What does kindness look like when you’re in the midst of a pandemic? At the risk of tossing out yet another coronavirus-related opinion in the world, I want to take a moment and share my perspective as a person with CF (today is the first day of Cystic Fibrosis awareness month, after all). And particularly, I want to share what is on my mind as state and federal authorities start to talk about how we’ll enter the next phase of this pandemic.
Pausing to consider kindness (ahimsa) influences the choices you make. One of the yama practices of yoga, ahimsa (pronounced “ah-heem-sah”) literally means “non-harming” or “non-violence” in Sanskrit. At a basic level, it’s refraining from hurting others. In the ancient time in which the yamas were first written down, this idea was a pretty big deal. The ancient world was rather violent, so what seems like a relatively simple instruction in the developed modern world (not to hurt anybody) was a revolutionary idea 3000 years ago.
As we practice ahimsa in modern life, there is more to this idea of non-harming than simply refraining from acts of physical violence. We understand that pain can be more than physical – it can also be emotional and mental. The deepest pain we feel is often emotional and it stems from our relationships with other human beings. That pain of a damaged relationship, or the grief in losing a loved one, can be primal, deep, and soul-shattering.
So when we practice ahimsa, thinking about how our actions could hurt others, we need to take into consideration the potential physical, emotional, and relational consequences of our actions.
Practicing Ahimsa in a Pandemic World
On our yoga mat we practice ahimsa in the way we treat ourselves, consistently choosing the kindest action for our bodies, minds and spirits. Living in the midst of a global pandemic, this practice of ahimsa is now outside the sandbox.
The ongoing crisis is revealing how our individual and collective choices directly influence the physical and mental wellbeing of others. For me personally, CF and CF-related diabetes put me in the at-risk category for complications of COVID-19 if I were to be become infected. So I have spent the past two months with vigilance against threats to my own safety, and high awareness of how much the actions of others have potential to cause me harm.
In Washington state where I live, we were the first domestic epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. We had the first reported case, and the first US fatality. The virus was spreading in our community for weeks before medical researchers discovered it among the samples from the Seattle Flu Study. We’re lucky that we have such a strong biotech and medical community here, because we had experts who worked quickly and tirelessly to assess the scope of the local outbreak and recommend courses of action to our government to minimize the threat to human life (summarized well in this Slate article). Those early warnings became our saving grace, as we are now in much better shape than other parts of the country that did not have those medical experts (or a government that listened to them).
“First, Do No Harm”
I think it’s important to remember that medical experts have our best interest in mind. In Western medicine, the promise to “first, do no harm” dates back to the Hippocratic Oath in ancient Greece. Doctors today keep that same intention toward their medical practice, which is why our government health agencies like the CDC and FDA have rigid standards for testing new drugs, requiring scientific evidence for treatments before they are approved for public use. It’s why we have such strong controls over pharmaceuticals, and why you can’t just go to the store and buy (most) medications for yourself without a prescription.
When faced with a novel coronavirus that has no effective vaccine or treatment, it can be tempting to throw untested drugs at the problem as an act of desperation. But when you don’t know for sure that it will help, and there’s a good chance it could do more harm than good, caution is warranted. And that’s why it’s so important not to medicate by intuition, but to make sure all your choices are backed up by scientific evidence.
So in the first phase of this pandemic, the kindest choice that doctors and governments could make was telling everyone to control the spread by first practicing good hand and face hygiene, and ultimately keeping physical distance from each other until the medical community can figure out how to treat this disease.
As we look forward into the next phase of the pandemic, we are seeing many, many different choices being made by individuals and governments. Some individuals are defying orders and agitating governments to lift restrictions. Others are hunkered down at home, whether out of fear for themselves or concern for others who they could unwittingly infect. And governments everywhere are trying to figure out the best choice of action, and how to minimize physical, emotional, and financial harm to their citizens.
I think it is important to remember that in real life, often there is no perfect choice. There is no single action we can make that results in no harm to anyone, anywhere. But some harms can be healed, and other harms will be permanent. This can lead to a lot of fear, as we find ourselves crippled by anxiety about making the wrong choice. So we delay – or even make no decision at all – rather than make the wrong choice. Indecision itself is a choice that can lead to disastrous consequences.
Acting in Love versus Acting in Fear
One of the best tools we have in this situation is reframing the choice from one of fear, to one of love and compassion. Instead of asking, “which choice is the least harmful one,” we can ask, “which choice is the kindest one?” Then when faced with a critical decision, rather than worrying about doing the wrong thing, you are choosing among several possible right things.
When you think about acting out of love instead of fear, your choices become more clear, more compassionate, and more kind. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Love is patient, love is kind . . . it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
In this pandemic and always, it is imperative that we persevere, that we keep choosing kindness. Over and over again. My life depends on it. Even if you’re not high risk, your life may depend on it.
When we all stay home to stop the spread of a dangerous virus, we are choosing kindness. When you put on a mask before you go out in public, you are choosing kindness. When you leave a bag of flour on the shelf at the store instead of taking more than you need, you are choosing kindness.
When my husband washes his hands as soon as he walks in the door of our house, he is choosing kindness. When we help our at-risk friends and family by bringing them entertaining projects that keep their minds healthy, we are choosing kindness. And when I step on my daily yoga mat to give myself a physical and mental break from it all, I am choosing kindness.
The choices will not always be easy, the path will not always be clear. But with love as our waypoint, we will keep moving forward in kindness. And we will all be better for it.
This post is the first in our May series about the yamas, the ethical practices of yoga. Each week in May we’ll be focusing on a different yama, and integrating them into our yoga classes at CF Yogi. People with CF and their caregivers can join our yoga classes for free by registering here, and everyone (with or without CF) is welcome to come to our donation-based class Yoga for Every Body.