As I walk through the park behind my home, my eyes catch a man rising from his tent, the new normal here. He is wearing great gear with hiking boots nicer than the ones my partner and I have been trying on in the stores in preparation to move to Comox. A decision made over the course of the last 7 months.
He sees me looking at him and we both wave and continue on. Me, walking and reflecting. Him, trying to keep warm and carry on with his day. I am not sure what that looks like, but I try to imagine. The temperature on my iphone says 3 degrees, feeling like -2. I try to remain judgement free and in doing so, I begin to judge myself and the discomfort that comes with really seeing people, their struggles and vulnerabilities. Judge myself for wanting to block out the reality of these people living in tents in the cold. Judge myself for leaning out. Moving out of the small, yet safe apartment we have overlooking the harbour.
Upon returning home from India and Peru in February of 2020, I started back at work and adjusted for a few days before the COVID19-related work proliferated and Public Health at Victoria Health Unit became like a scene from a movie. Papers everywhere, we were all working long hours and many days with the sense of urgency that only comes with the adrenaline catalyzed by fear and panic. We had the phone number that directed just about everyone who ever had any symptoms, who travelled, or who had contacted anyone who even just sneezed on the island to us, a few nurses in an office. The same nurses who adopted attention to the meticulous detail required to assess a breastfeed to find the cause of pain, or who planned the appropriate immunizations and intervals to ensure a person was fully protected from vaccine-preventable illnesses. The details could not be honed in on. Everyone who had the capacity to lean in, leaned in.
While leaning in lost it’s urgency and we created systems that included more trained individuals, breathing became a little easier. During the summer, I continued yoga in the park between the tents of homeless people and the cricket players. Regular working class renovated vans and moved in with enthusiasm at the ability to travel, making the most of the inability to afford rent in the city. My partner, George and I took advantage of the long days and we talked through the park and along the ocean. We watched the sunset, picked blackberries, and got coffee downtown. We dodged needles in the park, avoided bloody alcohol wipes, and tried not to disturb the people who lived there. Despite living in tents, they were across the road from our apartment and undeniably our neighbours.
As time passed, I remained employed. I was able to get groceries. I was able to stay healthy. I was able to see other people at work. I was able to drive my car out of the city to nature. I was able to close my eyes to the depth of the struggle and inequality. It definitely has not been easy and if definitely could be hard in different ways.
As this man continues on his morning, I wonder how he feels. I learned many things in my nursing degree that brought me to this moment. I learned that empathy is the ability to feel for and with someone. The word empathy comes from the Greek words “em”, meaning in, and “pathos” meaning feeling. In feeling. Empathy is painful. I feel a sense of sadness and shame. I feel for him. I feel a sense of disgust, repulsiveness, and a feeling of doom or wanting to implode at the thought of the magnitude of the pandemic. I wonder how people out here cope with the cold. I wonder what they eat. I wonder where their drugs come from. I wonder how alone people must feel. I wonder what this man thinks about and where his family is. Empathy, in this case, feels unbearable. Do we continue to walk through the park and massage out the hardness our hearts must develop to continue on, or do we avoid the park for “safety”.
Another thing I learned in my Public Health education is that our environment is a major predictor of our health (as cited in 99 scholarly articles, the government of Canada website, and many ancient texts such as Charaka Samhita). I will not pretend I can fix these issues, nor do I know where to begin. I cannot say I know anything more about the pandemic than what I have seen in public health and my own community. I cannot say suffering with other people is the answer, just like I cannot say closing your eyes to it or leaning out is the answer. All I really know is that in order to help others, having a clean mind and overall health is essential. I know that in order to be healthy, we have to recognize where we are falling short and nourish these areas. I also know that being healthy and trying to help others is more impactful than allowing myself to become unhealthy and in turn, becoming a burden on the system, the very one that we depend on to help people (provide harm reduction, provide tents, hopefully provide homes).
Despite not having answers for the overwhelming crises we have, my direction is clear. To stay well, stay connected to the issues that arise, and to help and serve in a sustainable and fulfilling way.
We look forward to spending more time in the Comox Valley.
Thank you to all who have supported my growth as a human over the last decade in this city. I look forward to continuously returning and I am eternally grateful and indebted to the people that reside here.
May you make decisions that allow health as best you can during this time.
May you be well. May you be well. May you be well.