I’m fine. It seems weird to say during a global pandemic, but it’s true. I’m fine. I’m healthy, my family’s healthy, my immediate community is healthy. No one close to me has died or had serious complications from the virus. Not yet, anyway.
Financially, my family is fine. We’ve taken a little hit, but nothing we can’t handle. I lived through economic hardship as a child; I still remember the taste of government cheese. If things take a turn for us financially, it won’t be easy, but I’m quite confident we won’t starve to death.
I’m not afraid of getting the virus and I’m not worried about financial ruin. I’m not grieving any personal loss at this point. Objectively, I’m fine.
So why am I so frigging emotional?
I have cried more in the past few weeks than I have in a year. I find myself tearing up nearly every day as I read stories from doctors and nurses on the front line, stories of people saying goodbye to loved ones over FaceTime, and stories of people watching businesses they’ve poured their heart and soul into crumbling before their eyes. I feel their grief. I feel their sadness. I feel their fear.
I’ve always known I had a strong sense of empathy, but I also have a strong logical/practical side that balances it out. It’s like I’m always wading in an ocean of people’s emotions, but I know how to keep my footing and brace myself to stay steady. I know how to position myself in the water to withstand the tides, and I know how to keep from wading in too far.
But with the pandemic, I feel like I just got hit by a tsunami. The emotional surge swept me off my feet with no warning and I find myself tumbling in the water, with all of my normal management mechanisms rendered useless.
And I can’t swim out of it. The nature of my work—work that I love—requires me to be immersed in coronavirus stories all day long. Even though a lot of that work is seeking out stories that provide hope or highlight the best of humanity, it still means diving in nonstop. So I’m feeling it. All the time. All the uncertainty, all the pain, all the grief and sadness and despair and worry that people are experiencing. I feel it.
It’s not like I haven’t experienced being hit with empathy waves in my work before. I’ve written about hard human things like the refugee crisis, racial injustice, child separation at the border, MMIW, hunger and malnutrition, and more. I’ve wept my way through researching those kinds of stories and have always felt like that empathy made me a better writer. But for the most part, those stories were known waves, where I could somewhat predict the push and pull. And of course I had the privilege of diving in and then swimming back to shallow waters.
But this is different. This wave hit without warning and there are no shallow waters to return to. And to make it worse, all of those other hard human stories are wrapped up in this tsunami as well. This pandemic will make most if not all of those issues worse. The human toll of this is enormous—and not just in the virus’s death numbers.
Life as we know it has has shifted and we’re all reeling from the shift. The emotional impact of a global pandemic and the economic crisis that goes along with it is no small thing. The weight of it is a lot, friends. It’s so much. It’s overwhelming.
And then I feel silly for saying that because, again, I’m fine. And I know my empathetic feelings are just a fraction of what the people experiencing these things are actually feeling. I know this.
Then again, feeling even 10 percent of this nurse’s fear of dying, that daughter’s grief of losing a parent, this husband’s despair at knowing his wife died alone, that quarantined doctor missing his children, those hourly workers not knowing how they’re going to make rent—when you add it all up multiplied by thousands or millions, it’s a lot.
I also know this—our world needs more empathy, not less. So I’m learning not to fight the current and trying to accept that I’ll be living in this wave for a while. Rather than struggling to swim out of it, I’m letting it carry me to places where I can do some good, whether that’s bearing witness to someone’s pain, sharing stories with compassion, channeling extra resources and lending a helping hand where needed, or praying with or for everyone who is struggling.
And when it feels like I’m starting to drown, I visualize swimming upward toward the light at the top of the water. I float on the surface, face to the sun, letting the tears flow as needed and letting my heart feel what it feels. I recognize that the grief, sadness, fear, and despair below me are mixed with love, compassion, generosity, and solidarity. I celebrate the fact that feelings are what unite us as humans. I remind myself that there’s never been a tsunami that hasn’t receded.
Then I take a deep breath and dive back in.