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
I – Why we feel stuck
Ordinary times have a certain quality to them. They rumble along, quietly. Much is unremarkable, invisible, and unquestioned. Habits, patterns, and practices sediment into their own rhythms, regular as a heartbeat. Personal and societal circumstances vary, of course, in what counts as ordinary. For some it is ordinary to step outdoors and fear sickness; for others, it is not. But we are all familiar with the nature of ordinariness itself, however this manifests in our lives.
Woven into ordinariness is ethical life. “Ethics is part of the human condition,” the anthropologist Michael Lambek writes: “human beings cannot avoid being subject to ethics, speaking and acting with ethical consequences, evaluating our actions and those of others, acknowledging and refusing acknowledgment, caring and taking care, but also being aware of our failure to do so consistently.”i In other words, even in the most ordinary of times, questioning what is right or good is inherent to being human – as is awareness that we will not always get it right. An ordinary life is one of ethical questioning, uncertainty, and imperfection.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not an ordinary time. It is extraordinary, and therefore many of the qualities of ordinary time and life are inversed. Much is suddenly remarkable, visible, questionable. Rhythms are disrupted. But the ethical quality of ordinary life – the questioning, uncertainty, and imperfection – is not inversed: it is amplified. The stakes are higher. The question of what is right or good to do – of what compassion, for example, looks like at a time like this – suddenly has fresh urgency and potency.
Harriet Harris and Marti Balaam define compassion as “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.” These questions of action – what to do, and when, and how – are resonating right now at every level of our society: government, institutions, communities, families, individuals.
The difficulty of ethical life in the time of COVID-19 is that answers to those questions are partial, incomplete, and shapeshifting. They emerge slowly, only after haggling, debate, and dispute. The definition of a key worker; the date to start lockdown; the date to lift lockdown; whether to quarantine, track, and trace; whether to wear a mask if you are a bus driver; whether you can wash and reuse PPE; whether to show up for work if your employer will not protect you; whether you can walk twice a day, if you have a mental illness and will decline without exercise; whether you can leave your household, if you have fought with your partner; whether to go to A&E, if you have chest pains, but live with someone extremely clinically vulnerable.
As definitions, categories, answers, and indeed laws emerge, we might think that the uncertainty would ease as ordinariness of a new kind reasserts itself. We even have a phrase for it: ‘the new normal’. But remember, we are in extraordinary times, and the characteristic of ethical life that is currently amplified is that this moment, as we live it, is both urgent and uncertain. As Lambek reminds us, ethics are in every move we make, and we feel the weight of them. This is the moment we are in, and we must live it, without knowing how it turns out.
It is no wonder that amidst this uncertainty, with so much at stake, so many of us feel stymied and stuck. It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression have dramatically escalated. While the labels of mental health can be tremendously useful, and its treatment lifesaving, it is important to hold some space in which the difficulty of this ethical moment is not medicalised. This is not just a public health emergency, it is an ethical emergency, with questions of how we care for ourselves, each other, and our world reverberating through every step.
Where do we go from here? How do we get unstuck? “The wisdom to know when, how, and what is required” is not easily come by. As Lauren Berlant argues, compassion is not an absolute quality; it is culturally and historically contingent. To feel the shifting sands beneath our feet is to feel this. Sometimes, it is all we can do just to acknowledge that wise action is contingent. To do so is to create space that is prior to clarity, but does not guarantee it. If we are to become unstuck, we must aim to be more specific about what compassion looks like in the time of COVID.
i Michael Lambek, ‘Introduction’, in M. Lambek, ed., Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action (New York, 2010), p.1.
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