Connection, Compassion and COVID-19

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. March 18, 2020

Recently, The New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out that in addition to health costs, pandemics have social costs, as well. "[I]f history is any judge, pandemics generally drive [people] apart. These are crises in which social distancing is a virtue. Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection." Brooks urges us "to take steps to fight the moral disease that accompanies the physical one." Here are my thoughts on how to do that.

Let Go of Blame and Self-Pity

There is a parable about the collision of two boats, based on a Buddhist teaching: In the darkness just before dawn, a farmer rows upstream on a river, carrying fruits and vegetables to sell at the village. He sees a boat coming toward him and attempts to avoid it. Yet the boat keeps coming. It rams into his boat. The farmer screams out, "What's wrong with you?" But there's no one in the other boat. It simply floated on the current.

The teaching is that even if someone had been in the boat, it wouldn't have mattered. Even with a pilot, the boat would have moved on its and the pilot's current. Whatever course had been made had been made.

The point is not to excuse wrongdoing (and you should certainly dodge the other boat if you're able). Rather, it's to avoid adding suffering to pain. Pain comes from the injury—the collision. Suffering comes from being locked in negative thoughts thereafter.

Whatever mistakes were made by countries' governments, cruise ship owners or the basketball player who made light of COVID-19 only to catch it himself, they're made. Let's move on. There's plenty of pain to go around. Let's not add suffering to it.

Connect with Others

We have one advantage our ancestors lacked during plagues past: social media! We can communicate without being near one another.

Rather than use social media as a tool to complain, lament, blame or splash the latest screaming headline, let's use these tools to connect. Take advantage of the downtime. Get to know people on a level you wouldn't have otherwise.

Recently, I've begun interviewing family, friends and others using eight questions derived from Arthur Aron's study of 36 questions that lead to love. It's a wonderful way to learn from and connect with others. Here are the questions I ask:

  1. Given the choice of anyone, who would be your dinner guest, and what would you talk about?
  2. What's something in your life for which you feel grateful?
  3. If you could give advice to the younger you, what would it be?
  4. What are the traits of a great friend?
  5. What's a treasured memory?
  6. What's an embarrassing moment in your life you're willing to share?
  7. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash. What would you save?
  8. Is there something you've dreamed of doing for a long time?

If you'd like to see an example of this method of questioning, read this story about my Aunt Inga and Uncle John.

Feel free to use my questions, or come up with your own. The key is to start asking them. Take good notes or record the answers. I predict the answers will be worth preserving, as with Aunt Inga and Uncle John. And I'd love to learn about the connections you make and the answers you receive.

Let's turn COVID-19 into an opportunity to connect, show compassion and learn from each other. 



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