree, either a hero or a victim to this activity.
- Secondly, we’re actually largely unaware of this intrinsic self-centredness. It’s a kind of subconscious personal worldview through which we filter life. So actually that makes it pretty crazy when we consciously acknowledge this thinking-state and come to realise that every single person is perceiving the same situations from different universe-centres. Madness.
- Thirdly, our own thoughts and emotions are completely immediate to ourselves… they exist with us at the centre of our universes. Meanwhile, the thoughts and emotions of others must be communicated to us. That is, they must be communicated from one persons’ universe-centre, to our own centre and through all the various filters within that process.
Okay okay sorry this might all be getting a bit convoluted… am I making sense? Thank you for sticking with me haha!
The Art Of Empathy
In This Is Water, DFW explains that a Liberal Arts education (or as I argue, any kind of creative or artistic learning) teaches us ‘how to think’.
I see this as meaning to ‘think’ with consciousness – to acknowledge our own filters and our own emotional immediacy. I think it even means to begin learning the art of placing ourselves at the universe-centre of someone else…. That is, to learn the art of empathy.
Just as an example, actors practice a method of fully expanding and bringing to life their character. They create back-stories, emotions, motivations… whole entire imagined lives that, as an audience, we never explicitly see but do benefit from in the form of a believable and rounded character.
The method of these actors, or even the empathetic thought process within ‘real life’, brings the possible thoughts and emotions of others to a level of immediacy resembling our own. Of course, we can never be completely certain about how someone else is truly feeling, but we can gain an insight into potential emotions. This can be fundamental in the building of incredibly deep relationships.
Empathy and Covid-19
Nowwwww back to making this all relevant to the here and now of good ol’ Covid-19. What I’m really hoping is that, like artistic learning and practice, this whole situation of unprecedented unity and connection is actually teaching us all to engage our conscious, empathetic thought processes.
How many times have you thought how unfair it is that XYZ of quarantine is happening to you? Before the guilt suddenly moves in and you almost instantly remind yourself of the ‘unimaginable’ pain of someone losing a loved one without being able to be there at the end. Right there in that moment, you’re empathising with their pain. The ‘unimaginable’ actually becomes imaginable when you place yourself at their universe centre, and that’s exactly what you’re doing in that moment of guilt.
The reason this thought process is suddenly becoming available to so many of us, is because we’re all experiencing the same activity… albeit from different universe-centres. The proximity of this sharedness enables and encourages empathy.
And now that most (if not all) of us have experienced and practiced this new conscious thought process, my true hope is that we continue to do so. That, ultimately, we can all maintain this awesome connection that Covid-19 has actually catalysed.
Anyway, this is quite a different style post to my normal, more colloquial-style ones… I hope you enjoyed it? And re the photos, I wasn’t sure how to illustrate this one, so used snaps I’ve been taking at home since being quarantined. Thanks for reading! A.x.