The outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, is introducing new words and phrases to our daily vocabularies. It’s also forcing us to rediscover the meaning of concepts that we haven’t used regularly for decades – or, in some cases, centuries.
The phrase “social distancing” wasn’t exactly part of the lexicon until recent weeks. Now we’re all learning about the vital layers of this practice, which include isolation, limiting gatherings to no more than five people (or whatever your government’s guidelines recommend), standing at least three feet apart from others, staying home, and only going out when absolutely necessary.
“Quarantine” is a word most people know, but few gave a second thought to it until this month. If you need a reminder, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “quarantine is used to separate and restrict the movement of well persons who may have been exposed to a communicable disease to see if they become ill.”
How about “pandemic”? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”
As we struggle to come to grips with the uncertainty of a new reality, these words can help us define our times and how we should act. They can also shed new light on themes that have never left.
Take “compassion,” for instance. By the book, our friends at M-W define it as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
Compassion can only be expressed through connection and relation to other human beings. And connection, as so many of us in the mental health field have tried to express in the last few years – when screen time has continued to replace face-to-face communication – is often best experienced through real relationships, with real people, in real time.
Compassion requires full-body listening, empathy, and a response. Compassion from a caregiver or treatment provider often requires physical care as well as daily contact, in-person meetings, therapy sessions, and talk time. These moments of connection are vital to expressing compassion for our fellow human beings. And often the power and healing that compassion provides is best expressed in person.
However, our current situation requires redefining the way we are used to cultivating and expressing compassion. Why? Because “flattening the curve” and slowing the spread of COVID-19 means saving lives. What could be more compassionate?
We have to find new ways to connect with one another, and now we can look at our online communities with fresh eyes to convey compassion. Rather than getting together in groups, or with those who are at high risk, like the elderly or immunocompromised, we can show them compassion by keeping our distance, calling to offer help, arranging for grocery or food delivery, or meeting via a video call to show solidarity and support.
We can join support groups online and host virtual “coffee breaks.” For those who are in recovery or in a residential treatment center like Timberline Knolls, compassion means keeping a safe distance but continuing to commit to treatment. It may look different, take place virtually, or come with other restrictions, but the best way to show compassion is to commit to keeping your immune system healthy, your emotions and mental health in balance, and your routine in place as much as safely possible. More than ever, staying committed to your own recovery journey and practicing self-compassion is vital to saving lives.
Compassion at this time may not look like a hug, crying in someone’s arms, sitting on a therapist’s couch, or meeting for coffee or tea to vent. This can be extremely challenging, considering that we often need physical communion and connection to experience the healing power of compassion. But our strength as a community – as treatment providers, those in recovery, advocates, family members, and friends – lies in our ability to forge new ways to express compassion.
With more time at home, we can make more phone calls. We can proactively join online communities and alumnae groups like the one we provide at Timberline Knolls, register for livestream events, and find ways to get that virtual face time. But most importantly, we can practice self-compassion – continue to check up on ourselves, check in with our treatment team, and practice self-care, forgiveness, and acceptance. We can use this opportunity to build new habits, give ourselves “playtime,” slow down, develop a ritual of self-care, journal, or engage in other creative activities. We can collectively choose to see this as an opportunity to build our skills of cultivating compassion in ways that transcend space and time.
This is a challenging time, without a doubt. It’s a situation in which our reality changes by the day – sometimes by the hour. However, we can create consistency by committing to show compassion to ourselves and to others.
Practicing social distancing is compassion, as is connecting with others online and keeping up with your meal plan or treatment team. The challenge of our situation is to keep connection and compassion alive, no matter the physical distance that separates us.
It starts with showing grace and compassion to ourselves.