In the past days, there has been unrest in my neighbourhood. Many people are upset that children are playing outside, people are going for walks, and customers stand too closely at the supermarket. In contrast, many say we’re exaggerating, we should go about our life as much as possible, and didn’t the RIVM say it’s okay for children to play together and they aren’t at high risk?
I’m reminded of the book by George Marshall, Don’t even think about it: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change. He described that climate change has three characteristics that doom us to apathy: It is (1) abstract (e.g., we think of it as an iceberg melting in a distant country), (2) in the future (i.e., we don’t see the consequences of our actions immediately), and (3) comes at personal cost (e.g., we don’t want to give up international conferences).
These characteristics apply to the corona virus pandemic, too. It’s abstract, because the virus is invisible to the naked eye, and most of us aren’t faced with its victims in intensive care. It’s in the future, because even if we have it, we won’t know for days (if at all), and the number of cases creeps up. And we focus on personal costs, such as cancelling a long-awaited holiday.
According to Marshall, it’s simply human psychology to ignore the problem when these three characteristics combine. This knowledge makes me feel empathy toward others, even when I scratch my head about their behaviour.
We must find our silver linings to help us cope in coming days. For me, there are small things, like missing the warm-hearted woman at Bakery Café who makes me ‘surprise’ coffees, the booming contagious laugh of my colleague Sjaan Nederkoorn, or a student stopping by to say hello. I am reminded of how lucky I am to have these people in my life. I appreciate spending more time with my son, and becoming increasingly creative at entertaining him. I was unexpectedly moved during Rutte’s address to the nation: I felt intensely how much I love the Netherlands and its people, even their stubbornness. And yet my heart strings pulled when Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau said, “If you’re Canadian, it is time to come home.”
When we feel annoyed at others, or trapped inside, let us be empathetic and find sources of gratitude. After all, the research shows that these tendencies are human, too, and extremely beneficial to our wellbeing.
Jessica Alleva, Assistant Professor at fhe faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience