I recently wrote about the consequences of the Covid19 crisis—both the self-sacrificing good works it prompted and, in sharp contrast, the profiting from other people’s vulnerability and the violations of people’s rights. This essay focuses on a very special gift the crisis has bestowed on all of those willing to receive it—the gift of appreciation.
Someone once said that we never truly appreciate what we have until we have lost it. The present crisis has underscored the wisdom of that observation. America has long been blessed more than any other country, and not only in financial wealth but even more importantly in freedom and opportunity. And the American people have shown their appreciation by being among the world’s most generous in helping those in need.
When natural disasters earthquakes, fires, tornados, and hurricanes occur in our own country we respond by donating money and goods. And when they occur in far away lands, such as famine and drought in Ethiopia, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, a cyclone in Myanmar, or an earthquake in Haiti, we do the same.
Such generosity is clearly an expression of sympathy—learning of other people’s suffering and loss and feeling compassion and pity for them. This is a kind and caring reaction, even a virtuous one. And we are able to express it even if we have never experienced a similar kind of suffering and loss. We simply imagine how we would feel going through what they are going through.
However, generosity can go beyond showing sympathy and express empathy—understanding other people’s pain through personal experience. This is a deeper reaction because it does not depend on imagining the pain, but instead remembers, recognizes, and in a very real sense feels it.
The Covid19 Pandemic brought to Americans a set of experiences that, for most, were entirely new. We were used to going about wherever and whenever we wished without a second thought. To a restaurant, for example, or to a movie theater, a barber shop or beauty parlor, a gym, swimming pool or beach, a clothing store or the mall, or a sporting event. We could book a cruise or buy an airline or train ticket and travel to far away places, or hop in the car and drive there. When we visited the grocery store, the shelves were full and the choices were extensive. And in all the places we went, there were no restrictions on our movement or special rules to observe.
Then, seemingly out of the blue, everything changed. Most of the movements we took for granted all our lives were suddenly restricted. Travel by train and plane was halted. Driving to other states, if possible, was difficult—we couldn’t stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant. Not only were many of the places we were used to visiting closed, but those that were open required waiting in long lines before entering. And when we entered, we were likely to find many of the shelves empty of staples like water, eggs, and milk, as well as—who would have imagined—toilet toilet paper and paper towels.
As if that were not enough disruption in our daily lives, places of work were closed and we were required to work online or, worse yet, found ourselves unemployed. We could not even seek spiritual consolation in church because churches were also closed and their services suspended. Before long, even staying at home was not an option but a directive.
Such curtailment of freedom and deprivation was never before experienced except by those old enough to remember the Great Depression and World War II.
Yet all these disruptive experiences brought an unexpected result—the ability not only to understand the circumstances of the less fortunate people of the world, but to empathize with them. Admittedly, there is a great difference between our having less choice in the food we eat and their lacking sufficient food of any kind, or between our surviving on unemployment insurance and their having no income at all. Yet even a modest degree of similarity can help us to identify more meaningfully with Venezuelans, North Koreans, Somalians, and others who have suffered life-threatening deprivation and loss of freedom and dignity.
That empathy, by deepening our understanding of what others have gone through, can help us appreciate more fully the blessings we enjoyed and that hopefully will return to us. If we can keep alive our memories of the confusion, uncertainty, fear, and despondency that have characterized the last few months, we will become more humble and never again take for granted the bountiful blessings of freedom and plenty this country provides.
Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved