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Coronavirus, silver linings and guilt

Psst… want to know a secret? Quietly now while I whisper this to you in confidence… There are aspects of the coronavirus lockdown that I enjoy. I like the fact that there are fewer meetings and administrative hoops that I need to jump through. As an introvert, I quite enjoy having time to myself. Gulp. That makes me a bad person, doesn’t it? Surely it’s not okay to find myself feeling grateful when so many people in the world are suffering…?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely not saying that I am glad that covid-19 emerged. I would much rather be back where we were seven months ago. If I had the choice, I choose no coronavirus. But given that I don’t have that choice, how do we deal with the guilt that we feel when we find ourselves taking pleasure in the silver linings?

Amongst the people that I’ve spoken with, there seem to be two elements to coronavirus guilt (there may be more – let me know in the comments below). One is a sense of survivor’s guilt. That I’ve been lucky to keep my job when so many have lost theirs or their business, that I’m lucky to not have kids that require home-schooling when so many are juggling their children’s needs with their own, that I’m lucky to be alive when so many have been sick or died. I’ll be tackling survivor’s guilt in the next blog.

In this one, I want to think about the other trigger of guilt that is coming to the fore and that is gratitude. Normally, we think of gratitude as almost the opposite of guilt. They are both moral emotions. You eat a big block of chocolate and you feel grateful for the sweet, creamy goodness or you feel guilty about the teeth-destroying, calorific badness. But sometimes one can lead to the other, and I think that is what is happening for some people in covid-workplaces.

Silver linings

In any situation there are going to be upsides. Look in any bookstore and you’ll find racks (or web-pages during the lockdown) of inspirational biographies from people who have discovered silver linings in adverse situations. These upsides may be very small, and they will be different for every person. They certainly don’t compensate for the downside of the adversity. But they are there.

Your covid-19 upside might be an opportunity to relax during furlough, clear out the attic, work on the garden, reconnect with a different side of your child, spend focused time on work, etc etc. Everybody’s upside is different and what might be a windfall for you may be rotten apples for another.

So there you are, taking pleasure in your silver lining, when suddenly you remember all the essential workers who are still hard at work. You think about those in the health and social care front lines who are battling illness and death while being vulnerable themselves. You think about those who get infected and face the triad of self-isolation, being sick, and mortal anxiety. You think about those who have lost loved ones and were not able to say goodbye. You think about those who are living on their own, or in abusive relationships, or with mental health illnesses whose life in lockdown is desolate.

And suddenly your silver lining looks tasteless and tacky. How can you possibly enjoy an upside when so many others are living in the down. The tarnish of guilt sets in.

Unfairness & guilt

Guilt is another moral emotion and it seems particularly related to injustice. Russell Cropanzano and his colleagues in 2001 (click here for the full paper) brought together a range of studies on organisational justice and considered guilt within this. They suggested that we feel guilty when the outcome is favourable, but we feel that the procedures are unfair. So in the covid-workplace, we might enjoy our silver lining, but then when we remember the unfairness inherent in the pandemic, we feel guilty.

Dealing with coronavirus guilt

Where do we go to from here? We now know why you (and I) feel guilty about finding an upside to the coronavirus lockdown. But what do we do about it? Given that guilt emerges from a moral reaction to injustice, it’s right that we feel some guilt. We don’t want to live in a world where injustice goes unnoticed.

But we should use our guilt to prompt action. Now isn’t the time to wallow in our emotions. Now is when we need to use our upsides to move forwards and help those who are on the disadvantaged side of the equation. If you feel guilty about being furloughed while your colleagues are still working, see if you can help them in other ways such as collecting their shopping. If you feel guilty about not being on the frontline, show your appreciation and support the key workers. If you feel guilty about enjoying the quiet while your extroverted friends are getting stir-crazy, set aside time to connect with them in an online group chat.

The point is not to try and avoid feeling guilty. The point is to use that guilt to make the world better.

1 thought on “Coronavirus, silver linings and guilt”

  1. Pingback: Personality & Pandemics - Professor Kerrie Unsworth

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