Winter 2020

Isolation has built empathy

I am an extrovert. I don’t mind my own company at all, but I get energy from being with
other people. Usually, I am very busy, going from work to meetings to social events, constantly surrounded by or in touch with other people.

St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia President Claire Victory
Claire Victory

The COVID-19 lockdown slowed my life down. A lot. Instead of hardly ever being home – constantly out and about, travelling frequently – I was suddenly spending 23 hours a day inside my house (the other hour being spent walking around my local area; I’d never noticed what a nice area it is). It was remarkable how much, and how quickly, I missed human interaction.

When I went on walks, if I passed someone and they smiled and said ‘good morning’, it felt amazing. If the postie arrived with a parcel, I raced to the front door in order to try and secure 10 seconds of small talk before he left the package and departed. In the latter stages of working from home, I briefly dropped into a new café to grab a takeaway coffee; the café owner and I chatted for about 5 minutes and it was a highlight of my day. Even now, having emerged from iso and returned to the office, I am experiencing a frisson of excitement when someone initiates chit chat in the lift. I guess the beauty and value of human contact, which I never had to think about before – I always had so much of it – had suddenly become a rare and precious thing that I now revelled in rather than taking it for granted.

I always knew, intellectually, the extent to which so many marginalised people within our community are deprived of those casual niceties in their daily lives; but because of iso I have, for the first time, felt it in myself and understood slightly better how painful and soul-destroying it could be to be deprived of those positive human interactions constantly, permanently. The joy I felt at such simple interactions reminded me of how devastating the lack of same would surely be.

I have never watched SBS’ ‘Filthy Rich and Homeless’ and so make no judgment on the value or ethics of the program, but the comments I have seen reported from the participants seem to indicate that by far the hardest thing they had to encounter during their time sleeping rough was the feeling of being looked down on, or completely ignored.

Many people in our community are invisible in plain sight. Frail elderly people, people living with disability, people isolated because of mental health issues, people sleeping rough. For many it’s not always clear what to say or how to engage. Otherness can be a source of discomfort and alienation. I think one of the things Vincentians possess is empathy – an intuitive understanding of the value of person-to-person contact, of treating someone as human, of taking the time to be with them and to talk and listen without judgment.

I hope that a lesson all Australians learn from this pandemic is the importance of looking out for our neighbours – not just by ensuring they have food and other basics, but ensuring that no-one has to experience life without eye contact, a friendly smile, a cheerful ‘good morning’.

Claire Victory is National President of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

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