Covid Metamorphoses #41 – Empathy

I can relate to the people out there not wearing masks, engaging in sincere (and insincere) protests. I share their frustration. I share their anger.

For all my genuine horror and outrage at their lack of responsibility, their lack of concern for the well-being of others, we are not opposites, they and I.

In the early weeks of March, as it became increasingly clear that the virus was fast on its way to becoming a thing I would have to deal with, my first instinct was to not change anything. A disease that kills old people, or people with certain pre-existing conditions? I’m neither of those, so I guess I’m good. Spending nearly all of my adult life, and most of my childhood, below the poverty line and with no health insurance, has bred a certain amount of fatalism in me. When you have no power, when you have no resources, when all you have is whatever internal strength & courage you’re able to muster, you build up this weird kind of confidence in yourself. It’s a false confidence. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a defense mechanism. There is a freedom in saying, “Fuck it. Whatever’s going to happen will happen, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” And for people at the bottom of the American ladder, that’s one of the few freedoms you actually have.

That’s a reflex I developed in my early 20s, when I worked the graveyard shift at 7-11 and went to work sick because I couldn’t afford to miss a paycheck. I’m still reluctant to take medicine because I went so many years not wanting to shell out the $5-$10 for Tylenol, or Robitussin. I figured I’d eventually get better regardless. I even convinced myself that I was building up my immune system by not taking medicine.

The human brain can find a rationalization for anything. That’s what makes it so dangerous. I don’t live the way I did in my 20s and 30s. I haven’t for a while now. And yet I still carry this twisted idea of strength. As the virus has unfolded, I’ve been forced to confront a lot of these ideas directly.

My wife explained to me how even if I wasn’t affected by the virus, I would still be carrying it around unknowingly if I just “continued doing what I normally do.” She wasn’t concerned about herself, or even our son, since at the time we didn’t think anyone in our house was in a high-risk group. For all we knew, we might have even already had it. But as she explained to me what would happen if too many people got it at once (sorry grandma, we’re going to need that ventilator), what would happen if everyone acted the way I did, how my actions would affect people who weren’t making a choice to go out, who had to go out for their jobs, I had to admit she made a lot of sense.

I tried another approach. I said that if I got it, once I got better I could go help out at a hospital. I could deliver food. I could do some real journalism, and go up to people and interview them. I’m not doing this for me, baby, I’m doing this for the world.

She explained to me that it hadn’t been proven you couldn’t get it again.

I argued that surely it was okay for me to pop into a thrift store once in a while. I mean, if I lowered my “going out time” by, say, 90%, that was still good, right? It was making a difference, but still finding a way to stay sane, to not completely change everything. I mean, there’s something to be said for moderation, right?

We had a long talk about what the word essential means, and I had to admit that finding a pair of pants to turn into shorts because the weather was getting warmer didn’t qualify as essential. Not when I have around eight pairs of shorts already.

So it’s been disconcerting the past couple of weeks to hear many of the same arguments I was trying to make two months ago coming from the mouths of people who are regularly mocked–sometimes even on this blog–as being stupid, arrogant, dangerous shitheads.  Some days, I think the only difference between me and these stupid, arrogant, dangerous shitheads is that I have a smart wife.

And, I guess, I also have the ability to listen. To think critically. To empathize with others.

I can definitely empathize with the shitheads. Absolutely everything about all of this sucks. And nobody in power is doing anything to help it. There is no plan. Everything is chaos. Solutions are available, but the people capable of implementing don’t seem to have much interest in doing so. And some of these people might be home in dangerous situations. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be cooped up in a house with some of them for longer than six hours, let alone six weeks. I saw a guy at the grocery store on Saturday with his wife. Neither one of them were wearing masks. He had on a t-shirt that read:


If I lived with that dude, I’d be praying for cornavirus. I’d be licking doorknobs, hospital gurneys, coffins.

So I get why some people would rather, you know, go shopping than hang out at home with their family.

Dostoevsky wrote a lot about freedom and the limits of rationality, and probably nowhere more deeply than in Notes From Underground. I’m thinking of a quote that I’m not going to get exactly right wrong, but it’s something along the lines of a person is never more free than when they act against their own best interests. My feelings about the quarantine only changed when I understood that not only would I be acting against my own best interests by going out, I would be acting against other people’s best interests. It’s one thing to risk your own health. It’s another thing altogether to risk somebody else’s.

But I can empathize. Oh god, how I can empathize. I might laugh at them. I might be angry at them. But I can understand how they feel. I can understand why they feel that way. I can understand that we aren’t really all that different at all. We are frustrated and angry. We feel out of control. We feel like nothing we do matters. We feel like it’s going to be this way forever, and the idea that it’s going to be this forever makes us feel desperate inside. And I’ve known enough people in my life to know that when the present feels unmanageable, people will grasp at any kind of future. Even if it’s self-destructive, even if it’s destructive to others.

And I understand that it takes all kinds of deep reservoirs of psychological strength–real strength, the kind of strength you don’t get from holding onto a gun, or screaming at others–to do the thing that is right instead of the thing that feels good.


This series will go until it doesn’t. You can read them from the beginning here.

About ScottCreney

Scott Creney lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the author of "Dear Al-Qaeda: Letters to the World’s Most Notorious Terror Organiztion".
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