Empathy: It’s far better than opinion

“You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book … or you take a trip … and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken.” — Anaïs Nin

I chose this quote because, although it refers to an existential state of mind, it certainly feels as though, over the past two years, there has been a lot of forced hibernation, absence of pleasure, monotony and restlessness in my life. Then, as it seemed we were finally coming up for air — after Covid-19 hit our global consciousness and scared the hell out of us, now it seems like so many other diseases — Vladimir Putin started his war. 

Now we’re all scrabbling around trying to make sense of the absurdly outdated concept of another conflict, just as Covid restrictions ease, venues open their doors and festivals start to flourish again. A walk through Melville, Johannesburg on a Saturday afternoon is rife with social gatherings; music fills the air; the relief is almost palpable. The great after-the-plague party was about to begin — but has it, or will it?

After so much tension, I don’t even know if I remember how to relax. And can I actually afford to? It’s still not business as usual; many businesses have closed and most of those that are still afloat are struggling, to say nothing of their patrons. Death by suicide is becoming more commonplace; relationships are disintegrating. 

Covid may have partially retreated from our consciousness, but it’s far from gone — every time I click on Google, the first posts that pop up are about its latest mutations. Imagine if a mutation as contagious as Omicron but with the fatality rate of the Delta variant emerged? It may have already, although what effects a potential “Deltacron” would have are still not clear to scientists.

My partner and I have no idea whether we have caught Covid. We have not had overt symptoms over the past two years, but we sure don’t feel dandy. We’re exhausted. We don’t know if we have “long Covid” or if we are merely stressed and anxious about the fact that the only predictable thing is that prices keep going up and our salaries don’t. 

Here’s a list of symptoms of long Covid: 

  • fatigue; 
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; 
  • cough; 
  • joint pain; 
  • chest pain; 
  • memory, concentration or sleep problems; 
  • muscle pain or headache; and
  • fast or pounding heartbeat. 

Now compare them with the symptoms of stress and anxiety:

  • aches and pains; 
  • chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing; 
  • exhaustion or trouble sleeping; 
  • headaches, dizziness or shaking; 
  • high blood pressure; 
  • muscle tension or jaw clenching; 
  • stomach or digestive problems; and 
  • trouble having sex. 

Only the last few symptoms differ, but I’m betting that if you have all those long Covid symptoms in the first place, you aren’t going to feel much like shagging anyway. Oh, and the cure that some doctors advocate for long Covid? Rest. Who can afford that these days … and what happens if you can’t sleep?

Working from home, if you are lucky enough to have employment, does have many advantages — such as better, cheaper coffee and never having to iron my clothes — but it comes with stresses of its own. My heart rate soars every time my phone beeps; I’ve learned to only respond to it once the task at hand is completed. I get stressed when there’s too little work; I’m stressed when there’s too much. 

I work on a daily basis with colleagues I haven’t seen since early 2020; others have left, and still others have joined whom I’ve never met, except in Google “meetings”. Who are these people, really, and what do they think of me and my work? You can drive yourself mad thinking about such stuff. Face-to-face meetings used to have the advantage of visual clues. I guess I’ll just have to brush up on those audial ones.

I’ve found that I’ve lost or drifted away from several acquaintances, and even a few old friends. I’ve changed and they have too: in the period in which we were isolated because of the lockdowns some became rabid anti-vaxxers; others, jab crusaders. Some acquaintances whom I used to drop in on occasionally I just don’t see any more, because my mobility is now pinched because of the extremely high petrol price. 

I’ve written before about how isolation changed me and the people around me, so I guess this could be the start of some kind of post-Covid series. I’m trying to cut down on social media, because now the folk who saw themselves as “experts” about the virus and vaccines know all about the war in Ukraine and what caused it. I don’t believe publicly stated negative views of Putin really help — they just add to all the negative energy out there — negative expressions about Mugabe didn’t help anyone in Zimbabwe either. The most effective response to the Ukraine war I’ve encountered was from a friend with little means, who nevertheless donated towards relief efforts there.

Among my friends there are certainly those who know far more than others and I endeavour to learn from what they have to say; it’s the authority with which they state their “truth” that gets my goat. Opinion is the lowest form of knowledge: “The highest form of knowledge is empathy,” as Plato said, “for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.” 

I’m learning not to obsess too much about the current state of affairs, for the sake of my very sanity. There’s always been trouble brewing somewhere on this planet, along with loads of good stuff — kindly folk finding the time and means to uplift others, though the latter seldom, if ever, makes the headlines. 

Trying to navigate the fragile craft of “me” through this seething storm of information means I can neither bury my head in the sand and ignore it completely, nor spend my waking hours trying to work out what it all means: to try to do so is like trying to constantly discern what nature or my body is doing.

For example, I may wish to eat if I listen to my stomach rumbling, but I can’t worry about how my entire digestive system works every time I’m hungry, because this would impede me so much that I would soon be unable to work — or eat. Likewise, the news: the world does its thing, and there’s so little one can do to fathom or change it. You just have to roll with the punches, and not allow anything or anyone to trigger you.

I’m not saying that I’ve worked out how to live in a time in which very little of what we used to take for granted remains certain. But I do know that I have to empower myself by subscribing to the right daily routines, practices and diet; the best possible channels from which to glean information; and, above all, surrounding myself with friends, a partner and family who “feed” and empower me. 

Because there’s nothing like (even more) stress to mess with your breathing, seize up your muscles and fog your thinking on this constantly changing ocean of information, in which clear vision, some degree of calmness and sound navigation skills are now so absolutely necessary.

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Derek Davey
Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches.

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