Empathy – A Cure for Our Ills

What makes you love a book? For me, it’s the author’s ability to draw me into the character. If I can sink into a character’s mind and see the world through her eyes, feel her joys, sorrows, anger, passion, love or lust, I love the book.

My friend Linda Apple and I sometimes debate whether it’s called point of view or perspective. But, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. What’s important is to understand the importance of the author’s ability to help the reader experience the story through a character–to get the reader to empathize with the character.

My own writing journey began with writing in journals in my early teens. In the very secret and very private writings of those journals, I tried to get someone to see the world through my eyes, even if that “someone” was only my diary.

From there, I began to write stories in my high school creative writing class. Often, these stories were about myself, thinly masqueraded as a fictional character. It was my way to covertly get the world to see something through my eyes.

Over the years, I grew as a writer and person, and the inspiration for my characters came from other people in my life–people whose lives I wanted to understand and wanted my readers to understand.

Trying to understand my mother was the biggest motivation in writing my historical fiction, The Red Kimono. By the time I completed my novel, I was also better able to understand what it must have been like to be Japanese during World War II, and I hoped my reader might step into the shoes of those who were perceived as “different.”

Which brings me back to my original question: What makes you love a book?

Whether it’s the character, the story, a lesson learned–whatever–it seems to me, it all has to do with the ability to empathize–to feel a story that’s not your own, and as a result, also feel compassion.

Which leads me to my next question, and the reason for this blog post.

What has happened to empathy in the real world?

I ask this because from what I’ve seen on social media, we seem to have lost the ability or desire (not sure which it is) to put ourselves in another’s shoes–to try to see the world through another’s eyes. Instead, we stay within our “tribes,” perhaps because it’s safest and most comfortable there.

In my opinion, most of the divisiveness today might be resolved with practicing empathy:

  • Political differences
  • Racial differences
  • Pandemic differences (The fact there we battle each other against a common enemy is proof of how tribal we’ve become.)

A timely example of this is the ire I see at the statement, “Black lives matter.” I’ve seen the following meme as a response from many of my friends and family.

Of course, “All lives matter,” and I don’t believe the intent of saying “Black lives matter” is to negate the value of all other lives. As a writer who has used writing to understand the world, when I hear the words, “Black lives matter,” I think about the individuals who have cried those words:

A mother whose son has been killed.

A man handcuffed for no reason, other than the color of his skin

A senator who is pulled over for driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood

But instead of thinking of the individual stories behind the words, we communicate with talking points and memes, rarely making the slightest effort to put ourselves in the shoes of “the other side.”

“There is nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul, than when you know you’re following the rules, but being treated like you’re not. Recognize that just because YOU do not feel the pain, the anguish of another does not mean it does not exist.”                                                                                           ~ Senator Tim Scott

Writers communicate with our characters by asking questions like the following to get to know them. I call it “Interviewing Your Character.

  • What is it like to be you?
  • What are you afraid of?
  • What are you trying to say that nobody seems to hear?
  • How can I help your voice to be heard?
  • Tell me a secret.
  • How did you feel when [that bad thing] happened?
  • Tell me about your perfect world.

What if we asked those same questions in the real world? Even if we can’t or won’t ask questions like these out loud, we can think about how we’d answer the questions ourselves, if we were in their shoes, to try to imagine the thinking, feelings or challenges of those who differ from us.

In its series, “A Year of Living Better,” The New York Times published an article titled “How to Be More Empathetic.”

  1. Practice Empathy – Try talking to new people – those outside of your “tribe.” Better yet, try out someone else’s life. Visit their family, their place of worship.
  2. Admit You’re Biased – We’re all biased. Once you can admit it to yourself, find ways to overcome your bias.
  3. Stand Up for Others – I’ll admit, this is a tough one for me, because it takes courage, especially in this politically correct era. What if I say something wrong, or offend someone with what I say? Is that a setback? Also, on social media, so often we’re plunged into a rabbit hole, trying to get someone to understand. But the NYT article states, “It’s not about you.”
  4. Read Books – As I mentioned earlier, my favorite books are written in deep point-of-view–in a manner in which I can “become” the character. So, books can be a way to exercise our empathy muscle. Right now, I’m reading the book, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I’d like to add another item that wasn’t included in the NYT article, because it’s something I see happening far too often, and I believe it’s the enemy of empathy.

Don’t Generalize – Generalizations are just another form of prejudice. It’s an “out” for us–a simple way of thinking that enables us to disregard the hundreds, maybe thousands of INDIVIDUAL stories in every group we generalize.

We can change who’s president. We can change the laws. We can tear down statues, censor movies and books. We can be rid of all the things that divide us now.

But none of it–NONE OF IT–will do any good at all, if we don’t also change our hearts with empathy and compassion for those with whom we differ.

 

 

 

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Bad Apples

Have you ever thought about the meaning of the word “generalize,” and how often we do it? How it can affect us as a society?

I’m sure we’ve always done it. But now, with social media, memes, 24/7 media, it seems to have grown exponentially, and, in my opinion, it’s caused the chasm between us to grow seemingly larger by the day.

  • Cops are corrupt/racist.
  • Protesters are thugs.
  • People who wear masks are sheep.

These are but a few of the generalizations I see on a daily basis on social media. (I won’t even get into the political generalizations out there!)

Here are a couple of things I notice about generalizations:

  • They (almost) always lump everyone/everything together as “bad.”
  • The word “all” is implicit in every statement. We may not say it aloud when we generalize, but we certainly think it.
  • The almost always lump everyone/everything together based on the “bad apples.”

William Blake’s quote is harsh, but I think it’s true. Generalizing is too easy and too convenient. It’s an “out” for us–a simple way of thinking that enables us to disregard the hundreds, maybe thousands of INDIVIDUAL stories in every group we generalize. If we’re honest with ourselves, generalizing–avoiding a more critical consideration of any “group”–truly makes us idiots.

We must consider the harm we’re doing to ourselves and to society. Generalizing is a form of prejudice. (And not all prejudice has to do with race.)

  • Generalizations lead to black and white opinions. But the world is full of individual stories in a variety of colors we experience if only we’d go beyond the word “all.”
  • Generalizing emboldens “tribe” mentality and our insistence that “we” are right, and “they” are wrong. But it’s all an easy lie we tell ourselves, because we haven’t taken the time find the truth–to try to understand the stories beneath the word “all.”
  • It not only stagnates us, it rots us. If we don’t move forward with empathy and compassion gained by critical thinking and going beyond the word “all,” then bad apple generalizations will truly spoil the whole bunch.

The next time you hear the word “all” in your head:

  • Question it.
  • Research it. Look deeper
  • Most of all, don’t form your opinion based on a meme.

If we take the time to learn stories rather than focusing on the “bad apple,” we can turn around opinions based on idiotic generalizations.

 

 

Posted in Life, politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Holding On, Letting Go

The past couple of weeks have been filled with the joys and heartaches of life–times that inspire the question, “Was the happiness worth the sadness that followed?”

As with other times in my life when I’ve asked myself that question, the answer, of course, was “yes.”

The greatest joy in the last several days was the arrival of Harrison James Phillips–the second son of my daughter, Andrea and her husband, James.

Harrison is our fourth grandchild, after Tommy (6), Allie (4) and Jack (2).

Though the pandemic threatened my opportunity to be in Washington DC for his birth, with a 2 1/2 day drive, and I was able to be there, not only to help welcome Harrison into the world, but to help with 2-year old Jack and later, to help however a mom can when her daughter has a new baby.

For a week, I was able to spend time with 2-year old Jack, his little personhood in full bloom. He’s an expressive little boy, in love with the world, verbalizing everything he thinks about all of it, and fully expecting that we can and should understand what he is trying to tell us.

How sweet it was to hear him call for me, saying, “‘Mon, Mamaw!” Or, when he’d say, “Hank yewww,” when I gave him a cookie or his lovie. I found a love/hate relationship with Blippi, and I laughed at Jack’s pure joy at the simple pleasure of a bath.

But there was nothing sweeter than the way he welcomed home his baby brother. His eyes widened and he instantly gave Harrison his beloved lovie bears. He touched him gently, oohing and ahhing, kissed him and asked to hold him. When Harrison cried, he said, “It’s okay, baby,” as he’d try to give him something to soothe him, whether a blankie, a lovie, or sometimes, a bite of his snack. 🙂

As the days passed and I saw that Andrea was feeling better and Harrison was getting more on a schedule, I began to wonder when I should leave.

Holding on, letting go.

In a conversation with Andrea during the week, I told her that for me, the challenge of being a mother is finding that fine line between holding on and letting go, and doing my best not to cross it.

The nearing end of my time with the new little family was but one of those times. I could have stayed longer. I loved being with Andrea and family and never felt I was “in the way.” Yet, I also felt it was important for them to begin to solidify as a new little family with Harrison, without Grandma in the way. So, after a week, I decided it was probably time to leave.

It wasn’t easy. The day of departure, both Andrea and I were teary-eyed. I put Jack down for his nap and barely made it out of his room before the tears fell. It would be the last time I’d see him for at least a few months, and I knew, as I read him his nap time story and kissed him goodbye, that he would be a different little boy by then.

But, like the inhale and exhale of life, we hold on, then we must let go. There is joy, and there is pain.

The other thing that happened the week before Harrison’s arrival, was learning of the possibility of my son, Adam, getting a promotion that would relocate him and his family from his house–10 minutes from our house–across the country to California.

We’ve been blessed to get to see 6-year old Tommy and 4-year old Allie once or twice a week since the day they were born. We’ve enjoyed getting to share many day-to-day events, holidays, as well as school programs and weekly dinners. The thought it may all go away makes us wonder if we took our time with them for granted.

Steve and I have done a lot of talking about what our lives will be like without any grandkids nearby. It will be a huge change for us. It’s led us to wonder about how to express our feelings to Adam and Emily about their move, without discouraging them from going.

We decided it’s not an “either/or event.” It’s an “and” event. We can be happy for Adam and his goals and successes AND we can be heartbroken that they are leaving.

Holding on, letting go.

If holding on is a tiny slice of life, then letting go is like a tiny death. Sad as it may be, the realization that letting go is inevitable keeps us from taking opportunities to hold on for granted.

On my drive back to Dallas from DC, I thought a lot about motherhood and the fine line between holding on and letting go.

I’m learning it’s the same with grandparenting.

 

Posted in Family, Life, love, nostalgia | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Live and Let Live

I wrote the following post on May 7, but for whatever reason, I hesitated to post it. After seeing an update on our NextDoor neighborhood board last night, my anger has been re-ignited, and so, I’m posting.

May 7, 2020

I thought I was handling the heartaches of this pandemic pretty well. The inability to spend time with my dad who’s been struggling with the effects of prostate cancer. The sudden “taboo” of hugging my grandkids. The forbiddenness of going out to dinner. The ineptitude of our government. The divisiveness in our country, even against a common enemy. The overload of new conspiracy theories.

I’ve tended to go through each day of eight weeks calmly and with gratitude for my ability to work from home, for the beautiful walks I’ve been able to take each day. . .

And that’s where it all fell apart. This morning. On my walk.

A little background. We live a couple of blocks from a beautiful neighborhood pond. In the weeks of sheltering-in-place, I’ve seen it burst with life. Families with children walking around. Young boys and old men fishing on the banks. New duck families proudly strutting around with their new broods. And geese, honking and chasing as they protect their new fuzzy goslings.

But there’s been one goose pair that has captured my heart. For approximately six weeks, I’ve watched the female on her nest at the edge of a peninsula of the pond. Her mate hovers near by. That’s about a week longer than it should have taken for the eggs to hatch.

So, in the last 10 days or so, as I’ve walked past, I’ve felt sad and wondered if there’s still a chance they’ll hatch, and if not, how long a goose will sit on dead eggs.

Maybe I’ve watched and waited because I looked for any bright light, any tidbit of hope during this dark time. I guess this might have been a sign that the pandemic is affecting me more affected than I’ve let on, even to myself.

And, I don’t think I’ve been the only one. Many days, I’ve passed by and noticed someone left her a bowl of water. Some have sprinkled breadcrumbs and even leaves and grass for her to put in her nest. So, it appears many in the neighborhood have been rooting for her, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is for the same reason.

We all need something to root for.

So, back to this morning. Steve and I walked around the pond just as the sun began to rise. With hardly a soul out at the pre-dawn hour, the morning was quiet and peaceful, until I heard the squawk of geese echo through the still air. When I turned toward the commotion, I saw three teenagers chasing several of the geese near the bank of the pond. Knowing many of those geese had goslings with them, I felt ire rising up inside me.

We turned a corner and walked around a block that took us away from the pond. Still, I couldn’t get the image of the three teens out of my mind, concerned they’d disturb the Mama-to-Be goose.

I quickened my pace. But being the pacifist I tend to be, I tried to calm my annoyance.

They’re just mischievous kids.

They’re not going to hurt anything.

It’s none of your business.

None of my logic excuses self-inflicted bullshit was working.

As soon as we turned the corner and the pond was again in sight, I found the teens near the goose on her nest. Now, one of the boys held a long branch. He was poking it toward the goose as the other boy and girl egged him on.

My anger erupted. I tore across the lawn toward them, my mind storming with thoughts:

Stupid kids!

What do you think you’re going to do about it? Stop. Turn around.

They’re going to hurt the goose. Damage the eggs.

None of my thoughts mattered. All I cared about as I stomped toward them was preventing them from hurting the goose or her eggs.

I erupted in a loud yell. “Hey!”

They turned and looked at me. Wide-eyed and apparently startled by the crazed woman approaching her, the girl said, “What?”

One of the boys, the one with the long stick, kept walking.

“What are you doing?” I whined loudly, but felt myself trying to calm.

“We’re not doing nothing,” said the boy.

“I saw you poking that goose with a stick,” I said.

“We wasn’t gonna hurt it,” said the girl.

My anger rose again at the stupidity of her response. “Then what were you trying to do?”

“We just wanted to see what she was sitting on.”

What a miserable excuse for a response.

“What d0 you think she’s sitting on? She’s sitting on EGGS!”

The boy and the girl stood silently. That they turned to wait for us and talk to us, while their cohort coward walked away, began to calm me. My inner voice told me to try to reason with them.

Steve said, “Why would you do something like that?”

“We wasn’t doing nothing to hurt them,” replied the girl.

I said, “Why would you even want to scare them?” Suddenly, all my sadness about the likelihood that this goose’s eggs would probably never hatch rose up. “Do you know how long she’s been sitting on those eggs? Why would you want to scare her away?” I felt a lump in my throat, yet, my stubborn pride wasn’t about to let them see me cry.

There was nothing they could say. Except, again, “We wasn’t doing nothing.”

As they started to walk away, I said, “Please, just leave them alone.”

My heart continued to race as we walked home. I can’t ever recall a time in my life when I’ve reacted that way. I almost ALWAYS avoid conflict.

Update: May 16, 2020

Upon arriving in Arlington, VA, after a 3-day journey across country to be with my daughter when she, too, becomes a mama to her second child, I was perusing social media to wind down before going to sleep.

Not a good idea. I came upon a post on my NextDoor neighborhood board that made me soar in one instant and brought me crashing down in the next. (I’m not sure if you can see this without being a member of my neighborhood, but click HERE to read the post.)

For those who can’t read the post, here’s the glorious/heartbreaking synopsis:

The goslings hatched! However, within hours, an idiot from the neighborhood took it upon herself to take four of them home, believing she knew better than the mother goose how to care for them.

First, Federal law protects Canadian geese. It’s illegal to harm geese, their eggs, or their nests in the United States without permission from the U.S. Fish and Wild Service.

Second, who is SHE to believe she can care for them better than the mother goose?

I, and many others in the neighborhood are furious at her narcissistic stupidity. Many have insisted the person who originally posted the news report the woman to the game warden and have begged her to return the goslings, though I fear it’s too late.

The action of this meddler, who, after weeks and weeks of this goose’s patient guard over her nest as a hopeful neighborhood watched and waited with her, took it upon herself to know best how to care for these baby geese, reignited my anger enough to make me publish this post.

Both incidents have something in common that bothered me, and both can be summarized in what I said to those kids:

Just leave them alone.

As I mentioned earlier, for me, this Mama goose (who I’ve learned through the NextDoor neighborhood board has been named “Gracie) was like a bright spot in an otherwise sad time for our world–a ray of hope that there will still be plenty in life that will go on “as normal,” no matter what may change as a result of this pandemic. Based on comments I’ve seen from the neighborhood, many feel the same way.

It appeared that for whatever reason, the eggs would not hatch. Fearing the eggs were dead, made me sad, yet, Gracie continued to hope which reminded me not to give up hope.

To see those kids intrude on that hope, possibly destroy it, angered me.

To read on the neighborhood board that the goslings had hatched brought a surge of joy–a realization that regardless of the hope I’d pretty much lost, those eggs hatched.

But, in the next sentence, to read a woman took the babies to her home, thinking she could care for them better than Gracie, instantly jettisoned me back to anger. Even if she returns the babies, I wonder if the mother may now reject them.

I’m certain I’ve felt a personal stake in the “Mother Goose Saga” because I see it is a metaphor for events going on in the world far, far away from the pond.

The kids who harassed the goose, for seemingly selfish entertainment purposes, brought to mind people who tease or humiliate those who are different. Even those who think differently about something – about almost anything these days – are worthy of ridicule.

The woman, ignorantly believing she knew best how to care for the goslings, took it upon herself to take the goslings from Gracie, apparently believing she would be the better caretaker, an act that may lead to their deaths. It reminded me of the two Georgia men who, rather than contact police, took it upon themselves to do vigilante justice. Whether intended or not, it resulted in the death of Ahmaud Arbury.

It seems we will rally to fight a common enemy when we can “see” the enemy and are certain he/she/it exists–ie, the neighbor who kidnapped the goslings. The number of comments on the neighborhood board (many demanding to know the woman’s name) makes evident the neighbor who took the baby geese was certainly an enemy to rally against.

It’s apparently not so easy when there’s an enemy we clearly fear, but cannot see, like COVID-19. It’s not an enemy we can grasp, so instead, we look for another enemy, someone we can blame, and from what I’ve seen, it’s anyone who thinks differently.

I can’t say if the pond incident would have so affected me if we hadn’t spent the last 8 weeks in quarantine, uncertain of when or if our world will ever return to what it was a few months ago.

Does it really matter? Who we are, the events at the pond and away from the pond, are all related. We can’t control life. We can’t control nature. We can’t control each other.

Live and let live.

Second Update: May 16, 2020

Excellent news! According to additional posts on the neighborhood board, the game warden was contacted and the goslings have been returned to Gracie, who has apparently welcomed their return.

Hope won, and the Mother Goose Saga has a happy ending. Even if our future is uncertain, there will still be happy endings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Coronavirus, Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Sew Much Love

Last week, the philosophy behind the general public wearing masks was updated. Previously, the CDC had said only those who are sick or those who are caring for someone who is sick needed to wear masks.

Upon hearing about this change, I decided it was time to look into how to make masks. First, I had to find my sewing machine. Did I even still have it? After all, it had been decades since I’d used it.

I checked the garage, and to my relief, I found it wrapped in a large plastic bag, dusty and covered with cobwebs. I brought it inside and opened it. It was so old, it had yellowed. On its spool holder, a lavender spool remained, and I wondered what I had last sewn. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t used the machine since my kids were little.

“Oh my,” I thought. “Do I really want to do this?”

But, knowing how impossible it is to find masks, I felt I had no choice but to proceed. So, I grabbed my anti-bacterial wipes and wiped the machine down. In the process of cleaning, I discovered the light still worked. I saw it as a good sign that pretty much thrilled me. If the light worked after 30 years, there was hope.

Next, I searched YouTube for instructions on how to grease a Kenmore sewing machine. I LOVE YouTube. You can find instructions to do just about anything there. After watching a couple of times, I now had a well-greased machine. I slowly turned the wheel by hand and the needle moved up and down.

The next big step was to try the foot pedal. I was slightly concerned the machine might explode or something. But it sounded just as smooth as it had the last time I used it.

My other steps toward progress included:

  1. Finding a needle that wasn’t broken – I found ONE lone needle in my decades-old sewing kit!
  2. Finding material to use for the masks – I am taking “shelter in place” seriously, so I didn’t want to go out to buy material. Instead, I rummaged through my closet and drawers to find suitable material to use. I found t-shirts that I painted with “kissee lips” and pink and purple polka dots. I found cotton pajamas and a favorite flannel shirt. Fortunately, also in my decades-old sewing kit, I found an unopened package of elastic.
  3. Choosing a pattern – Have you seen how many mask-making patterns there are out there? I chose a video by JoAnn Fabrics that was easy to use with good instructions. (Again, on YouTube!) I set up my iPad and cut out my pattern.
  4. Filling the bobbin and threading the machine- I was a little worried I might have forgotten how to do either. But, I guess there are some things you never forget. 🙂

Next, the biggest, most suspense-filled step. Testing the machine on a piece of material. Would it sew a nice, clean straight line? Or would it bunch up, leaving a snaggle of thread on the material?

IT WORKED LIKE A CHARM! After 30 years, I was ready to do a Kenmore sewing machine commercial.

As I cut apart my pajama pants and one of my favorite flannel shirts, I hoped it would not all be for naught. Of course, making masks for my family and myself would be worth sacrificing a couple of items of clothing, but after decades of not sewing, not following patterns, not using the machine, could I pull off this feat?

To keep from making a long story even longer, let me just begin to end this post with,

I DID IT!

I made small ones for the grandkids and large ones for adult loved ones who needed masks. I’ll be the first to admit, they’re certainly not the prettiest masks. (I’ve seen many, many beautiful, colorful, perfectly sewn masks out there!)

But I hope those to whom I gave the masks will find the wabi sabi in them–the beauty in their imperfection. They’re not made with the prettiest material. The seams are crooked, too. The thread didn’t always match, but in the slim pickings from my decades-old sewing kit, it was the color that came closest.

Perfect? Heck no. But they were sewn with material I took from pieces of clothing I wore to make memories. Most of all, they were sewn with love.

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