What motivates compassion during lockdown?

An interfaith dialogue between the official faith chaplains of St Andrews University.

Barbara Davey – Hon. Quaker Chaplain

My first response when reading this question is a slight querying of the word ‘motivates’. We have certainly seen a great outpouring of altruistic behaviour over the past weeks, but characterised by a glorious spontaneity – kindnesses shown in chance encounters and people organising themselves from the bottom up in a spirit of co-operation, their endeavours more an expression of solidarity rather than charity in the traditional top-down sense of people ‘motivated’ to do good.

It has been a time of great and obvious need, and the ‘shame’ of asking for help has been removed. For many the pattern of their daily lives has been changed and this has prompted reflections on what is important to them. The experience of the lockdown has made us more more aware of the interplay between our physical, mental and spiritual frameworks – what endangers the one unsettles the others – and has given us a common experience.

Alongside our personal vulnerability we have been made increasingly aware of the fragility of the world and the impact each individual can have: the small scale way we relate to each other in this interconnected pandemic and climate challenged world demonstrably has made a difference – “I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles in which vital and transforming events take place”. (Rufus Jones 1937 Quaker faith & practice 24.56).

The multitude and complexity of problems might have overwhelmed us in the past, but the pandemic has shown us that people matter. We all find different ways to express this. Quakers have an understanding of ‘God in every one’, each of us a ‘precious child of God’, in family relationship, one with another. I cannot separate myself from human contact, any more than I can separate myself from God.

Likewise Quakers have long understood the impossibility of separating our faith from how we live our lives, each of us seeking to fulfil the loving purposes of God. Freed from clutter, the pandemic is opening me to new understandings, “to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives”. (John Woolman 1763 Quaker faith & practice 23.14).


Dr Sam Pehrson – Hon. Buddhist Chaplain

Maybe we can turn this question around: why don’t we ordinarily see the level of support and solidarity between strangers that we have seen under lockdown?

Writing at the turn of the 8th century, Shantideva asked:

Hands and other limbs
Are thought of as the members of a body.
Shall we not consider others likewise-
Limbs and members of a living whole?

For Shantideva, drawing a fixed self-other boundary around ‘me’ as an individual being is at odds with the nature of persons, groups and societies as all functioning wholes produced by the coming together of interdependent parts and processes. Why should helping another person be any less natural or spontaneous than the right hand helping the left? Shantideva says it is only because we are habituated to thinking of this bounded organism as ‘me’, and its needs as being more important than others, and then mistake this mere habituation for something that feels (erroneously) to be based in reality: an inherent, permanent, independent self that could never actually exist.

Now with my academic hat on, in social psychology we similarly find that selfhood is not fixed at the individual level, and that depending on circumstances one’s primary sense of self could be a collective one – a ‘we’ – potentially even inclusive of the whole of humanity. Research on all kinds of disasters shows how rapidly disparate collections of individuals, such as jostling commuters with little interest in one another’s needs, can be transformed into cohesive, cooperative groups united in their common fate and purpose. Solidarity under lockdown then is not surprising and is another example of what can happen when our commonality comes to the fore, through shared challenges and maybe a realisation of our shared vulnerability as human beings that we often try to ignore. This begs the question whether and how this sense of common humanity can be sustained beyond the short-term circumstances that gave rise to it: an urgent question with ethical, psychological and political dimensions, and one, I think, with no simple answer.


Revd Dr Donald MacEwan – University Chaplain

Most of the time we can avoid thinking about life’s purpose. We’re too busy making the next deadline, running to the next social engagement, catching the next cultural wave. We just keep going, and if we had to say what our purpose was, we’d probably say something off the top of our head like, “You know, being happy.” Or on a tough day, “Surviving.”

But in the lockdown and the pandemic which has brought it into being, we’re asking deeper questions of ourselves. When death counts are on the news all day and every day, we ask what we’re doing with our lives. When we see so many forms of work shelved, we wonder how much our job or career matters. When we see the sacrifices others are making, we wonder if we could do the same. We think about the meaning of our life.

And so at a time like this, many of us recognise that it’s good to have a purpose for life. And that at least part of that purpose should be helping others. It just seems right. Or we feel good when we do something generous. Or we see lots of examples of compassionate behaviour around us. Or a mixture of such motives.

We know that many people in the world face significant suffering, not least because of climate change. But it’s hard to put that compassion into action – such people seem to be far away, and the media attention shifts away so quickly. But in the coronavirus pandemic, we see images of people in need in our country, our city, our town. We have a sense of purpose, and a genuine ability to make a difference. It has overnight become easier to care.


Sandy Edwards – Hon. Humanist Chaplain

Up until recently we have seen a society which prioritises economy (e.g. Brexit), wealth and status and a world concerned with individual consumerism. For many however, this caused honest concern at the resulting divisions in society. However, as a Humanist I am not surprised at the present display of social bonding locally in street and neighbourhood as well as a sense of national and international community. Huge numbers of people have become involved in caring for others and are realising the true worth of folk who do this professionally, such as the NHS, community workers as well as delivery drivers, teachers, shopkeepers etc. There has been a better understanding of dependence and interdependence on those in public service.

The fact that this virus does not distinguish between peoples’ status in society; anyone can be affected and even die, has shown the innate understanding by people, either consciously or unconsciously, that we are all united by our humanity, we are all human. In these circumstances political standing, wealth, celebrity and power no longer have their previous status. This shows the strength of our social morality. We are very much a society of a liberal morality rather than one of rules and taboos; it is based on empathy rather than commandments. This commonality has been realised and will surely remain after all this is over.

It has also, for many of us, given us a closer connection with nature and the world of which we are a part. We have to lead a slower and thus more aware life. There are of course a number of people who find this isolation a great mental strain either from their living conditions or grief at the death of someone close. This has, hopefully, highlighted the need for mental health awareness and a place for people to listen and to talk. There has also been a better understanding of the need for evidence and explanation from the medical profession, epidemiologists and virologists rather than political and economic arguments. Also an appreciation of the work done by medicine to understand and contain the virus.

From my personal view, and I am sure of others, it also highlights the priorities of government spending; do we need to spend £100 billion on a railway, many billions on warships and defence whist NHS workers are poorly paid? (I am biased here as my
partner is a nurse!).

To sum up, I think this crisis has shown the innate decency, kindness and consideration that people have for others as well as themselves; very much a humanist philosophy.

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