News National Madonna King: Empathy is winning out, and it’s a pandemic lesson we must not let go of

Madonna King: Empathy is winning out, and it’s a pandemic lesson we must not let go of

The pandemic has been tough, but it’s also forced us to stop and take stock, writes Madonna King. Photo: Getty/TND
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This column was born listening to how Afghan girls, the age of my daughters, are tearing up their school books and hiding their high school certificates.

And it has been fed by tears, watching the nightly news.

Self-harm among teenagers, up. Domestic violence, up. COVID cases, up. Families torn part by petty politics, up.

But in the tsunami of bad news, bad politics and bad numbers, there’s hope, and history has taught us over and over again that adversity drives opportunity.

Benjamin Franklin might have been among the first to claim that – but even Walt Disney, who helped us believe in fairly tales, advocated “a kick in the teeth’’ to bring out the best in us.

God knows, we’ve had a few dentures broken recently. And it’s easy, seeing the pain around us, to believe the path out is pretty rocky.

But consider how vaccines have addressed the challenge posed by smallpox and polio, measles and mumps, rubella and, more recently, cervical cancer.

From safety features in cars, to the development of Mars rovers. The wheel, even.

The simple nail, which has allowed whole civilisations to be built. The compass, which allowed seafarers to find their way, on dark nights. The printing press. The internet. Planes and phones and light bulbs. Augmented reality and birth control, 3D printing and the Cochlear implant.

Problems create opportunity. Challenge breeds innovation.

Right now, it’s my new-beaut coffee machine that provides comfort.

But life’s disruptions forge a new way of doing things, and on days when our politicians are bickering over numbers – not lives, and states, not nations – it’s important to remember that.

By Christmas, fingers crossed, we will have the nation’s most vulnerable vaccinated, and most others too.

Our families will be reunited, and state borders will once again become nothing more than selfie-stops on the way through.

By Christmas, or perhaps a bit later, we’ll be on planes again.

New York tops my list, but I’ll settle for almost anywhere. That sense of turning the phone off, cramped in economy, and waiting for the delivery of airline food, is almost palpable. What about you?

Our children will have lived through a period in history where they’ve spent more time with their families – particularly their dads – than any time in recent history.

That will make them better people and better parents. They’ll also have learnt an empathy that will feed their relationships into the future.

They’ll have developed a resilience, too; a capacity to problem solve and to think critically in ways we could not have imagined a few years ago.

Hopefully, our schools will have used the disruption of COVID to forge a new way of educating our children.

Later starts for teens? More individualised learning? A determination to bury NAPLAN? A new appreciation of our teachers, whose front-line work should be applauded by all.

Our universities, drowning without the flood of international students, might think of a better way of educating our young adults.

Online learning is part of that, but surely they can do more to ensure that connection, which is so important at that time of their lives, is not lost.

This year has also delivered time. It has been hard. It’s broken many. But it’s also forced us to stop and take stock. To discover what is important. And what’s not.

To find our own Cedric Dubler, who showed by helping Ash Moloney to a historic bronze medal, that you don’t have to win to win.

Cedric Dubler urges on Ashley Moloney in the 1500m to a decathlon bronze medal. Photo: Getty
Cedric Dubler spurred on Ashley Moloney to a podium finish. Photo: Getty

Right now, it’s hard to think about winners. Our natural protection mechanisms have us focusing on what’s bad.

But empathy has been a winner during these tough times – whether it’s delivering food to the quarantined, showing support for those grieving and who have been denied proper farewells for their departed or lifting the spirits of those left jobless.

We shouldn’t let go of that. COVID recovery isn’t just about vaccines and getting back to work and business.

It’s about filling the gaps these months have left in lives. It’s about making sure that those who might be left behind by the loss of learning, work or human contact aren’t permanently disadvantaged.

If we can manage that, we can all truly be winners for a long time to come.

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