United We Feel. Together We Rise.

My black girlfriend spoke to me of the protests: “You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.”

She couldn’t attend a protest. She is grieving so many lives right now and afraid that her husband, who is a white essential worker, will catch the coronavirus and give it to their baby girl. I am a white woman and my heart breaks open too late. George Floyd’s last words have sparked a new chapter in Black Lives Matter: “I can’t breathe.” Lives that have been murdered, lives that have been lost, and the lives that will be forfeited in the future rest on the heart of America. When I consider the possibility of lives being lost and taken, I’m very concerned for the well-being of protestors, law enforcement, looters, and everyone caught in between. The grief is so wide.

As we fight for justice, fear reigns. Reconciling the connection between the pandemic of racial injustice and the pandemic of the coronavirus is enigmatic. These protests must happen. Among these fierce displays of love, a spike in COVID-19 cases could befall us in the coming weeks. Killer Mike’s words resonate: “I don’t want to be here.” I don’t want to say this. I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want to live in a world where innocent lives have been and continue to be lost to fear. Tormented by it all, I shared my increased fear with a white friend that my dad could get the virus from his eye surgeon. The friend showed no empathy for my dad until I asked for it. He suggested I need to set aside that fear and focus on my empathy for George Floyd and all he represents.

So I tried. I turned to George Floyd’s daughter Gianna. She put it poignantly: “My daddy changed the world.” Many of us have had to live life fearing for it every second since March, while black people have lived in unfathomable fear for centuries. White people like me should be uncomfortable while atoning to the guilt of oppressing them.

Empathy can be exhausted by the toxins of fear and guilt. I feel shame for not feeling this depth of pain for the prejudice pandemic well before the coronavirus pandemic. While I lean into the shame, love and trust ease the fear. My dad’s eye surgeon is a family friend and I trust he is doing everything he can to not put my family or anyone else at risk. This is not just about me. This is not just about him. It’s about all the fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons, of every race yet disproportionately black, who have been and inevitably will be gasping for breaths while tied to a virus-fighting ventilator. And much more.

While wrestling with all this, I turned to prayer. I was raised in the Baha’i Faith, along with my dad’s surgeon, to believe we are flowers of one garden. Grounding is hard work. While the soil is hard, it is also tender. We are flowers in one potted garden with poor yet rich soil. It’s not enough. When a flower doesn’t bloom you change the environment. We are being transplanted collectively. It’s beautiful. It’s hard. It’s just. It’s love. I used to think that justice comes before peace; now I am not so sure. Maybe we need love — a collective empathy to propel us forward. The love is so wide. How flowers can transplant themselves is beyond me.

Cast in the shadow of a rigged system, I cannot stomach “maybe we need to lose a few lives to …” I grieve people who will never be able to see more clearly. Perhaps I grieve myself. Grief is crippling and empowering. I want to live in a world where it’s productive to grieve and love. Is it possible to grieve the lives murdered due to racial injustice, while we grieve the lives lost to the virus that is opening our eyes?

Just about anything could happen tomorrow, but I will always believe in love. I hope that we can continue focusing on many issues through the lens of equality. In a beautifully woven but tragically twisted world, we have been gifted two clear ways to love your neighbor: Wear a mask. Stay six feet apart. Though as human nature grapples with itself, many are defeating our most ingrained impulse — to gather — for a noble cause.

Somehow, through the exhaustion, the sadness, and the anger, we must first love our neighbor, to ensure we are all here after the pandemic is over, and live to fight another day. This is a pivotal opportunity for us to rally, to recreate the definition of safety, to renew our vision of peace with fellow Americans who need to keep each other healthy for the sake of sustained healing from a pandemic that has raged for centuries. Only then will we be on our way to an enlightened future of equal rights for equal breaths where we can finally “live freely in our humanity.”

If we say no other issue is more important than racial justice — not the public health, not our food systems, not the one in four women who are quarantined with their abusers, not the mental health pandemic that is no doubt following this wave — then the effort to promote equality could be silencing equality itself. We are breaking open empathy.

United we feel. The grief is so wide. The love is so wide. We are being reborn in between. Find your shadow, what could be a dark part of yourself and explore it with empathy. Pledge allegiance to this united state of empathy because the new nation could be born by this forlorn light. It is coming through mindful spending. It is coming through active listening. It is coming through redistribution of power. It is coming from asking questions. It is coming through a collective, sustained protest of a flawed system. We do love each other, more than we know, but lack the framework to communicate that love. By releasing a sacrificial cheer, we are experiencing and breaking centuries of trauma — together.

Together we rise. I’m terrified and invigorated. When freedom rings, I wonder what freedom will mean. How are you feeling? Free?




Empowering empaths and survivors through story. Moving to Substack: siennamaeheath.substack.com.

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Sienna Mae Heath

Sienna Mae Heath

Empowering empaths and survivors through story. Moving to Substack: siennamaeheath.substack.com.

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