Who do we want to be?

Opinion: Columns

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By Linda Francis

Director Success of All Youth

Who do we want to be during the COVID-19 pandemic?

I am in awe of the sacrifice and acts of kindness many have shown during this challenge. I have also had some interesting discussions online regarding community expectations and behaviors during the stay-at-home order. These discussions were about educational expectations and youth adherence to the order. All of the discussions have caused me to ponder our capacity for real empathy — the kind that manifests itself in our actions.

With children at home, some parents working from home, others risking their well-being as essential workers and many without work, it is clear that households are struggling. It is important in times like this to acknowledge that things cannot and will not be as they were. Students cannot replicate the length and depth of the school day in an online environment. Teachers cannot teach for the length of time or in the way they would in person. Parents cannot replace teachers. And children, youth and adults shouldn't socialize outside of their residential families without abiding by social-distancing guidelines — not if we hope to save lives. 

But for all of these things to be acknowledged requires a certain level of empathy; and unfortunately, I'm not seeing it in some much-needed areas.

Multiple, lengthy Facebook threads are filled with complaints about too much school work, not enough school work, too much online time, not enough online time, the awfulness of grading pass/fail and the trauma that will ensue from letter grades. 

According to social media, everyone is failing — administrators, teachers, parents and students. We should all be doing the best we can; but the best will not mean that things continue on as they were or that folks will have all of the answers right away. A world pandemic cannot help but change every aspect of day-to-day life. Many of those in charge of helping figure how to keep our education systems functioning are themselves dealing with children at home, illness, loss and their own health vulnerabilities. 

This does not mean that we relieve them of their responsibilities or allow the traditionally marginalized to absorb the brunt of the struggle. We have a responsibility to exercise our critical thinking abilities and not wallow in the zone of fear; if for no other reason than the fact that it just isn't productive and has the potential to be damaging.

I've asked in the past that we increase our capacity to show grace to each other, and now is just the time. But I must say that I see folks posting about the need for grace in ways different from my interpretation. 

Grace, to me, is not intended to soothe the conscience or excuse folks from bad or irresponsible behavior. It is intended to be the reflection of empathy: "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner." 

Empathy is owed to the medical workers who put their lives on the line each day, not knowing if or how doing so will affect their health or that of their families. Empathy is owed to the front line workers who are not paid for the risks they take to allow us to stay at home. Some grace is appropriate for the teachers trying to create lesson plans, learn new technology, and teach in a new way, all while trying to take care of their own children and loved ones. 

These folks hold in common the fact that their actions are the result of some form of sacrifice on their part that helps others. I recognize that this is difficult, particularly for young people, who miss socializing with friends and loved ones. I empathize with the difficulty. But I cannot find grace in those who do not heed the safety requests. 

Socializing in groups outside of household members and not adhering to the 6-foot distancing, belittles the sacrifice being made by others and only extends the time that this will last. Those who are concerned only with shaming or judgment are focused solely on the individual and not the greater good. The pandemic is an opportunity to model for our children and teach them the value of sacrifice in the larger community. This is different from the typical kinds of volunteer efforts that make us feel good. The ultimate goal is not to reinforce our self-perception as "good people" or alleviate feelings of guilt. The goal is to come together as a community to protect our most vulnerable, which in turn will protect us all.

We need folks to leave that place of fear and self-preservation and learn — in order to help our children learn the value of self-sacrifice so we can grow into the community we aspire to be. 

We can all do better. This will not last forever. 

Who do you want to be during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Linda T. Francis, director of Success of All Youth, an initiative of the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation, shares her personal views, which do not represent the Community Foundation.

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