If your social media feeds are anything like mine you’re watching family, friends, and even strangers wrestle with the landscape of pandemic. Isolation, quarantine, illness, working from home, fears about the health of our loved ones, childcare, the stress and exposure of being an essential worker. The fears and anxieties are all very real.
And I also see many of these same people catching themselves and being quick to acknowledge what they do have: plenty of food, a roof over their heads, a job. And this reflex towards gratitude is a healthy and good one. Recent studies (some are discussed here) have demonstrated that feelings of appreciation and gratitude increase activity in the hypothalamus and other parts of the brain that produce feel-good neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine. Practices like keeping a gratitude journal can contribute to better sleep patterns and other positive behaviors. I am in no way suggesting that the practice of gratitude is a substitute for other mental health or behavioral interventions, but the impulse towards gratitude certainly has its benefits.
That said, it is hard to find this gratitude when the pandemic is robbing us of the things we love. And in the sector where I work, higher ed, the isolation and confinement of these times is accompanied by waves of disappointments and losses: seniors who won’t walk across the stage at commencement, papers that won’t be presented at conferences, a semester with a great group of students cut short.
In these dark times as friends lament these losses and seek a stance of gratitude, their reflections often come couched in a self-flagellating apology, usually some version of “but know I shouldn’t complain about X because I’m really lucky to have Y and Z.” Or “I shouldn’t be sad about this when others have it so much worse.” In other words, a version of what we often refer to as “perspective.” And such perspective is not a bad thing necessarily. It is good to place our disappointments within a broader context. It encourages a compassion for the plight of others and may even inspire us to take action to reduce that suffering in some way.
But I’m also going to argue against this kind of perspective (hear me out). And the reason I’m going to make this argument is because I think the either/or dichotomy of “perspective” sells us short as living, breathing, feeling humans. It suggests that I can’t simultaneously be disappointed about my own loss while ALSO acknowledging and feeling compassion for larger and more acute suffering. My brain and my heart can do BOTH, and so can yours, I suspect. And I worry when I see people not giving themselves the space to be sad about things. Higher ed friends: it doesn’t make you heartless, even against the backdrop of unprecedented worldwide suffering, if you need to take the time and space to say that you miss your students, you’re sad you won’t see your friends at a conference, or your research trip got canceled. In fact, I would argue that not speaking and feeling those things out loud is more harmful.
You don’t have to choose between either your grief or compassion for the world’s grief. Cry. Rage. Scream. And then dust yourself off and fight the good fight. I choose to believe in your heart’s and my heart’s capacity for BOTH.