Forget “red plague” and “blue plague” or liberty vs. public health.
For decades, America has drawn down its strategic national stockpile of something even more important than ventilators and PPE, and now we’re fresh out: empathy.
Empathy is not pity or charity. It is not looking out and down from a position of safety and comfort at those who are suffering, and responding generously. Generosity is good. But empathy is something else. Empathy is actually entering into the experience of those who are suffering and suffering with them. Empathy in action means being willing to make sacrifices to protect others from harm. For those closest to us, this may come “naturally” (or seem to) — but as the circle widens, empathy as a personal virtue or disposition mostly gives way to broader civic and political commitments.
Empathy is one of the ways we recognize the real humanity of persons other than ourselves. Those on the political left may see this as primarily a governmental task, supported by tax dollars; those on the right might prefer decentralized, private efforts. But until fairly recently, simply not caring at all — nor even pretending to care (remember Bush I’s “thousand points of light”?) — was not in the so-called “Overton window” of the politically thinkable. But times have changed, and unabashed “I got mine”-ishness is in the ascendancy.
Americans have long been short on empathy where “others” are concerned. Be they the indigenous peoples of North America, the captured and trafficked Africans and their enslaved descendants, or the Iraqi civilians of the Gulf War, European-Americans have been all too willing to let others suffer and die for the sake of some White people’s way of life. The most pessimistic of our social critics have warned that this might be ineradicable. Their dark suspicions seem to be borne out by the Confederate-flag-waving AR-15-toting I-wanna-go-to-Applebee’s-and-Home-Depot acts of domestic terrorism like that currently being perpetrated upon our democracy in the Michigan statehouse; their whinier cousins are showing up on the beaches of Jacksonville, Florida, and Huntington Beach, California.
The history of the twentieth century is not one to inspire nostalgia. At best, the American post-war economic expansion created a level of prosperity the likes of which the world has never seen, and inspired a kind of escalator generosity, a form of mobility in which the better off did not begrudge the worse off some improvement in their condition — so long as the best off kept rising too. If the pie was endlessly growing, everyone’s slice could get bigger, even the historically oppressed and marginalized. This is much of what passed for progress in America, and it genuinely improved conditions for millions of people.
In the 1970s, though, the cracks began to show, and the fissures really began opening up in the Reagan-era 1980s.
Consider homelessness. As the movement to de-institutionalize the mentally ill took hold, state budgets for social programs contracted, and the price of housing began its steady upward climb. The problem of housing insecurity has reached its own epidemic proportions in America’s cities. Nearly 130,000 people are homeless in California, about 75% of them sleeping outdoors. About 18,000 of the LAUSD’s 600,000 students are living in “shelters, motels, abandoned buildings, cars, doubled up with other families, or unsheltered.” And the problem is not limited to places with balmy climates: more than 114,000 students in New York City’s public schools — about one in ten — are homeless.
But we’ve gotten used to it. We’ve learned to walk around those tents under the overpass, avert our eyes, and hope for the best. Of course, many advocates have done much more — but most of us haven’t done much.
Then there’s immigration. Everyone who knows anything about it has supported some kind of comprehensive immigration reform since the 1980s. It hasn’t been forthcoming. So we’ve hoped for a government that would be generous in conferring “Temporary Protected Status” on those fleeing the unrest the U.S. helped cause in Central America, and for refugees and those seeking asylum based on LGBTQ status. We applauded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and paid less attention when Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) was declared unconstitutional.
The Trump Administration is now committing cruelties at the border on a scale unrivaled since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But we have all grown tired of hearing about it and the media has grown tired of covering it. Those shocking scenes on television from the summer of 2018 are not even yesterday’s news — although there are currently more than 50,000 people in immigration detention. Another 2 million are in prisons and jails.
And now, COVID-19.
Some of us may feel we have no empathy left — that we have poured it out for nothing, at the feet of a government that is uncaring and immovable. In the face of the Trump Administration’s seemingly endless cruelties, our empathy has atrophied. With nowhere to go, outrage burns out and empathy shrivels, and for most of us, the circle of moral concern almost inevitably contracts to “me and mine.” Caught up in our own worries, even before this pandemic, it has become too easy to step over homeless people and put immigrants at the border and the incarcerated out of one’s mind.
And now, now that the preservation of public health, and the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of our fellow citizens and human beings, demands of us the seemingly small step of simply staying at home — it’s too much to ask.
But COVID-19 is an opportunity to reinvigorate our empathy, in part because what our most vulnerable fellow Americans need from us is so little. Heroics are not required. Essential workers — in health care, public transit, delivery jobs — are like soldiers in past wars, who put on uniforms, leave their families, and travel into danger, perhaps never to return. But in this battle, what they need from us is mostly to stay out of the way, and not, in our selfishness, needlessly increase their burden and imperil others. This temporary inconvenience, this sacrifice of our freedom of movement and our familiar way of life, is a collective practice of empathy. And like the virus, it too is contagious.
Before the pandemic, most of us had never heard of “flattening the curve,” and might have thought, “Why not just get it over with?” And then we learned about how the shape of the curve would affect health care resources for all of us — and most of us got it.
Before the pandemic, most of us had never thought twice about supply-chain constraints and the production of personal protective equipment (PPE), the masks, gloves, and gowns used by health care workers all day long. We’d never thought about them running out. Maybe they hadn’t, either. But once we did, we realized that health care workers were in mortal danger without it, and working anyway. And most of us got it.
But all of these interventions depend upon the basic idea that we care about other human beings, even ones we may never meet. Even after the deaths of more than 66,000 Americans, it appears, entirely too many of us still don’t.
“No man is an island,” a phrase never more appropriate than in a global pandemic, has become such a cliche it might seem like anyone could have written it. But it was actually poet John Donne, in 1623. As a 17th century Londoner, he’d experienced lethal pandemics firsthand. His younger brother Henry died of bubonic plague in Newgate Prison in 1594. Decades later, Donne famously wrote,
No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
“Any man’s death diminishes me.” Not just my brother’s. Amidst all the talk of risk factors, of age and health and long-term care facilities and asthma, and the workings of a poorly-understood virus that still looks to us like it capriciously spares some and curses others — there is still room for an empathy that is not any form of disguised self-interest. We are all involved in humankind — if only we will be.