Connection & Compassion in the Smallest Encounters

During recent months, many articles have been written on the topic of love – especially on how to find or sustain it during the the coronavirus pandemic. We know, and feel, that our relationships are changing in many ways. We see each other less, but we have more contact online.

But what about the relationships we have with the few people we pass on the way to the supermarket, in the metro, or out on a run? What has changed in these smallest of encounters with our fellow humans? It seems to me that the way we engage and relate to strangers on the street is changing, too.

Strangers Become Threats

With the virus spreading quickly, we have been told to physically distance ourselves from one another. Out in the streets, we give each other a wide berth. However, with physical distance comes an emotional distance, too. Strangers become potential ‘threats’ – potential carriers of the virus that can harm us or those around us.

The coronavirus brings more division than ever. The ‘other’ becomes something completely separate from us – not somebody to respect and engage with, but some ‘body’ to avoid. We see such thinking acted out in the physical fights happening in supermarkets and in the xenophobia and racism being shown.

Though such behavior is outrageous and unacceptable, it is important to acknowledge the heightened levels of anxiety people are experiencing. With more people feeling on edge, aggression and violence may result. More generally, many people are experiencing mental ill-health due to the pandemic, with feelings of depression and loneliness seemingly rising. All the more reason to connect and stand strong, together.

Face Masks, Communication and Understanding

Face masks make it harder to communicate and understand others. Of course, wearing a mask is sometimes necessitated by someone’s line of work, or is recommended by a government. It is relevant, though, to keep in mind that wearing a face mask changes something in our non-verbal communication. Facial expression is key to expressing ourselves and in understanding others. Kathleen M. Pike, Director of the Columbia-WHO Centre in Global Mental Health, explains that:

We need to remember that as our masks intercept the transmission of coronavirus, they also intercept important non-verbal communications that are universal to our emotional connection.

Physical Distancing Does Not Equal Emotional Distancing

With or without face masks, our relationships with the people we encounter while we go about our days are changing. Many people are longing for intimacy, but finding it hard to find while we are obliged to keep our distance. We can, however, offer the people we pass warmth through our eyes, our tone and our energy.

We can acknowledge other people’s existence and humanity, instead of turning away or looking at them through a lens of fear. Let’s draw smiles on our face masks, and wave at those on the other side of the street. Not knowing how much longer we’ll need to keep our physical distance, we could do with learning how to connect to others during even the smallest of encounters.

Tips for Supporting Someone Experiencing Depression

After I shared a list of the tools helping me handle depression, I started to think about what my experience has taught me about helping other people.

Do you know someone suffering from depression? If you do, it can feel difficult to know what to say or what to do. Based on what I’ve learnt so far, here are my tips for supporting someone you care about.


…tell them to toughen up. Believe me, they are already trying their best. Being told to “fight back” or “be stronger” only makes you feel much, much worse. It is difficult to trust someone who clearly believes that you are not trying hard enough or that you are just ‘pretending’ to be miserable.

…judge them for taking medication. You can be sure that they have discussed doing so with professionals and made an informed decision. They don’t need you to decide whether or not their pain is ‘important’ enough. Someone once shouted at me and said she didn’t think I could be ‘unwell enough’ to need pills. Luckily for her, she was not in my head, so she could not feel my pain. None of us can really know what is best for someone else. 

…force them to go out, party or cheer up. Some days, it is simply impossible to fake it. So, unless you want to see them break down in tears in front of everyone at the party, drop it. Let them choose to hide for a while, be gentle. Just show them you are listening to them and there for them no matter what.


…be patient. Accept that they will have bad days, that their mood might change, and that they might refuse to tell you anything for now.

…pay attention and ask questions – gently. Check if their appetite has gone up or down, ask them about their sleep – a lot of symptoms are invisible. No one around me could ever even imagine that I have had suicidal thoughts, but I have. Try not to make assumptions about your friends, some people are really positive and enthusiastic, but it doesn’t mean they are at peace within themselves. Some of us have become masters at hiding pain.

…remind your friends to take some ‘self-care’ time and do it with them. Sometimes watching a movie, sharing nice food and going to bed at 9pm with your friend is just perfect.

…encourage them. Congratulate on every little step. Sometimes getting up in the morning is so hard. Opening up about their pain and feelings is hard. So if they trust you enough to open up to you, be grateful and proud of them.

…remember you don’t have to say anything. It’s very hard to find the right words to comfort someone. Sometimes it can be ok just to listen and be present.

…break the stigma. Every time you hear any of the followings, please speak up. For the sake of everyone, let’s make these false statements stop: “people who are depressed are weak”, “depression is a white person’s problem”, “you must experience difficult or traumatic external conditions for your depression to be valid”

One final point – remember to check on the men and boys around you. They feel pain too but gender norms and inequalities might be making it very difficult for them to open up about it!

Opinions and experiences published on are not medical advice. If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek professional help from a doctor. 

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or if you know someone who is, please reach out for help immediately. Suicide Stop has a list of suicide hotlines worldwide, which you can find here

This Mother’s Day, Give the Gift of Kindness

I’m lying in bed awake at four in the morning, nursing my restless and sick son so that he can sleep. This is my second Mother’s Day, and I can honestly say that the last two years of my life, starting from when I got pregnant with him, have been the most rewarding, but also most challenging, exhausting, frustrating and at times heartbreaking years of my life. Why heartbreaking? Because I never knew that one single person, this tiny little human being, could make me doubt my abilities as a mother, a woman, a wife, a professional and a person so completely and utterly as he has.

Obviously, it is not his fault. It’s not really him who makes me doubt myself, but the society around us – a society that constantly tells not only mothers, but women, that we’re not good enough. That we’re not performing to the standards set to us by others, that we’re not succeeding in “having it all”, that we’re not enough. The pressure is even worse on mothers, because of all the unrealistic and unnatural expectations placed on motherhood and parenting. Some days it feels like we just can’t win. If we stay at home, we’re not setting an ambitious enough example for our offspring; if we go back to work, why did we have kids in the first place since we’re just dumping them in the hands of strangers. If we don’t breastfeed we’re selfish, but if we breastfeed too long, we’re weirdos and clearly there’s something wrong with us. If we co-sleep, our kids will surely be sleeping with us until they go to college, and if we put them in a crib we’re causing permanent damage to their ability to form normal attachments. It seems that when it comes to motherhood, everyone has an opinion and everyone is an expert – and all that “knowledge”, information and pressure can at times just feel too much to handle.

I’ve received my fair share of judgement and criticism, some from strangers and some from people I know, some in the form of disguised “advice” and some as plain, nasty comments – but as I watch my sleeping child, I realize that even though those comments have hurt me in the moment, I’ve made the somewhat unconscious decision to not carry them with me. What I carry with me are the random, unsolicited acts of kindness and support I’ve also received, sometimes from very surprising places.

Instead of remembering the nasty stares I got from strangers when I nursed my crying child in a crowded New York subway, I remember the unknown construction worker who came up to me and told me I was doing a good an important job nursing my baby – which he knew all about, as his wife had nursed all four of their kids. Instead of remembering the group of young women who made sure to speak just loudly enough for me to hear them as they criticized me for traveling with a baby as we were waiting to board a flight from Helsinki to New York, I choose to remember the lovely elderly couple who played peek-a-boo with my son on our latest trip from New York back to our current home in Tanzania. Instead of holding with me the judgmental remarks I’ve received about the fact that we choose to co-sleep with our son, I remember my husband telling me that he believes our son is such a happy, relaxed, well-adjusted little kid largely because we’ve kept him close to us, and because he knows we’re always there for him when he needs us. I also carry with me the memory of the relief and gratefulness I saw on the face of the mother whose newborn baby I breastfed when she had ran out of formula and couldn’t breastfeed herself – and I know that it is those moments, those sincere and genuine acts of solidarity and kindness, that can make the hard moments of motherhood a little easier to handle.

So on this Mother’s Day, give the mothers (and others) in your life the gift of kindness. Hold out your hand, and pull up someone who is about to fall. Allow a tired mother to lean against your shoulder. Tell her “Great job, Mama. What you are is enough. You are enough.”
Because it is kindness that can really change this world into something better – not just for mothers, but for all of us. Happy Mother’s Day.

Originally published on Huffington Post.

Featured image credit: Eren {Sea + Prairie} / Flickr

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