It is without a doubt that all of us are experiencing collective trauma stemming from this pandemic.  Certainly, those who have lost loved ones from this virus are carrying a heavy burden of emotional grief, which many of us pray we would never know what it is like to experience.  But even for those of us who haven’t lost loved ones or been personally afflicted by this virus, we are still experiencing collective trauma because of this pandemic which continues to cause uncertainty about how we earn a living, how we educate our children, or when we can plan our future.

But there is also trauma being experienced from other travesties and injustices which pre-date the beginning of the pandemic.  For people of color, particularly Black Americans, it is systemic racism and police brutality along with the unjust deaths of George Floyd this summer which weigh heavily on their hearts.  For immigrants and those here on work or education visas, there is uncertainty about how long they can stay in our country, as new policies are placing more restrictions on those who have come to our country to build a better future. And there is a trauma all of us are experiencing from the increasing polarization in our country by the adoption of a mentality of “us vs. them.”

Yes, like many of you, I am concerned about the future. But I am also gravely concerned about how much longer the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of my friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens can be sustained.  As a church pastor and hospital chaplain, I have seen the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of my congregants, and patients begin to degrade as this year drags on.  And I also have seen how my fellow clergy, social workers, and therapists are struggling to sustain their emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

For us to overcome the pandemic crisis and to address the systematic injustices of racism, poverty, and inequality, it will take a conscious effort from our political and community leaders to make it happen.  And it will also take a conscious effort from all of us to be willing to have conversations with one another in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our faith communities about our cultural and societal differences.

But beyond all that, we must learn to show kindness and empathy towards one another. Empathy is something that seems to be missing in our current society, especially empathy towards people who don’t think or look the same way we do.  However, if you look hard enough, you still might be able to see it.  And when we are able to show empathy through listening, helping in small ways, and acknowledging that we aren’t the only ones having a rough year, we can make a profound impact not only in the lives of others but also ourselves.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Like you, I feel as if I have witnessed this year some of the ugliest images of divisiveness and helplessness in my life.  But I also have witnessed some of the most precious moments of empathy, and the latter is what sustains me. In this past year I have seen the smiles on patients recovered from COVID as they leave my hospital feeling as if they have been given a second chance in life. I have witnessed people in my small town come together to hand out meals, donate masks, and volunteer to check in on those whose health conditions prevent them from being in public.  I have seen people from college students in their 20s to elderly people in their mid-80s from all different backgrounds, find the courage to stand in solidarity and share their voice in a collective effort to bring about social change.

I am not too sure what else this year has in store for us as a country and as a world.  And certainly, there are monumental challenges for us to overcome in the months and years ahead which will take an enormous effort from all of us as a society to address.

But one thing I do see during uncertainty and chaos is empathy being offered through individuals’ simple acts to show compassion and care for others.  And while these acts of empathy may be small and usually go unnoticed, it fosters a sense in me that despite the burden we all carry and the continued challenges to come, there are still people who care; this is what gives me hope.