Tag Archives: empathy

Why Does It Matter?

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It’s easy these days to feel overwhelmed and despairing. Life is increasingly unpredictable and the future uncertain socially, economically and in terms of climate. We’ve never before been able to discuss so many issues with so many others, or been exposed to so many different sources of information, so-called facts, and opinions. As our public education system flounders, fewer and fewer people are taught to think critically, which is daily becoming a more important tool in navigating our information overload.

I heard about a comment the other day on social media directed toward someone discussing women’s rights. The man commenting asked why we’re talking about something like feminism when climate change is so pressing. Why are we wasting energy on women’s rights while the planet is getting more and more difficult to inhabit, not in some hazy future but right now, today?

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That question points to the reason we find ourselves in our present situation in the first place. Our social struggles reflect our approach to living on and with our planet. The thinking that shapes our social behavior is the same thinking that shapes our behavior as citizens on Planet Earth. If we feel we’re entitled to rape, rob or otherwise seize power and control over another human being or group of human beings, we feel equally entitled to use the planet however we want, with no thought of anyone else or the consequences of our behavior. This fertile, life-giving planet is our mother. We live on her body. The degree to which we cherish, support, honor, respect and appreciate her is the degree to which we afford the same treatment to women. It’s the same discussion. It’s not a coincidence that the increasing pressure on our physical survival is happening in the middle of the current social maelstrom.

I’m not a scientist, though I endeavor to be a critical thinker. However, I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the subject of complex systems and earth systems science, including Darwin’s Unfinished Business by Simon Powell, Animate Earth by Stephan Harding, Overshoot by William Catton and Gaia’s Revenge by James Lovelock. Everything I read confirms what I intuitively recognize.

Everything matters. Everyone matters. It’s all connected.

The days are gone when we can tell ourselves that what happens on the other side of the world doesn’t affect us and we need not pay attention or worry about it. We have so far exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity for our species that the actions of each individual have an effect on the whole. As human population oozes and bulges into every biome all over the globe, we also directly affect every other form of life: Animal, plant, insect, fungi and microorganism. We displace other species, poison their habitat and compete fiercely for resources. We have no sense of our own needs or the needs of others, but focus on what we want, and we want it allright now. We deserve it. We have a right to it.

Certain groups of men have no intention of sharing power, dignity and economic resources with women, let alone sharing the planet with fungi and Monarch butterflies. Some groups would eradicate cattle from the globe before learning how to integrate them back into the healthy complex system they were part of until we threw things out of balance with our numbers and ignorance. Others work to bar immigrants, saying they’ll take our jobs, they’ll soak up social resources and they’ll poison our communities with their foreign tongues and culture, too ignorant and short-sighted to grasp that we are only enriched and strengthened by the presence of other cultures.

It’s all the same discussion. It’s all connected.

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We are only now beginning to glimpse the miraculous web of life on Earth, only now getting a sense of Earth as a sentient complex system, self-regulating and self-sufficient, and the knowledge may have come too late. Complexity is life. Complexity is resilient and creates the ability to learn and adapt. Any behavior or ideology that seeks to minimize, disrupt, or eradicate complexity is destructive. Those who work for purity, for homogenized patriotism, for the complete power of one religion, sex, diet, complexion, body type or expression of sexuality are actively tearing apart our world and our future.

Our inability to live peacefully and cooperatively with one another is our inability to respect and care for the land under our feet. Our willingness to tolerate slavery, sex trafficking and bureaucracy that destroys families, indigenous groups, human rights, reproductive choice and other natural resources is the same willingness to worship the false idol of money, buy whatever we want when we want it and discard it later with impunity. If we can’t buy what we want, we take it, or steal it. This is the definition of rape culture.

Complexity is about integration. One way to interpret the old stories is to consider each character as a separate part of the same psyche. In other words, we all have an innocent Red Riding Hood maiden inside us, and we all have an old bedridden grandparent, a parent who warns us of the dangers of leaving the path, a wily predator and a heroic figure who saves the day. A healthy adult learns to know and accept his or her shadow side, as well as more admirable characteristics. Spiritual wholeness consists of a well-balanced masculine and feminine, no matter our biological sex. If we are unable to integrate all these voices and archetypes, all these facets of personality, feelings and thoughts, and operate as a whole complex psyche, we’re crippled, and we’re certainly going to be unable to take our place as an effective, joyous and elegant part of the wider complex system of Planet Earth.

