Maintaining Empathy in the Age of COVID-19

October 11, 2020
Ellen Freed
Maintaining Empathy in the Age of COVID-19

Reacting to the upsetting news that comes across the airways with regular certainty on a day-to-day basis is exhausting for most of us, despite our political views. We struggle to handle the escalating, sharp division in our country, the challenges of coronavirus, racial injustice, climate change, failing businesses, unemployment and the difficulty of discriminating between “fake news” and truth. 

Responding to this disturbing news takes away from the daily dose of energy needed to function. We feel anger, fear, shock, and sadness and ask: How can we reactivate the empathy and social cooperation which distinguish humans from every other species on the planet and are deeply embedded in our DNA?  

In autocratic countries, these qualities are successfully repressed through political leadership which uses force and fear to keep them controlled. However, they are there, nevertheless, always waiting to be resurrected. And they are essential in a democratic society; for without them, civility is threatened. In today’s world, daily doses of anger, anxiety, and stress have become the enemies of empathy.

Finding ways to maintain and increase empathy will neutralize and counteract the negative news of the day. So, here are some practical suggestions for reactivating compassion. 

It is important to be well informed about what is happening around the world, but there are times when one must take a break from watching the news to view lighter content. To my surprise, a highly sophisticated colleague recommended the Hallmark Movie Channel for inspiration about human relationships. Another suggestion is HGTV which several friends watch, claiming home improvement ideas provide instant relief and distraction.


Rohima Khatun fled violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar. 

Photo Credit: Robin Hammond / Panos Pictures.

By chance, I discovered a way to activate empathy. When flipping through a “Doctors Without Borders Quarterly,” I came across an exceptional photograph of a young woman who had fled violence in Myanmar after witnessing the brutal killing of her husband, child, relatives and neighbors. Her face was mesmerizing and her eyes transmitted poignancy at the deepest level. I could not take my eyes off hers as I absorbed the energy emanating from an inanimate object. And the result was an unexpected wave of empathy for a total stranger I would never meet. So, turn on your picture files and look carefully at powerful photographs of family and friends. Feel the emotional energy they transmit.

Another recent experience confirmed the importance of keeping your eyes focused on people as you move from place to place during the day. While waiting on the F train Manhattan-bound platform in Forest Hills after a game of tennis, I spotted a tall, attractive Japanese man holding the hand of his adorable four-year-old son.  The boy was exuding joy at being there by using his other hand to point at various objects and talking excitedly in Japanese. The scene filled me with delight, and when the train came, I purposely entered the same car and sat next to them.  

Photo Credit: Daniel Barry/Getty Images

Throughout the entire 25-minute trip, the boy continued pointing and expressing happiness in his native language. Soon a few other people noticed and started smiling along with me. At one point, I made eye contact with the father who acknowledged my appreciation of his son by a subtle nod of the head. As the train approached my stop at 63rd and Lexington, I was determined to say goodbye to this captivating child who had unknowingly given me a great gift.  As I got up to leave before opening my mouth, he turned toward me, and with the broadest, most delicious smile said, “Bye-bye.”  

Walking home, I couldn’t get the image of that face out of my mind. It lingered a little longer, affording me an hour of freedom from the news and a welcomed feeling of enjoyment. This example spotlights the benefit of making eye contact with and smiling at strangers as you travel around your city. You never know what joy that action can precipitate!

These experiences got me thinking about other ways to stimulate positive human connections. Here are a few other suggestions that emerged from interviews with fellow concerned citizens:

  • Greet family members and friends in person, on the phone, or Zoom, with authentic warmth. Use your body language and tone of voice to express appreciation for the connection. 

  • Handle anger directed at you with greater understanding and resist the temptation to return it in kind. This includes dealing with family and friends who have different political views.

  • Watch films like Now Voyager, The Green Book, Schindler’s List, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Open yourself up to the inspiring messages they contain and feel the human connections.

  • Gaze at a person in a store or on the street. As you look, first feel your own “me,” and then experience the “me” in her or him.  Repeat this process as you observe the next stranger.

Compassion confirms our humanity and offers hope for the future. Increasing empathy, one person at a time, can cascade into a campaign for preserving human behavior at its highest level. And, perhaps, as time goes by, the heavy news of the day will lighten and fade away.

Ellen Freed

Ellen Freed

Ellen Freed is a writer, editor, and instructional designer. Along with Dr. Thomas Vietorisz, she is co-author of Recovering Humanity: A Blueprint for Survival.

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