Kindness, Anonymous Heroes, and Compassion

December 3, 2020
John J. Miller, MD

Psychiatric Times, Vol 37, Issue 12, Volume 37, Issue 12

As the pandemic and social issues rage on, a palpable and consistent theme runs through us, and that is the very best of human behaviors.

FROM THE EDITOR

It has been quite a year! The short list of challenges and tribulations includes wildfires, hurricanes, a presidential election in a polarized nation, conspiracy theories, and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. In psychiatry, we have seen an increase in depression and anxiety during a time when the pandemic has created a virtual barrier between most of us clinicians and our patients. Listening to the daily news simply serves to retraumatize our already established fears, anxieties, and uncertainties about what the future holds.

Amidst this chaos and distress has been a palpable and consistent backdrop of the very best of human behaviors—kindness, anonymous heroes, and compassion. As the pandemic ravaged our country and the world, its path of pain and suffering has been met with countless examples of extraordinary acts of kindness by phantom heroes in every sector of society. Most visible are the health care workers and frontline responders who have tirelessly given more than their all to help those in need.

A remarkable accomplishment this year was the uneventful occurrence of the presidential election, which had the highest voter turnout in the history of the United States, as well as being deemed the most secure election in our history by the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. When you consider this election took place during the pandemic, these facts are more admirable. Volunteers at polling stations were plentiful, and each state counted ballots and reported the outcome in a respectful and honorable manner. Once again, the unnamed heroes throughout our country representing all political parties, ages, and ethnicities joined together in the spirit of our democracy and ultimate cohesion as a nation.

For me, the pandemic has had the effect of slowing down time. When I venture out from the safety of my home, I feel a heaviness in the air with an associated vigilance to preempt any attack from the COVID-19 virus. Wearing my mask and socially distancing has amplified the time-slowing effect, allowing for welcome opportunities to observe the interactions of people that I have always lived among, but paid less attention to. In a socially distanced line at the grocery store or at the hardware store, walking about doing errands, conversing with colleagues at our clinic, or working in my yard while neighbors pass by, it feels that the unwelcome immersion in this pandemic has opened small windows where I notice acts of kindness—most by people I do not know. It is likely that these kind acts have always been occurring, but they feel more significant and dramatic with the backdrop of the challenges of 2020.

Alas, I must tell the entire story. In every city, town, and neighborhood, there is human suffering of all types imaginable. This suffering has also always existed, but for many has been exacerbated by the events of 2020. Homelessness, financial distress, unemployment, domestic violence, addiction, intubation in an ICU, burying a loved one, first-episode psychosis, suicidal depression, crippling anxiety, unrelenting pain, failing health, loneliness, xenophobia, betrayal, and brutal victimization—these percolate through society like lava flowing from a volcano into a vibrant forest. In our chosen profession we likely encounter this suffering more than most. Throughout our training we were taught overtly or covertly to compartmentalize our emotional responses to this suffering, allowing us to finish with 1 patient and move on to the next. Over time, the compartments begin to overflow, often forcing us to face our helplessness while immersed in this suffering. Although it is unlikely we will be able to treat or cure much of this suffering (and it would be naïve to think that we could), being present with compassion as we listen to our patients’ stories and offer to hold this experience with them may lessen the suffering of us all.

The cup is never half empty or half full; it is simply a container holding a certain amount of water and air, which volumes will appear to change based on the atmospheric pressure at the time. The same is true of humanity—a container holding the spectrum of human emotions. Accordingly, we have proven to be a resilient species, and it is clear that acts of kindness, anonymous heroes, and compassion serve as positive changes in the atmospheric pressure that brings joy and hope, especially in times of despair.

So, as 2020 comes to an end, let us thank it for all the life lessons we have learned, and begin 2021 with a plentitude of kindness and compassion. ❒

Dr Miller is Medical Director, Brain Health, Exeter, NH; Editor in Chief, Psychiatric TimesTM; Staff Psychiatrist, Seacoast Mental Health Center, Exeter, NH; Consulting Psychiatrist, Exeter Hospital, Exeter, NH; Consulting Psychiatrist, Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA.

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