I briefly walked into the hospital without a mask on the other day. The kind and attentive Guest Relations employee at the information desk got my attention, pointed at her mask and held up a clean mask for me to put on. My mind was somewhere else, and I had simply forgotten to mask up. My reaction to being caught without a mask was one of horror. Looking back on my reaction made me ponder why I was so horrified at my forgetfulness. First, I had broken my own commandment. Secondly, I had broken an agreed upon communal code of sorts. It was like I walked in with bare feet. Especially in a cancer hospital, everyone wears a mask… and shoes. I haven’t made the mistake again.
“Treat others as you would like to be treated,” or as my parents would quote from their faith tradition when I was a boy, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” My parents referred to this teaching as the Golden Rule as they tried to teach me compassion toward others. Most religions have a similar concept, so I bet most of you reading this were taught something very similar.
The Golden Rule makes an assumption that we wish to be treated the same. That’s why I prefer another great teaching: “Love your neighbor.” At face value, this ideal seems very easy to achieve. However, to turn love into action, we then need to ask, “How do we love our neighbor? And who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
My actual neighbor and the people who live in my neighborhood could be one answer to, “Who is my neighbor?” Yet, what if the answer to the question is broader and more universal? Maybe the answer is, “Everyone who is in need for some neighborliness, or some kindness and compassion. They are my neighbors.” If indeed the answer is the latter — everyone — then helping can become quite the overwhelming task. After all, there is more than enough need to go around.
This is where compassion comes in. Sympathy, empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably, but these terms are not synonymous. Sympathy is when we see another person in need and acknowledge that need. Empathy is when we see another in need and actually feel that need or that hurt as if it were our own pain. Compassion is when we act on the need we see and feel in the other person.
It’s not enough to simply observe the need. When we wear a mask, even though we may have never had COVID-19 or lost a loved one to this terrible virus, we are being compassionate. Those of us who work in healthcare have seen the ramifications of this virus as it has caused havoc and harm to so many. Yet, you don’t have to work in a hospital to know that wearing a mask is the most important factor in bringing an end to this virus. You also don’t need a degree or training. All you need is compassion.
We’ve been given a grand and easy opportunity to love one another. It’s inexpensive and it doesn’t take much effort. Wearing a mask can be a sign of our love for one another — those we are close to and those who are strangers. It’s an outward showing of your commitment to building unity in your community.
Let’s ask again, “Who is our neighbor?” Anyone within a breath’s distance.