Tag Archives: empathy

Whose Story?

I’ve spent most of my life being flung from one story to the next.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

None of the stories were mine.

More than anything else, this blog has been a step-by-step process of finding my own voice and path. It’s not a coincidence that during the same time I’ve surrendered to my need to write and been working on a fictional series.

As an empath, I’ve always been deeply invested in the lives of those close to me, particularly in my role as a character in their stories. All my energy went into becoming the kind of person others most needed in order to have a happier, healthier autobiography. I felt responsible for the quality of their experience.

It never occurred to me to wonder about my own narrative. I defined myself solely through the eyes of others. Living in such a way was intolerably confusing. I was useless. I excelled. I was too smart. I wasn’t smart enough. I was too dramatic. I was too stoic. I was a quitter who lacked ambition. My interests and ambitions were ridiculous. I was selfish and cold. I was generous and kind. I interrupted others. I held space for others. I was loyal. I was disloyal. I was a good ___. I was a bad ___.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

As I entered my 50s, I knew a great deal about what others thought of me, but I didn’t think much about myself. There was no me independent of the perceptions of others.

I read somewhere that other people, even those closest to us, can only see the shadow of who we really are. When our choices, feelings, thoughts, and expressions are attacked, that shadow is the target, not our true selves. The shadow we cast in the world and in the tales of others is a fuzzy, one-dimensional, monochrome shape created by the perceptions, expectations, and experiences of other people. A shadow is not and can never be an accurate representation of a human being.

As a writer, I’m familiar with the process of developing a character. A well-drawn character is not a senseless jumble of contradictions, but a being with his or her own logic and behavioral patterns. A strong character may have ambivalent or confused aspects, and certainly will have attractive or sympathetic as well unattractive or unsympathetic attributes, but it’s the writer’s job to create a cohesive personality that’s logically predictable, even if profoundly disordered.

A vital character will at some point leave the page and enter my dreams, whisper in my ear, and begin to direct his or her own role in my story.

The only time in life we have this measure of power in story is when we’re creating our own narrative about our own life.

Once we absorb that fact, everything changes. We move from being disempowered and captive to everyone else’s expectations and opinions about who we are to standing in our own power to fully express ourselves regardless of what anyone else has to say about it. We move from weakness and irresponsibility with regard to ourselves into self-discipline and responsibility for our lives and choices.

We begin to intentionally write the story of our own lives.

Life conspires a hundred times a day to distract us from what is ours. Our love and care for others can quickly turn us away from our story and into theirs. Video games, movies and headlines clamor for our imagination, sympathy, attention, and outrage. We are trained to believe everyone has a better or more valid life experience than we do. All that energy is lost, energy we gave away instead of investing it in our own story.

Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

It’s interesting and amusing to think about shadows. If others can only see the shadow I cast, it follows that I see only the shadow they cast. Why, then, am I investing energy into nothing more than shadows? Is it useful to get deeply enmeshed in our perceptions of the experience of others? Do we have the power to force others to use us as specific kinds of characters in their stories? Do we have the power to write a single word of anyone else’s story, no matter how closely connected we feel to them or how deeply we love them?

No.

If I go out in the world and actively criticize and judge or praise and support others, that’s material for my story, not theirs. At best, I can only see their shadow. I can’t possibly know the entirety of their narrative and experience.

If I am criticized and judged, or praised and supported, I can choose what to do with that feedback, retain it or delete it. I can change settings and get rid of characters. I can emphasize some elements and deemphasize others. I can have adventures, trials, and tribulations. I can follow paths that catch my interest or compel me. I can make choices and deal with the consequences. Only I can decide what my story is.

Interestingly, this idea of writing one’s own account intersects with the practice of minimalism. So many of our possessions are props for various stories. There are the stories we wish were ours, the stories we hope will be ours, the outdated stories that once were ours but now have changed, the stories we want others to believe about us, the stories of others who are no longer with us, and the stories others say should be ours. Somewhere in the hairball is the true thread, the simple narrative that is ours right now. The only one we have. The only one we can write. Everything else is clutter, noise, and distraction.

Stories are for telling, sharing, inspiring, and learning from. My life is enriched beyond measure by the stories of those around me, and I’m honored to be able to share them. I’m also honored to add mine to the mix. I can’t write yours, and you can’t write mine, but we can listen, and witness, and bless the stories of others with our presence and attention.

And then turn back to writing our own.

My daily crime.

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Greg Ortega on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Erik Stine on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Obedience

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

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

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.

Photo by David Beale on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Robert Hickerson on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash