Bearing witness beyond the numbers

Dear President Trump,

Are you getting daily (sometimes it seems, hourly) reminders to take care of yourself in the midst of the covid-19 crisis? Maybe it’s a function of being in the mental health profession, but we really are getting at least daily reminders that we need take care of ourselves, that we need to make and take time for ourselves so that we can hang in and be there for others over the long haul. It’s the equivalent of the analogy we use all the time when counseling women veterans that they need to put the oxygen mask on themselves first even though their impulse is to make sure everyone else is ok before they think of themselves. The analogy makes it painfully obvious that if one isn’t taking care of one’s own basics, like having enough oxygen to breathe (sadly fitting in this time of covid), one is utterly useless to anyone else.

So, we are being reminded to make time for exercise, to do what we need to do to take care of our families, to connect with our friends and loved ones, to be kind to and patient with ourselves, and to go ahead and build in downtime. The daily missives almost all also urge us to regularly make time to do whatever it is that helps us feel like ourselves, whether it’s making music, cooking, drawing, running, or juggling fragile items (other than all of one’s responsibilities).

All of it’s important, for sure – it might be possible to save a baby from a burning car on just a surge of adrenaline, but the sort of situation we are collectively facing is clearly not one that can be constructively dealt with by relying on bursts of adrenaline. We’ve got to doggedly take care of ourselves so that we can persist in this century run (i.e., it’s even more daunting than a regular marathon). So yes, all the self-care reminders are great and it’s vitally important that we follow this advice.

But it’s the last bit about making regular time to do what makes us feel like ourselves that I think is especially interesting and critical for our collective well-being. Even though the nominal focus is on the individual and what allows them to remember who they are and what they are about, I think it’s also a way of helping us not glaze over when we see the awful numbers associated with the case and death counts. If we are each holding on to our own humanity, we are more likely to have capacity to respect and honor the humanity of those who are contracting the disease and those who are dying from it. At least I think (and hope) this is true.

Maybe some people are able to do it effortlessly, but I know I’m someone who actually has to make a conscious effort to remember that behind all those huge, awful numbers are real people who are suffering, whether from covid-19 or the aftermath of an assault or from poisoned water or sea level rise or…… I have to make myself wonder about them, how they like(d) to spend their time, who they love(d), what made them, them. And it’s hard, hard, hard to do that because it feels so heavy and I feel so powerless to help them, but I know if I don’t, I forfeit my own humanity and I automatically become part of the problem rather than even a little tiny bit of the solution, neither of which are ok with me.

May we be safe to feel for other beings.
May we be willing to be moved by others’ suffering.
May we have the strength to extend our gaze beyond the numbers.
May we know that bearing witness may not feel like much, but it’s everything.

Tracy Simpson

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