It seems that ever since this pandemic began, I’ve received a relentless stream of emails. I can sometimes be a cynical person. That part of my personality rears its head each time I read the words, “I hope this email finds you well.” I remember the first time I rejected this. It was the moment I checked my phone before drifting to sleep on a 22-hour flight. I had a slew of messages from professors scheduling make-up classes. Yes, I understand we’ll have to make up classes we’ve missed in the scramble to return home before borders close. No, I am not alright and will not be available for class. I will literally be in an airport, between flights, preparing for another 10-hour long flight.
Since I’ve settled in back home, I’ve found my professors to be incredibly understanding and supportive. This is in part due to their compassion, but also a result of my ability to assert myself. It’s uncomfortable to state openly that I’m not coping as well as I’d like to with the sudden change in my environment. It’s also an act of vulnerability to then ask for patience. However, this honesty is crucial to dealing with the demands for productivity that remain in our lives during this pandemic.
Such times call for unprecedented openness in how we communicate with one another.
As many emails declare, these are unprecedented times. And such times call for unprecedented openness in how we communicate with one another. This is a time to get comfortable with discomfort as we discover together what it means to be more mindful of one another’s well-being, not just physically but mentally too. At university, this is relevant at the most basic level of being physically away from home. It takes an active practice of empathy to consider that someone may not be putting as much effort into a group project because of outside circumstances. Just because you view them primarily as a student at university does not mean they are not facing struggles outside of school.
It is a moment that calls for empathy.
With this pandemic forcing many students to return home, universities are in a crucible that demands re-evaluating how we treat each other as humans. When someone can’t Zoom into class because they have lost a loved one to COVID-19, it is a moment that calls for empathy. It calls for recognizing each other as more than students, professors, or whatever role of productivity we serve in an organization. From the simplest email opening that acknowledges that nothing is normal to reaching out individually to offer a listening ear, there are so many ways to respect and care for one another’s well-being.
Globally, we find ourselves confronting the harm perpetuated by what is accepted as an everyday lie: “I’m fine.” It’s understandable to not want to be completely honest about the state of your well-being with each and person who asks you how you are. But we should also work to build a culture of accepting that it’s ok to not be ok. It’s not a sign of weakness to be open about your feelings, it’s a sign of strength. And with each person who harnesses this strength, we chip away at the heavy stigma around mental health issues.
It’s difficult in not just corporate contexts but even in closer social circles to be vulnerable, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Honestly, if a pandemic isn’t an appropriate time to admit I’m not alright, then when? Normalizing the lack of normalcy and the difficulty in coping with it is essential to building empathetic communities for ourselves and others.