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Compassion is attentiveness to the suffering of ourselves and others, with the wisdom and steps taken to relieve it. Compassion calls forth action, but with the wisdom to know when, how and what is required.

Harriet Harris and Marti Balaam

III – How We Get Unstuck: Bear Witness

We respond so strongly to narratives like Maitlis’ and Clarke’s, because – although it is easy to forget this in the frenzy of ‘but what should I do?’ – stories matter. It is not just that words have corresponding deeds, but that they are also deeds: they act, upon the storyteller, and upon the world.

This shows another form that compassion will take in the time of COVID-19. Where governments may provide masks and gowns, and act to protect BAME groups, our journalists and healthcare workers may act best through their direct and clear truth-telling about the vulnerable. In the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy, we support clinical staff whose repertoire of compassionate acts in ordinary times has been profoundly compromised by the slashing of services under lockdown, and the escalating suffering that has ensued. They may feel as though there is nothing that they can do. And yet there is, and it is to bear witness: to tell the story of what they see.

And we, in turn, must bear witness to the tales that others tell. We must do so discerningly: as Maitlis does, to the tale of coronavirus the great leveller; and as Clarke does, to the tale of healthcare staff, the heroes. We must critique some stories, and pass others on. Some, we must simply hold, gently.

Both Maitlis and Clarke are designated key workers. Most of us are not journalists, and many of us are not key workers. But the practice of bearing witness is not inherently a job, although it may be. It is an ethical calling, a part of being a human among other humans in this world. It is the key work of compassion that we must do for ourselves, and for each other.

Kitty’s weekly mindfulness virtual drop-in consists of an email with a suggested practice, theme, and article or podcast episode for reflection, to explore in your own time. Email mindfulness@ed.ac.uk to subscribe.

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