We’re over a month into social distancing. The “new” routines are no longer new – we’re pros at Zoom and wiping down our groceries is automatic. Social media is replete with humorous memes about “WFH” and homeschooling, photos of car parade birthday greetings and recipes for no-knead bread (helpful only if you are lucky enough to source flour and yeast). Andrea Boccelli brought the world to its knees with his hauntingly beautiful Easter rendition of Amazing Grace on an empty piazza in front of Milan’s Duomo, and cities around the globe stop to applaud healthcare professionals and first responders. For the most part, we are all in this together.
As humans, our natural instinct when we see others in crisis is in almost all cases to help. And we’ve been told on no uncertain terms that if we can, staying home is the most important thing we can do to fight this pandemic. Those of us with the luxury of being able to work/ learn from home (the societal inequalities exacerbated by this crisis is a critically important topic for another time) have largely done so. In my social and professional circles, everyone is taking social distancing very seriously.
Somehow, it doesn’t feel enough. Over the past couple of weeks, I have heard from countless friends and clients that they feel helpless. Many have expressed feeling guilty about not being on the front lines as a healthcare worker or grocery clerk or other “essential worker”. I share that sentiment profoundly and in the dark of night have wondered to myself if the right thing would to somehow join the front line fight. Because I lack the skills to do so, realism generally prevails as I toss and turn until the sun comes up and I head into another day of juggling work, teaching, homeschooling, housecleaning, cooking….
I shared this emotion with a wonderful and wise mentor coach, Linda. She listened, non-judgmentally, as good coaches do. Then our conversation turned to the challenges of homeschooling a 4th and 6th grader, and the great joy I find in teaching Negotiation at Vanderbilt. I told her one story in particular about a student who – with hours of hard work and editing- had taken a presentation from F level work to receiving a perfect score. “Leonora”, she said. “I have to say something to you. You say you’re not helping. And then I hear you describe your parenting and your teaching. I want to reflect back to you that you ARE helping, but from YOUR authentic gifts.”
She was right. People have the greatest impact when they pursue what they love, and that doesn’t change in a global crisis. In my Negotiation class, we study the social dilemma, whereby people make tradeoffs between their own wellbeing and that of society as a whole. The social dilemma for our heroic healthcare professionals and other frontline workers is clear – every day, these brave men and women risk their health for the sake of others, oftentime strangers. Their courage is humbling and inspiring. Similarly, many of us not in those roles are helping as much as we can – volunteering in food banks, shopping for elderly neighbors, sewing masks and making surgical shields. But many of us wish we could do more.
There’s no easy remedy for the feeling that we’re not helping enough. But I’ve found comfort in working to be as helpful as I can in my areas of strength. I can’t be a nurse, but I can hold extra office hours to listen to students mourning the loss of their senior spring. As a single Mom, I can’t leave home 8 hours a day to be a grocery clerk, but I can pick up organic lettuce for my elderly neighbor on my weekly outing to Trader Joe’s. And most importantly, because I enjoy the incredible privilege of being able to work from home, I can stay home and reduce the spread of this terrible new disease.