Panic and the coronavirus pandemic: widening our circle of compassionby
In part eight of her content series on panic and the coronavirus pandemic, Rachel Ellison MBE discusses the issue of compassion and why, during this time of national crisis, we are discovering new things about ourselves and the people around us.
At a time when we are being instructed to avoid and even fear physical contact with other people, we must not close off and shut down emotionally. Finding a way to give or contribute in some way can be a helpful strategy for navigating lockdown.
“Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.
Those widening circles of compassion are highly evident. Thousands of retired healthcare workers are returning to support the NHS during Covid-19. Thousands more doctors, nurses, paramedics, porters and cleaners are holding our hospitals together and trying to save lives.
In the community, pharmacists, bus drivers, care home workers and shopkeepers have become vital pieces in a mosaic that is the drive for public health. Broadcasters are also part of that mosaic, delivering public health messaging and holding the government to account.
In response, each Thursday night, a nation of ordinary people lean over their balconies, open their windows and stand by their gates to clang on saucepans, ring their doorbells and applaud them all.
Some food banks are running on empty, because of a surge in demand from people who’ve lost their jobs and need help. In response, neighbourhood Whatsapp groups and inter-faith initiatives have put out calls for donations of tins, packets and toiletries. We are seeing not just compassion, but also a passion to help – a passion to take part.
Shame versus autonomy
The flour grab and run on frozen foods seems to have calmed. Psychoanalysts have interpreted this behaviour variously, from concepts of shame versus autonomy to notions of loss of control, fear of having inadequate defences to not being able to trust that there will be enough – enough supplies or enough supplies of love? These beneath-the-surface themes are likely to be present in many of us, without the need for a full-scale pandemic. Perhaps the Covid-19 emergency is awakening deeper, unmet or unacknowledged concerns.
Depriving others of a box of laundry detergent or wiping out the cake decorations section of the supermarket seem unlikely mechanisms to protect against coronavirus. These behaviours may represent ‘splitting’ or ‘projection’ as we swipe our inner most fears off the supermarket shelves and into our shopping trolley. Freud called this ‘acting out’. I oscillate between interpretations of ‘extreme nesting’ and unhinged greed.
What we can do
There is much currently that we cannot do, and much we have to do which we normally may not. Remembering these new boundaries takes up energy. Reminding ourselves of why may take up even more.
On the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sachs predicted that the coronavirus pandemic would see society reverse the recent dominance and egocentric focus, to replace it with a more societally conscious, collegiate way of being – a shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’. I hope he’s right. Let’s explore, create and widen our circle of compassion.
- What am I currently not allowed to do?
- What am I doing that I don’t normally do?
- What am I enjoying that surprises me?
- What would I like to keep doing – because in some way, this is good for me?
- What can I do more of?
- If you have had coronavirus or know someone who has it, what are you learning?
- What are you learning about you?
- What do you want to do differently as a result of the Covid-19 context, that you could start doing right now?
Beneath-the-surface themes to explore with leaders and in coach supervision:
- Shame versus autonomy
- Greed and grabbing
- Insufficient supplies
- Inadequate defences
- Loss of control
Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. She was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work...