So yes, it matters. It matters if you use a plastic straw and throw it away. It matters if you toss your plastic cup out the car window. It matters if you support the tobacco industry because they’ve successfully addicted you. If you throw one less item away today, it matters. If you recycle and compost, it matters. If you stop rototilling your garden, which damages the soil, it matters. The way you treat the people and animals around you matters. We don’t have the power to stop or change the enormous transition we’re caught up in ourselves. We may never see validation, recognition or negative consequences for the choices we make, but those choices do matter, because we’re all inextricably connected, like it or not, deny it or not.

Megastorms matter. Lead in drinking water and cancer clusters matter. Water conservation efforts in Cape Town matter. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria matter. Fires, earthquakes and volcanic activity matter.

People matter, too. Our experience, feelings and thoughts matter. I don’t matter more than you or anyone else, but, as a living creature on the planet, I matter. The way I treat myself matters. My health matters, and my creativity, and my ability to learn.

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If we can’t wrap our heads around the essential value and importance of each life, including our own, and support each individual in their personal power, we will absolutely destroy all non-human life on the planet and ourselves with it. If we’re really serious about equal rights, we need to learn to share our rapidly diminishing resources, and I don’t mean cars, technology and food delicacies grown half a world away. I don’t mean diamonds, designer clothing, private airplanes and yachts, and mansions housing a family of four. I mean basic food, clean water and habitable land. We each need to take responsibility for our addiction to instant gratification, convenience and all the latest tech, toys and trends. We need to let go of our entitlement and work together to create a sustainable standard of living for everyone.

So yes, food and water politics, sexual identity politics, human rights, healthcare, education, families and children and immigration all matter. They’re all road signs and mile markers. The question is whether we’ll travel in the direction of destruction or use these issues as opportunities to build bridges, enlarge our empathy and heal our disconnection from ourselves, from other humans, and from all other life, paving the way to managing climate change as elegantly as possible.

I know what direction I’m going in, not with hope of reaching some kind of utopia, but because it’s the only direction that makes any sense to me. Many, many people disagree with me, I know, and I’m going to have to fight the mob going in the direction of destruction. That’s okay. I never seem to be traveling in the direction of the majority, so I’m used to it, and there will be others going my way.

In the meantime, I walk the tightrope suspended over the paradox at the heart of modern life. I fight to maintain power and authority in my own life and use it for the greater good as well as my own benefit. At the same time, I acknowledge that I am but one life among uncounted living beings on the planet, spinning through space with everyone else towards an uncertain future. My power is present, but limited. If I make even the smallest difference for good in my lifetime, I’ll probably never know, and no one else will ever see, and that’s okay with me.

It still matters.

My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Survival

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I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of survival. I observe that we as a culture are obsessed with heroes and rebels and the endless struggle between archetypal good and evil. Survival kits are becoming a thing in marketing. Preppers write blogs and have TV shows.

Interestingly, our social and cultural world actively inhibit our ability to survive in all kinds of ways. Public school education might be said to be a long indoctrination in anti-survival. We spend hours with our mouths open in front of screens in dark rooms, enchanted by movies and games. Congregations of fans share reverence for comic book characters and the happenings in galaxies far, far away. We debate, criticize and celebrate the way these carefully constructed heroes dress, speak, look, act and collaborate with special effects. We have high expectations of our heroes. We imbue them with nostalgia. We expect our heroes to be just, compassionate, intelligent, interesting, attractive, moral, humorous, strong and poised.

Meanwhile, dangerous events take place in our families; in our workplaces, subways, airports and schools; in our world.

We wait for someone to neutralize the danger, clean it all up, drain the swamp, and make it all fair. We wait for rescue. We turn a blind eye. We do whatever it takes to distract ourselves from uncertainty, fear and our own powerlessness. We watch the beast lumber toward us and deny its presence, deny its existence until we find ourselves in its belly, and then we still refuse to believe.

I’ve been reading author Laurence Gonzales. He’s written several books (see my Bookshelves page). We have Deep Survival and Everyday Survival in our personal collection. Gonzales has made the subject of survival his life’s work. He’s traveled extensively, synthesized studies and research and spent hundreds of hours interviewing people involved with all kinds of catastrophes, both natural and man-made. His books are thoughtful, well-written, extraordinarily well researched and utterly absorbing.

Gonzales uncovers the astounding complexity of human psychology and physiology as he explores why we survive, and why we don’t. He’s discovered some profound and surprising truths.

The best trained, most experienced, best equipped people frequently do not survive things like avalanches, climbing accidents, accidents at sea and being lost in the wilderness. Sometimes the youngest, weakest female has been the sole survivor in scenarios like this. It turns out some of the most important keys to survival appear to be intrinsic to our personalities and functioning, not extrinsic.

