2020 was a rough year for a lot of people -- an understatement if there ever was one. The pandemic has upended countless lives -- hundreds of thousands dead, many more seriously sickened or caring or grieving for those who are, countless lost jobs, terror at the prospect of losing one's home or one's retirement or one's livelihood. It's bad out there.
And while all that is going on, all the normal bad things that can happen to a person are still happening to lots and lots of people. People are going through bad breakups. People are losing their dream job, or are passed over for the promotion they worked their entire careers for. They're injured in accidents, they're discovering their partner cheated on them -- all this stuff is still happening.
These people are in a peculiar position. Under normal circumstances, they could assuredly say they're having a bad year. But in 2020, it often feels churlish to make such a claim. If they did, everyone would instantly assume it was bad because of something pandemic related -- a health scare, trouble managing quarantine, loss of a job, whatever. One can't easily correct that by saying "no, I'm having a bad year for reasons wholly unrelated to COVID." Our paradigm for "bad 2020" is centered entirely on the orbit of the coronavirus. There's scarcely any room left for badness outside that orbit to penetrate our consciousness.
I was talking with a student the other day who, it is fair to say, is having a rough term. She's a transfer student, which is difficult under any circumstances but especially when all learning is remote, and early this semester she got into a car accident. Her injuries weren't life-threatening, but they were serious enough to require ongoing care that's interfered with her ability to keep up with her classwork, and she's struggled to catch back up. Suffice to say, her first term at Berkeley has not gone the way she had hoped. But when we were talking about this, she rushed to say "I can't complain, I don't have the virus, my family is healthy, many have it much worse" -- to which I responded "well, you could complain a little." Circumstances like these are ones which entitle one to feel kind of down and to solicit the care and concern of others. But my student was hit with the one-two punch of an objectively terrible few weeks, and then the guilt of having the temerity to feel bad about having an objectively terrible few weeks.
There are all sorts of mundane bad events which normally would allow one to reach out to one's community and support network for empathy, compassion, and care -- even just of the pure "that sucks, I feel for you" variety. But right now, a lot of us feel like these resources are unavailable to us. We can't get them. This is the empathy drought. It is not, to be clear, a moral failing on anyone's part. It's a drought not because people are being stingy with their empathy. Much the opposite -- we're in a drought because the resource is overtaxed. We're using all of our emotional reserves to comfort those afflicted (in the broad sense) by COVID and its effects, and so we just don't have the energy to apply it to "ordinary" misfortunes.
It's an interesting position to be in, to be suffering from this drought. Because it is a form of suffering. It hurts to be going through these events, and then it hurts to lose access to comfort and care, and then it hurts to experience that burbling of resentment that the Coronavirus deprives one even of the soothing balm of communal empathy, and then it hurts to feel selfish enough to be resentful that one isn't receiving due comfort and care when so many are suffering so much worse.
I have no idea what to do about this. But it is a phenomenon I've observed, and one that I imagine is afflicting a lot of people who are hurting in "normal" ways right now.