Compassion from the Sidelines

by Lois Frankel

The majority of my workday is centered around supporting the 3rd Conversation. On bringing together disparate groups, like clinicians and patients, who might not otherwise experience each other on a human level and having them participate in an event that allows them to experience empathy for and connection with each other, with the ultimate goal of improving the health care system for everyone involved. You could say that my professional life is all about compassion.


So, it’s been perplexing to me to have my experience of the COVID pandemic cause me to question – when is it right to feel or express compassion?

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on so many lives. Our daily diet now includes an ongoing litany of rising case counts, number of deaths, reports on health and economic impacts, and on and on. But for many of us, me included, COVID has been more of a terrible, scary inconvenience.

I have been fortunate enough to have cruised through so far (of course, imagine me knocking on wood…). I am employed and working from a lovely home. I live in a community that had the resources to pay meticulous attention to precautions when my child was serving as an essential worker at a grocery store. I can predominantly avoid any regular risks, which is more than my friends and family who are medical providers can say.

On a recent program I listened to, several guests were discussing their experiences of the pandemic and were essentially apologetic about not having deep hardships to share.


They seemed to feel almost guilty for their good fortune. And I, who share that good fortune, understood.

Which brings me back to the question of compassion. Of course, we have deep, caring feelings about everything that is going on and for the people most affected by COVID, those at risk and those that have suffered losses. But how does that stack up?

To those feeling the brunt of the pandemic, do others have to have some serious skin in the game for their compassion to feel genuine and meaningful? Do expressions of compassion feel gratuitous, if you have not had personal experiences with what is most challenging about this pandemic?

For many years, I worked with survivors of and community leaders addressing domestic violence. I’ve worked at a grassroots rape crisis center. And I’ve done consulting work for organizations serving transgender sex workers, people living with HIV-AIDS, and other vulnerable populations. The question of whether one could serve and express compassion if one didn’t have lived experience has always been a part of the conversation.

This feels both the same, and yet different. I wonder if, in part, it’s because this is one tragedy that we see openly all around us and that we are willing, if not compelled, to admit could “happen to” any of us. While we take precautions, and some of us hold out our lack of underlying conditions as a shield, we know the vagaries of this virus put us all at risk. So perhaps our feelings of compassion really do come from a deeper place, where we tap into a more genuine feeling for the unlucky ones among us.

But what does that require of us? Meaningful compassion requires heartfelt reflection and sincerity.

It requires that we not throw out gratuitous expressions of appreciation and sympathy. We can’t just speak out of a sense of relief for having dodged the bullet so far. People can tell the difference, and those bearing the brunt of the pandemic deserve better. It also requires that we be guided by the principles of 3rd Conversation – being empathetic, opening ourselves up to human connection, and then taking action to improve the situation.

I’m committed to the power of compassion, to the task of reflection and sincerity that it requires, and to showing that we care for others. Here’s hoping I’ll just be sensitive enough to notice when I’ve missed the mark – and to go back to the drawing board to get it right.

Editor's Note: In the days between when Lois authored this piece and when it was published, one of her family members tested positive for COVID. Lois shared with us that the diagnosis has “shown me in a most urgent way how, when this hits you personally, you don't even need reflection. Your heart feels the compassion without pause, and this is yet another reminder of how there is a distance between the concept of something and the experience.” She remains committed to the power of compassion.

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