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Gonzales does not suggest, and nor do I, that training, equipment and experience don’t count, just that they’re not a guarantee. In some cases, our experience and training work against us in a survival situation, because we assume a predictable and familiar outcome in whatever our activity is. We’ve made the climb, hike, journey before, and we did just fine. We’ve mastered the terrain and the necessary skills.

Mt. Saint Helen’s had never erupted before. Therefore, all those people who stood on its flanks and watched in wonder failed to grasp that something new and unprecedented was happening. Their inability to respond appropriately to a rapidly changing context killed them. The same thing happens during tsunamis. People are awed and transfixed. They have no direct experience of a tsunami bearing down on them as the water rolls back to expose the sea bed. They don’t react in time.

There’s a model called the OODA loop. The acronym stands for observe, orient, decide, act. Our ability to move quickly through the OODA loop is directly linked to our ability to survive.

Observation, the ability to be here now, the ability to recognize what is, is something everybody can practice all the time. No special equipment or training needed. What is needed, though, is the emotional and cognitive willingness (consent, if you will) to set aside our distractions, addictions, rigid preconceptions and expectations (often invisible to us, making them even more deadly) and dependence on stimulation. It also requires a mind set of self-responsibility. It turns out movie theatres, schools, concert venues and many other places are not safe. We can debate, deny and argue; protest and rally; scapegoat and write new laws. We are and we will. In the meantime, the reality is we are increasingly unsafe in many public places, and no one has the power to wave a wand and take care of that for us.

It’s up to us to take care of ourselves. That starts with observation.

In my blog on self-defense I mentioned situational awareness. Our instructor emphasized that skill as being more important than any other move or weapon. If we see or sense something dangerous in our vicinity, it’s up to us to orient and move to a safer location.

That brings up another very important survival skill: instinct. At this point science cannot measure instinct, but Gonzales’s instinct about getting on a certain plane saved his life once, and many of us have similar stories. As far as I’m concerned, instinct is part of observation. What do we observe? How do we feel about what we observe?

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Our instinct is blunted in all kinds of ways. It’s mixed up with political correctness, including racial profiling. Few of us want to demonstrate discomfort around others for any reason these days. I invariably feel guilty when I react to someone negatively, even if my reaction is entirely private. It’s bad and wrong to criticize, to judge, to cross the street to avoid somebody. It’s ugly and hateful.

Additionally, I’m a woman and I’m highly sensitive, which makes me particularly attuned to body language, voice inflection and all the clanging (to me) subtext of communication beneath whatever words are spoken. I can’t prove my intuition. I can’t demonstrate it logically. I have no wish to diminish or disempower others. I’m not a bigot. All people have energy and sometimes it’s foul. I reserve the right to move away from it. If that makes me hateful, woo, dramatic or hysterical, so be it. I’m accomplished in the art of noncompliance, but many are not.

If we only see what we expect to see, we aren’t observing. If we fail to see what we’re looking at, we’re not observing. If we can’t take in the whole picture, we’re not observing. If we look for something instead of at everything, we’re not observing. We’ve already broken the OODA loop.

Observing and orienting mean coming to terms with what we see. The plane is down. Our ankle is broken. We’re lost in a whiteout blizzard off the trail. We can’t decide how we’re going to survive if we’re unable to accept and orient to what is.

As a young woman, I did fire and rescue work. I was an IV-certified EMT, and I learned in those days that panic, fear and despair are killers. They’re also highly contagious. People who survive lock those feelings away to deal with after they’re safe again. Gonzales found that, amazingly, some people will sit down and die, though they have a tent, food and water in the pack on their back. They just give up.

I also learned that the hysterical victims are not the ones most likely to die in a multiple trauma event. They demand the most attention, certainly, but it’s the quiet ones who are more likely to have life-threatening injury and slip away into death. The screamers and the drunks, the ones blaming, excusing and justifying, are frequently the cause of the accident and retard rather than assist in the survival of themselves and those around them.

On the other hand, strength, determination and calm are also contagious. If just one or two people in a group keep their heads and take the lead, chances for survival begin to increase for everyone.

When I was trained as a lifeguard and swimming teacher, I learned something that’s always stayed with me.

You can’t save some people. It’s possible to find yourself in a situation where, in spite of your training and best efforts, the victim is so combative or uncooperative, or the circumstances so impossible that the choice is between one death or two. This fact touches on my greatest impediment to survival, which, ironically, is also one of my greatest strengths.

