Illness Can Be the Great Humanizer
Recent news that the president and first lady contracted COVID -19 created somewhat of a pandemic pause — changing the tone of the presidential race in both rhetoric and response.
Both devoted supporters and detractors offered authentic expressions of empathy and encouragement, as well-wishers globally weighing in.
Because above personality, personal convictions, or politics, we are experiencing the sentiment of shared humanity.
We are intrinsically wired to feel empathy and compassion in response to misfortune — regardless of who is impacted.
And particularly with respect to an unpredictable threat like coronavirus, our sensitivity is heightened by the recognition that we are all vulnerable.
It could be the the president and his family today. Or, our family tomorrow.
The Great Equalizer: Illness
Vulnerability to illness is a reality of shared humanity.
It strikes without regard for demographics or politics.
We rarely hear about someone contracting a disease or suffering a physical infirmity without thinking,"that could be me." One of the truths most people agree upon, is that regardless of politics or other differences, we do not wish misfortune on anyone, because no amount of physical strength or political power confers immunity.
Suspending The Blame Game
Additionally, contracting an illness does not prompt the type of "I told you so" chastisement accompanying so many other types of predictable misfortune, such as engaging in physically risky activities like drinking and driving, gambling, or even pouring money into speculative financial investments.
Falling ill implicates human frailty more than intelligence or choice.
And with a virus as contagious as COVID-19, that infects even those who were taking the highest precautions, such as healthcare workers, it's inconceivable to chastise the afflicted, many of whom face potentially life threatening consequences, depending on risk factors and pre-existing conditions.
Accordingly, many people who do not support President Trump expressed surprise at how empathetic they felt upon hearing about his positive COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization.
Yet, research has long recognized the ubiquity of our shared capacity for compassion.
Wired for Compassion
Paul Gilbert, examining the evolution and social dynamics of compassion (2015), recognized the positive side of compassion, noting its evolutionary advantage in terms of caring for others.
Gilbert also recognized compassion as a social mentality and a social motive impacting social interactions. Citing recent research, he notes that studies of prosocial behavior indicate that caring motivations and compassion for both self and others is beneficial psychologically, physiologically, and socially. Perhaps not surprisingly, he recognizes that compassion improves well-being and social relationships, where self‐focused, egotistical motives do not.
Gilbert recognizes that modern definitions of compassion acknowledge its foundation in caring motivation that encompass a range of different competencies including sympathy, empathy, openness, and generosity, among other qualities.
Although there are definitional differences, he notes that most views of compassion involve "a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it."
COVID-19 and Vicarious Trauma
Not only did the world learn President Trump had contracted COVID-19, they witnessed the transformation.
Appearing pale and much less energetic than his usual self-confident countenance, the president allowed the public to observe his infirmity — which was visually apparent in a video message he recorded from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
He wore a suit jacket — but did so uncharacteristically, without a tie.
Research reveals how these observations can impact us as well.
Zhenyu Li et al. (2020) studied the differences in vicarious traumatization caused by COVID-19 between front-line nurses, non-front-line nurses, and the general public —finding the latter two categories experiencing significantly higher levels of vicarious trauma, in terms of both psychological and physiological responses.
Li et al. (ibid.) note this discrepancy may be due to front-line nurses having significant psychological preparation and capacity, experience, and knowledge about the dynamics of the epidemic — which the other two categories arguably do not have.
Taken together, the research suggests that when we hear about the contagion of others, even those we do not like or agree with politically, we feel both compassion and concern, consider our own vulnerability, and may even suffer vicariously through their experience.
The silver lining appears to be that shared humanity promotes both empathy and sympathy, and also breeds hope.
This article was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick, JD, MDiv, PhD, is an award-winning career trial attorney and media commentator. She is host of "Live with Dr. Wendy" on KCBQ, and a daily guest on other media outlets, delivering a lively mix of flash, substance, and style. Her over 4,500 media appearances include major news outlets including CNN, Fox News Channel, HLN, FOX Business Network, and weekly appearances on Newsmax. She is author of Red Flags (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House, revision). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin professionally with a rock band. Read Dr. Wendy L. Patricks's Reports — More Here.
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