Tag Archives: empathy

Living Deep

I’ve been rereading James Herriot, who was a Yorkshire veterinarian. It’s been a long time since I last read him. His books are filled with love, affection and humor for the animals and people he spent his life with, but there’s another thread that runs vividly through all his books, a thread of place. He loved Yorkshire, the hills, moors and Dales, the little towns, the seasons and remote old stone farms, walls and buildings. Every page communicates his gratitude and contentment with his life and the place he worked. He and his wife raised two children. He worked all hours, and it was hard work. He was qualified before antibiotics and what we think of as modern medicine. He made very little money, but he was rich in love and contentment.

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Dr. Herriot knew how to live deeply. One of his greatest joys was to pull over during his rounds and sit in the heather with his dog, drinking in the air, the view and the silence.

As I’ve been reading Herriot, the Fourth of July holiday has come and gone. I’ve never liked it. I hate noise and crowds. Fireworks are terrifying for many animals, both domestic and wild. They’re also dangerous and a fire risk. My idea of a really good Fourth is a nice, drenching three-day rain during which I stay peacefully at home.

This year, in addition to the usual associations, we have a pandemic. Each of the holidays this summer seem to be dividing the country more and more painfully, and all the hype and noise around escalating infection rates, distortions, denials, lies, economic concerns and travel concerns made me feel particularly anxious and miserable this year.

My Be Still Now practice has developed nicely. I’ve done it every morning for more than a month and it’s become a useful and enjoyable habit. It occurred to me, as I was sitting over the holiday weekend, that during this time I have an experience of depth. As I breath and watch my thoughts move across my consciousness like clouds across the sky, I sink down to another kind of being, below the sound of boats, campers and ATVs passing the house, below my agonized empathy for animals, below my fear of fire, and below my general anxiety about the pandemic.

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In the space of sitting, I move beyond and beneath clock, calendar, distraction, and compulsion. There is only the peace of breath, sun and rain, birdsong, wind, growing things, and the cycles and seasons of this place and my life. I feel peaceful and content. There’s nowhere I need to go and nothing I need to do. It’s all right here, right now.

We all have access to this deep life, but it seems that the modern world conspires to keep us away from it. We are assaulted by so much noise, so much seductive glitter and shine, so much chaos and so many voices. Clocks, calendars and screens rule our lives, as do the numbers in our bank accounts and on our bills and credit cards. We are completely caught up in short-term, surface activity.

To live deep is to remember geologic time and rediscover patience and perspective. To live deep is to climb into the mossy throat of an old well, filled with sweet water that knows ferns and frogs and underground springs. Living deeply takes us to the roots of things, the quiet musk of earth, mycelium, mineral and microorganism. We enter the endurance of bones and seeds, the long memory of stone.

Most of all, living deeply takes me below my thoughts and into my feelings. It’s in that deep space that I find all the women and children I have been and all the wounds I’ve neglected. Without thoughts attached to them, my feelings are intense, yet simple. I discover an affection and empathy for my fears, old and new. I gain intuitive understanding and insight into my behavior and choices.

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I meet myself in the depths, my most primal, innocent, wise self. I put my arms around myself, kiss my own shoulders. Gratitude wells in me, along with comfort and love. Creativity and inspiration blossom. I rest.

This deep time anchors my day. I usually sit for less than an hour. Even 20 minutes of retreat below the surface agitations of life provide me with balance and peace. Living deeply prevents me from speeding and helps me control my compulsions. It helps me stay conscious as I make choices about how much media I allow into my life, how much distraction, and how much noise. It opens me to the simple joys of working in the garden, sitting in the sun, watching the trees move in the wind, listening to the birds, and playing with our two kittens.

James Herriot had fears, inadequacies and troubles, just as we all do. He knew a thing I’m only just learning, though, and that is the skill of downing tools and simply being, welcoming the joy of uncomplicated presence and feeling gratitude for the experience of life in all its magic and mystery.

The meaning and experience of life is not on a screen, on a calendar or clock, or in dollars and cents. Those are but glimmers on the water, the topmost leaves on a tree, a passing cloud, ephemeral and only meaningful because we make them so.

The real stuff of life is slow, deep, quiet and timeless. We carry it always within us, but no amount of doing or having can unlock it. The key is being, just that.

Perhaps I’ll see you among the deep roots.

My daily crime.

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Obedience

A reader commented on my last post, asking me what I thought about obedience. What a great question!

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According to Online Oxford Dictionary, obedience is “compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.”

Before we continue, let me make clear that this is not a religious discussion. I know obedience is an important idea in a religious context, and I respect that many people of faith have specific expectations about obedience as it pertains to their belief system, whatever that may be. I’m not a religious scholar, nor do I follow any formal religious framework, so I don’t feel capable of exploring that aspect of obedience.

However, the concept of obedience is everywhere because we are social creatures and naturally form ourselves into groups. Where there are groups there are power dynamics, and, for me, obedience is about power.

Power, by the way, is not love. It’s important to be clear about that.

Obedience is a timely topic, because the coronavirus crisis has changed and limited our lives in many ways, whether we agree with the necessity for masks, social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines or not.

The choice to be obedient hinges on our willingness to recognize authority. Authority is “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” I freely admit to being wary of authority, because it’s often about power-over, and that kind of dynamic takes away or limits choice.

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How do we determine the legitimacy of authority, and how do we agree on whose authority we will follow?

These are vital questions, because if we don’t trust or respect the authority giving orders and making decisions, we are less likely to be obedient.

People claim authority for all sorts of reasons, including their biological sex, the color of their skin, their age, their social position, their wealth, their education and experience, their size and strength, their religious beliefs, and their personal sense of entitlement. Some pathetically impotent people believe their willingness to intimidate or hurt another gives them authority.

Psychologically speaking, some people are better wired for obedience than others, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor do I view the willingness to be disobedient as necessarily negative or positive. It seems to me we need the ability to practice both in order to reclaim a vital, resilient culture.

Obedience, like faith, tolerance, respect and so many other intangible ideas, needs limits and boundaries, which means we must stay in our own personal power when we deal with authority. Mindless, blind obedience (or disobedience) is a slippery slope. An authority that cannot tolerate questions, controls information and accepts no limits is a problem.

Some people feel most comfortable with someone else in power, making decisions, mandating behavior, and keeping everything cut and dried. They keep the trains running on time and don’t worry about what’s loaded in them or where the trains are going. They do well in schools, big businesses and the military, any context with clear operating procedures and chains of command. They look to their peers and popular culture, like memes, movies and social media, to shape their opinions, tastes and in-groups. They are content to be led and influenced and often welcome authority with open arms. As long as the authority they bow to is competent and benign, all goes well.

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However, authority is power, and power attracts corruption and the corruptible. Cluster B personalities are everywhere, in family systems, in religious organizations, in businesses and schools, in the military and in politics. They think they’re more important than anyone else. They think they can do whatever they want whenever they want because they’re special. They operate strictly out of self-interest and are without empathy or interest in anyone else’s well-being. They reject expert advice and collaboration, data, and education. They always have to win and be right, and must maintain their sense of superiority and control.

Such people are catastrophic authorities and don’t deserve to be in power or command obedience, but in order to discern between benign and malign authority, we must be willing to see clearly; educate ourselves about social power dynamics; research, explore and think for ourselves; and have the courage to rebel and resist. We must learn to manage our power of consent, which includes being able to freely and firmly say no or yes, and be willing to shoulder full responsibility for our actions. If we don’t do these things, we can’t recognize wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we’ll be deselected.

Obedience is a dance with choice and consequences. I am frequently disobedient in one way or another, and I accept responsibility for the consequences of my choices. Make no mistake, consequences for social disobedience can be extremely harsh. Tribal shaming, scapegoating, silencing and chronic long-term shaming and blaming are devastating to deal with and leave permanent scars.

Institutional disobedience can be punished by things like jail time, fines, getting fired or getting kicked out of businesses and venues.

Refusing to follow CDC and expert medical guidelines right now puts everyone at higher risk for illness and death, and will further destabilize the economy, the food supply, the medical system, our country, and our world.

Many methods of enforcing obedience are possible only in a power-over dynamic. The person claiming authority is in a position to withhold benefits like money, position, power or even love. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world are masters at this kind of exploitation, and it works well as long as the victim believes the authority has something they need and will make a deal.

Again, this harks back to personal power. If we are healthy enough to be self-sufficient, independent and confident of our abilities, if we love and respect ourselves and refuse to negotiate our integrity, we’re less dependent on the power of others. If we recognize malign, incompetent authorities for what they are, we’re less likely to become their victims.

I frequently choose to obey or comply with authority. It just depends on the context and the nature of the authority handing out the orders.

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When I do a Google search on obedience, I find memes that imply obedience equals safety. I don’t believe that for a single second. Obedience, in my life, has never meant safety. Self-reliance has been far safer. Equating safety with obedience is an authoritarian tactic that keeps people in line. I wear a mask in public right now, per CDC guidelines, because I believe it to be a sensible choice for myself and others. It may help me avoid COVID-19, and it may help prevent me passing it to others. It does not guarantee anyone’s safety. It’s no one’s responsibility but my own to keep myself safe.

In the end, my greatest obedience is to myself and my own integrity. I trust my common sense, empathy, and wisdom. I don’t put myself in a position of dependence on others. I’m rigorous in evaluating sources of news, information and guidance, and I’m happy to submit to such authorities, not because they demand or expect it, but because I choose to.

Choosing obedience. Or not. My daily crime.

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Speeding

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I’ve known for a long time that I don’t manage my empathy very satisfactorily. Several years ago, I found a couple of books by Rose Rosetree (here’s my first wince, because my own last name is Rose; too many roses!), Empowered by Empathy and Become the Most Important Person in the Room. (Here’s my second wince: from empathy to narcissism—becoming the most important person in the room! I’ve never wanted to be the most important person in the room. My lifelong ambition has been to become the invisible person in the room!)

I’m embarrassed to admit that these two books, which sound entirely woo from the author’s name to the titles, have been remarkably important tools for me.

Life is strange.

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Online Dictionary). Whew. The definition, at any rate, is not woo! I’ve heard people use the terms empathy and sensitivity as though they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Highly sensitive personality types and empathy are strongly correlated, but sensitivity and empathy are not identical.

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Furthermore, being a highly sensitive personality is not the same as being histrionic. Histrionic personality disorder describes a person with a pattern of uncontrolled attention-seeking emotions. Highly sensitive people are generally not attention-seeking; rather the reverse! If you are interacting with a histrionic personality, you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing when outrage, offense or other extreme (and loudly expressed) emotions are going to be triggered. You’re also being drained and exhausted by the constant demand for attention and validation the histrionic personality requires. Think: Intense, unrelenting drama and trauma.

Highly sensitive people think, feel and process deeply; are insightful; are often introverted; are frequently highly creative; and often struggle with overstimulation and overwhelm. We’re more likely to deal with our trauma privately and silently from under the bed or within a closet.

But I digress … I was writing about managing empathy. Rosetree’s books are filled with various exercises designed to help people figure out how to use their empathy effectively and appropriately, which is to say control it.

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It may seem strange to a non-empath, but uncontrolled empathy is a recipe for mental, emotional and physical breakdowns. Unskilled empaths unconsciously push their own feelings, needs, and experience aside in order to absorb the unacknowledged or unwanted feelings of others. Hence, the need to learn how to become the most important person in the room, at least to ourselves, or even as important as everyone else.

Much of learning how to manage empathy boils down to managing our attention and presence. The exercises are ridiculously simple, and at first glance seem like a waste of time.

For example, one of the first exercises is to sit quietly and comfortably and do an eyes open and eyes shut two-minute counting exercise. The assignment is to create a habit of doing this a couple of times a day, just to remind yourself that you are you, having your own internal thoughts, feelings and experience, you are not someone else.

What could be simpler? It takes almost no time, it’s unobtrusive, and it seemed an easy thing to try.

It was easy. I sat in my comfortable chair, in my quiet workspace, the clock on the wall helpfully ticking off the seconds. No sweat.

Right. But the whole point of my space is that it’s mine. I don’t have to share it. Nobody is here to interrupt or distract me. I control the temperature, the clutter, the noise level, and everything else. Neither my empathy nor my sensitivity are challenged in my own space, which I have designed to be exactly the haven and refuge I need.

So I took the exercise to work. I obviously didn’t do it while I was lifeguarding or teaching. Somehow, I felt uncomfortable doing it during a break or while on desk duty, although technically there was time for it. There’s one place, though, where we’re all guaranteed a modicum of brief privacy.

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I waited until I needed to visit the bathroom, locked the stall door, shut my eyes and started my count.

There were other women in the locker room, chatting, changing, showering. They seemed a lot more important than me. I should be out there. I should exit the stall in case someone else wanted to be there. I should say hello, greet patrons and patients by name, run a paper towel over the sink to pick up stray hairs and other ick, make sure there’s no trash on the floor. I should make sure that middle shower that drips is firmly turned off. A young mother is looking for a baby changing station. She must be new to the facility and doesn’t know there’s one next door, in the handicapped toilet stall. What’s going on out at the desk? Do they need me? Is the phone ringing? Is someone having to cover for the ten years I’m in the bathroom?

My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breath easily. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I concentrated and got through the first 30 seconds of the exercise. At that point, I felt as though I’d been sitting there for at least an hour, and I was so stressed I felt sick. The compulsion to hurry, hurry, hurry and get back to work was overwhelming. I was either going to cry, vomit, or wind up huddled on the floor next to the toilet.

I was amazed. I felt ridiculous, but there was no denying my physiological panic response to pausing for two minutes to do the exercise, even when combined with a legitimately needed bathroom break. I exited the stall, humbled, horrified and fascinated, washed my hands, said hello to everyone, introduced the young mother to the baby changing station, and went back to work.

I haven’t tried to do the exercise again at work. I don’t want to feel that way again. I had no idea the degree to which I’m compulsively and unconsciously speeding through parts of my life. I know I hate to be pressured or rushed, so I take great pains to give myself lots of time as I navigate through my days. I thought I never rushed anymore.

This experience stirred up one of my earliest memories.

I was trying to help my mom. She had some problems with pain, and I got it into my head that it was my job to do as much physical work as I could for her so she would have less pain. Empathy in action. What this meant to me was learning to do things like sort the laundry, make the beds, care for the animals and my younger brother, etc. I vividly remember how important it was to me to learn to tie my shoes, not only so I could tie my own, but so I could tie my brother’s, thus helping Mom avoid stooping, bending or squatting.

I had a little rhyme I’d made up that I’d say to myself as I “helped” (probably I was in the way more than anything else—sorry, Mom!). I never said it aloud, of course, but to myself I would say, “Hurry, hurry, biff and burry,” over and over as I tried to make perfect hospital corners, tuck in the sheets, pick up toys, or measure out dog food. Even then, I was playing with words. I was about three years old at the time.

That rhyme brought back a flood of memories and feelings, all feelings of what I would now call panic or anxiety. Feelings of intense pressure to be good enough, big enough, fast enough, competent enough, perfect enough, strong enough to help those I loved, to really make a difference, to communicate the depth of my caring.

Speed. I don’t know how or why speed became so important, but clearly it did, as my body reacts so violently to even a two-minute pause.

Although I’ve largely extricated myself from rushing through my personal life, when I’m working or interacting with others that unconscious pattern obviously still rules, completely invisible until I tried this simple little exercise at work and uncovered it.

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As an intermediate step between doing the exercise in my own space (easy) and at work (impossible, at least for now), I decided to try doing it in my workplace parking lot. As I’m always early everywhere I go (that’s what books are for), I’m usually at work early. Now I park, turn off the car, and start counting. As I close my eyes and begin, I feel compelled to check the time again, though I just checked it seconds before as I turned off the car. What if I’m late? I can’t sit here in the parking lot. They’re counting on me at work! I can sit through the compulsion to exit the car immediately, but it’s uncomfortable.

I feel better with my eyes open, but it’s hard not to be distracted. People are coming and going, some staff, some patients, some patrons. They all seem more important than me. I feel obliged to smile and wave, exchange a friendly word, offer to assist those with mobility problems or poor balance. I can’t just sit here and ignore all those important people. I’m at work! Sort of. Almost. What will they think?

Closing my eyes gets progressively harder. My anxiety kicks in and I feel unsafe. I have to open my eyes to be sure I’ve locked the car. I hear people leaving, arriving, slamming car doors. I need to watch what’s going on around me. I need to see if there’s some kind of a threat. This is hypervigilance, and I’m familiar with the feeling. I need to get out of the car, leave the parking lot, get into the building and go to work. Why am I sitting here sweating, trying to get through this stupid exercise? I’m supposed to be at work!

All this on a sunny winter afternoon, in a small, safe hospital complex parking lot, where I’m heading for a job I love working with wonderful people, and I’m not due to clock in for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nobody notices me sitting in my car. Nobody is paying me the slightest attention, and if they are, they probably assume I’m looking at or listening to my cell phone! For a whole two minutes!

Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

I realize I can’t develop the skill to manage my empathy more effectively until I’ve figured out how to stop speeding when I’m around other people. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but I’m determined to find a way. The habit of speeding is a deeply rooted coping mechanism that spares me from the intense anxiety and panic that occurs when I try to take my energy and attention from those around me and focus on myself. As I weaken the habit of speeding, I’ll reclaim part of my life, including control of my empathy.

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Often, as I write and post these essays, I do so with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Amusement because being human is amusing. We’re all so convoluted, so illogical and complex and flawed and beautiful and ridiculous. Chagrin because many people think it’s not quite nice to tell the truth, to reveal our flaws and weaknesses, to talk about sitting in a toilet stall or the mess inside our heads, to reveal our dirty laundry. My rebellious streak is showing. Again. Maybe it’s not nice. I don’t much care, having no particular ambition to live up to “nice,” whatever that means!

I do care about honest connection, and to participate in that it’s necessary to tell the truth and risk being seen. I know I’m not the only person with dirty laundry, or the only person who sits in toilet stalls or flees there for a moment of privacy! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person speeding in some way, either. Perhaps many or even most of us have a treadmill in some shadowed attic of our psyches to which we’re chained, be it an addiction, a compulsion, a to-do list that’s never satisfied, or any other behavior that steals our time, attention, energy and power.

I don’t want to live like that. Do you?

Speeding. Fumbling for the brake pedal. Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

My daily crime.

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