My compassion and empathy mean that I frequently put the needs of others before my own. I do it willingly, gladly, generously and out of love. It’s one of my favorite things about myself, and it’s also one of my most dangerous behaviors.

Consider a scene many of us are metaphorically familiar with. Someone nearby is drowning. They’re screaming and thrashing, weeping, begging to be saved. We throw them a rope so we can pull them out. They push it away and go on drowning because the rope is the wrong color. Okay, we say, anxious to get it right and stop this terrible tragedy (not to mention the stress-inducing howling). We throw another rope, but this one is the wrong thickness. It, too, is rejected, and the victim, who is remarkably vocal for a drowning victim, continues to scream for help.

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On it goes, until the rescuer is exhausted, hungry, thirsty, shaking, upset, desperate, deafened and feeling more and more like a failure. Meanwhile, the “victim” goes on drowning, loudly, surrounded by various ropes and other lifesaving tools. We, as rescuer, are doing every single thing we can think of, and none of it is acceptable or adequate. In our frantic desire to effect a rescue at the cost of even our own lives, we’ve ceased to observe and orient. We’re not thinking coolly and calmly. We’re completely overwhelmed by our emotional response to someone who claims to want help.

The survivor in this picture, my friends, is not the rescuer. The so-called victim is the one who will survive. If they do grudgingly accept a rope and are successfully pulled out of the water, they immediately jump back in.

The will to survive is an intrinsic thing, and I can’t give or lend mine to someone else. People who can’t contribute to their own survival, and we all know people like that, are certainly not going to contribute to mine, and some will actively and intentionally pull me down with them, just because they can.

I don’t have to let that happen, but in order to avoid it I need to be willing to see clearly, accept what I see, cut my losses and act in my own behalf. Real life is not Hollywood, a comic book or virtual reality. It’s not my responsibility to be a savior, financially, emotionally, sexually or in any other way. The word survivor does not and cannot apply to everyone.

It’s a harsh reality that doesn’t have much to do with being politically correct or approval and popularity, and most people have trouble facing it, which will inhibit their survival if they ever find themselves in an emergency situation.

Gonzales covers this at some length in Deep Survival, and he rightfully points out that compassion and cool or even cold logic are not mutually exclusive. People in extreme situations sometimes have to make dreadful decisions in order to live, and they do. A compassionate nature that does what must be done may buy survival at the cost of life-long trauma. Ask any combat veteran. This is the side of the story the Marvel Universe doesn’t talk about. Survival can be primitive, dirty and gut wrenching. Sending blue light and thoughts and prayers are not the stuff of survival.

Clear orientation leads to options and choices. Evaluating available resources and concentrating on the basics of survival: water, food, shelter, warmth, rest and first aid are all essential. Thinking coolly and logically about what must be done and breaking the task into small steps can save people against all odds.

Sometimes, death comes. Eventually, we all reach our last day. In that case, there’s no more to be said. Yet the mysterious terrain on the threshold between life and death is remarkably defining. I wonder if perhaps it’s the place where we learn the most about ourselves.

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I’ve known people who stockpile weapons and ammo, bury gold in bunkers, build off-grid compounds and obsess about survival equipment and bug-out bags. Many wilderness schools teach basic and advanced survival techniques. Some folks put all their financial resources into prepping for catastrophe and collapse. I’m nervous about the state of the world on many levels myself, so I understand, but I can’t help thinking that investing in a story about living in a guarded, fully-equipped compound is not much better than investing in a story that water will continue to run from faucets, a wall socket will deliver electricity and grocery shelves will hold food, forever and ever, amen.

After reading Gonzales, I’m considering that maybe simply living life is the best preparation for survival. Trusting my instinct; learning to manage my power and feelings; being aware of the limitations of my experience, expectations and beliefs are all investments in survival. Simply practicing observation is a powerful advantage. I don’t have money to spend on gear and goodies that I might or might not be able to save, salvage or retain if things fall apart. The kind of investment that will keep me alive is learning new skills, staying flexible and adaptive, developing emotional intelligence and nurturing my creativity. No one can take those tools away from me and I can use them in any scenario.

We’re born with nothing but our physical envelope. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest survival tool of all is simply ourselves, our wits and our will.

Survival. My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

 

 

Discovering Character

Character: The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual; a person in a novel, play or movie.

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I’m fascinated with the places between. All the places between. Threshold places. Edge-of-chaos places. Here-there-be-dragons places off the edges of maps. It’s in the gaps, fissures, cracks and edges that I mine for the characters that inhabit my writing. It’s in the between places my own character is shaped, and I gain the clearest understanding of the characters around me.

I’ve written about labels before. Discovering characters is not about labels. Labels aren’t people. We’ve had a lot of reminders recently that talent, success, money and power fail to fully define character. Ours is a culture of texts and tweets, acronyms and jargon like “neoliberal” and “postmodernism.” We’ve become skilled at reducing ourselves and others to one-dimensional paper dolls with the application of a label. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of culture. We’ve no time or interest to invest in understanding complexity.

But what lies between the enormously talented actor and his serial sexually abusive behavior? What is the untold story of the “perfect” mother who drives into a lake with her kids in an act of murder and self-destruction? How do we think about the extraordinarily gifted writer who is also homophobic, or a child abuser? Who are we in the gap between what we believe ourselves to be, what we define ourselves to be, what we want ourselves to be, what we’re afraid we are, and how we actually show up in the world in the experience of others?

In that space between lies real character. That’s where I’m at work, listening, taking notes, asking questions and observing. As a writer, I must know my characters. What are they afraid of? What’s their worst memory? What’s their ideal vacation? What motivates them? What does their sock drawer look like? What’s in their car? What’s on their desk? How do they treat a service person? How many unopened emails squat in their inbox? Where do they want to be in five years? In ten years?

Defining ourselves or others by a single characteristic, choice or ideology doesn’t build connection, understanding or empathy. We can spend hours online, commenting, facebooking, blogging and interacting with others about every issue from sexual politics to diet, but none of it defines our character as honestly as how we treat a real live co-worker who identifies as transgender, or what kind of food we actually have in our refrigerator.

Those tantalizing, fertile, often concealed places between! Interestingly, words obscure the places between. Words are capable of seductive lies, but action, especially action taken in the stress of an unexpected moment, points unfailingly to true character.

Another problem with labels is their inflexibility. We each perform hundreds and hundreds of actions a day, and some are notable for how well they don’t work out. Labels imply that we don’t change, we don’t grow, we don’t adapt and adjust and learn, when in fact the opposite is true.

The Johari Window is a concept created by a couple of psychologists in the 1950s to help people understand their relationships with themselves and others. The window suggests that we cannot see ourselves or others entirely, and there is always a space of possibility to discover. Fully defining character becomes a community project. Even so, the unknown or hidden parts of character can and do appear suddenly and overwhelmingly, often resulting in some kind of heinous act and leaving us struggling with what we missed, what we didn’t know or what we didn’t want to admit.

It’s so fatally easy to misunderstand and underestimate others, especially when we can’t observe, talk and interact face-to-face with someone and compare their actions with their words over the long term. Complexity takes time. Making judgements based on labels does not.

As a writer, I’ve learned to look at myself and others with a more interested and less judgemental eye. I’ve learned to set up camp in the places between, look and listen carefully, observe keenly and ask a lot of questions. I’ve concluded that people who toss labels around are often in too much of a hurry to achieve power over others and silence challenge or dissent to engage in thoughtful dialog or discussion. Label users reveal far more about themselves than whoever they’re labeling. It’s a diversionary tactic.

Who is that character hiding behind all the labels they’re slinging left, right and center? What’s really going on with them? What kind of fear, uncertainty, insecurity, pain or lust for power motivates them? Who taught them to use labels so carelessly and unhelpfully? What needs are they trying to meet?

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An engaging character is one who defies labels, one who challenges preconceptions, one we empathize with and even care about in spite of the abhorrent choices they make. A well-written character is complex and dynamic.

This week is one of those between places. We’re swinging between Christmas and the New Year, between 2017 and 2018. The holiday season has stirred up our memories, our family situations, our nostalgia, grief, gratitude, financial fears and resentments. We’ve traveled, abandoned our usual diet and routines, gotten worn out and indulged in sugar and alcohol. The flu is abroad. The package was stolen off the porch. The dog bit Santa when he came down the chimney.

Here, my friends, is the between place of authentic character. Not who we wish to be. Not who we say we are. Not who we present ourselves as on Facebook or pretend to be for our families and coworkers or resolve to become in the New Year, but who we are today, with our blind spots, our secrets, our fears, our greasy oven, our favorite coffee cup, indigestion, bills to pay, snow to shovel, our comfy sagging chair and what we choose to do with this in-between time.

Powerful characters. May we create them. May we discover, foster and celebrate them in others. May we honor our own.

Our daily crime.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted