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Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or a hostile universe.” – Albert Einstein

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quotation recently. It seems both particularly jarring and particularly relevant.

As an empathetic person, as a sensitive person, this world has never been an especially easy place to live. Perhaps as a writer, also; I went to hear Elizabeth Strout speak tonight and she said for as long as she could remember she’d known she was a writer and she’d known she was somehow different. She talked about the essential estrangement of being a writer. I don’t know what causes it exactly, but I did know exactly what she was talking about.

One night long ago when I was at university, I was staring out my window at the redwood trees and for a stretch of time it was as if I could feel the suffering of everyone in the city from my own little room. The experience struck me, and I told one of my best friends about it. He laughed at me and made a derisive comment about how I sounded religious (he was a fervent atheist). I felt embarrassed and didn’t speak of it again. It was only many years later that I remembered that moment and saw it for the awakening of empathy that it perhaps was.

But this world is hard on empathy. It is particularly easy for me to see this right now, when inequality in my country is growing at an ever more rapid rate and we’re seeing the promotion of legislation that will continue to speed its advance and disenfranchise a growing population. It is incredibly painful to witness. People are being cruel, on both an individual and a societal level, and while I have always felt that peculiar displacement that is the hallmark of a writer, I have never felt it more acutely than I do now. I told my sister earlier this week, “I don’t feel like I belong in this world.” And I suspect I am not alone in this feeling.

And then there is my personal journey. When you’ve never learned how to institute boundaries properly or how to advocate for needs of your own, you get to see some pretty ugly behavior. Even now I get to see some of this, although it happily no longer has the chance to escalate as far. And then there are people who are perfectly happy to normalize and make excuses for this behavior, which is pretty bad behavior in and of itself. All of this is not exactly uplifting or encouraging.

So then why am I thinking about this quotation in which Einstein appears to at the very least believe in the possibility of a friendly universe? Why am I thinking about this when things are so bad? Why am I thinking about this when I know people can be so awful to one another? Oh God, is Amy going to start harping about positivity again?

Okay, look, here is what I know. I know people do shitty, shitty things. I know it’s important to be realistic and protect yourself. I know some people and groups of people are incredibly self-interested, greedy, ignorant, and intolerant. I know that humanity sometimes takes steps forward and sometimes takes steps back. The steps back can be truly awful to witness.

I also know people can do wonderful things. I know they can surprise you with their kindness, their integrity, their generosity, and their wisdom. I know they create beautiful works of art and useful technologies that make lives better.

I know when you see a lot of suffering and chaos around you, when you take hit after hit until it feels like life is personally against you, that it can be easy to see only the bad. That you can stop hoping for anything better, or even being able to imagine anything better, in an act of self-preservation. That you can dramatically say, “I don’t feel like I belong in this world” (cough guilty cough).

I have this uncanny sense of impending crisis. I’ve had it since adolescence. When a lot depends on being able to predict when something bad is about to happen, you can become remarkably good at it, and so I did. I actually kind of hate it though because it is ALWAYS FREAKING RIGHT. And then I have to go ahead and deal with it as if there’s a chance of me not stepping into chaos instead of, you know, spending more time in blissful ignorance before it hits.

Anyway, recently I had my sense of impending crisis. And as usual I told myself, “Well, you don’t know for sure, even though your danger sense is pinging wildly, so you still have to behave in a mature and thoughtful manner.” Which is something of a feat when your nervous system is basically screaming at you to do a roll dive into cover and never come out. Because of a danger sense that is ALWAYS FREAKING RIGHT.

Only this time something different happened. This time the danger sense was…wrong? It was. I am still surprised as I type this, but it was wrong. It finally happened. And I said to myself, “I need to always remember this moment when the danger wasn’t real after all.”

My point is this: By all means, have your danger sense. You probably need it. It will help you. It might even save your life.

But also leave open at least the barest possibility that something good will come. Leave open the possibility that the danger sense that appears to be foolproof can in fact be wrong. Instead of shifting into automatic pilot, continue to ask questions and continue to be present.

It is a privilege to be able to perceive the universe as friendly. It is also a practice. Sadly, we don’t always have the privilege. And reality is never so cut and dried anyway; the universe can be both friendly AND hostile. But we can continue carrying on the practice in believing in the good as well as the bad and do our part to make the good manifest. 

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It’s a weird time to be writing a personal blog.

When I sit down to write these posts, I think about everything going on in the news: the black men killed by police, the shooting in Texas, the shooting in Florida, Brexit, the coup in Turkey, the American presidential election season, the shooting in Munich, the terrorist attack in Nice, and on. And on. And on.

I don’t think I’ve ever lived through times like these, I tell my friend on the phone. And she says some of her friends have compared what’s going on now to the 1950s and 60s with McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t know how apt a comparison that is, but yes, it is well before my time.

And then I write a list on my blog about Seattle, and it does pretty decently as posts go, and another friend tells me after looking at so much bad and stressful news on his feed, he clicks on my post because it’s a relief to take a break from all that.

It’s weird because I’m very aware my life is the tiniest piece possible in a world that is quaking and breaking and changing and questioning in a hugely dramatic fashion.

Also when reading the presidential campaign news, I realize I’m much less of an idealist than I thought. You know what I’m not an idealist about? Money, politics, taxes, health care, and dysfunctional families. I’ve been playing the “choose the lesser evil, keep things afloat however possible” game in my personal life since I was eleven. I am very practiced in not getting what I want, in having to think about the longer term, and in exercising damage control. The very fact I believe change is possible makes me an idealist by some definitions, but I don’t think change is fast or easy or without scores of compromises you make along the way. But I also know how exhausting pragmatism can be over time. Of course, some of us can afford to discard prgamatism more than others.

So here I am writing a personal blog during Interesting Times, a pragmatic idealist (or practical free spirit!) and I am reminded of the small stories set against a larger backdrop in science fiction and fantasy. I’m talking about My Real Children by Jo Walton, or Life after Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson, or Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, or The Last Policeman by Ben Winters or The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, by Cassandra Rose Clarke. These and the many other books like them are all intimate stories about individuals who don’t make a huge impact on the world around them. These are not Chosen Ones or heroes and anti-heroes whose actions save or ruin the entire world. They are smaller stories, quieter stories, stories of personal revelation, stories of one person searching for meaning in their more or less ordinary lives. Lives that are nonetheless affected and influenced by the worlds these characters inhabit.

And this is how a personal blog can fit into these times we are living in right now. I am often going to choose not to write about politics, not to write about all the wider tragedies we find ourselves facing. Alas, my strength as a writer is not in debate, nor is it in abruptly shaking people awake.

No, I mostly write the smaller stories. Here in this place I write my small story.  It is not the most important story, but it is what I have to tell. It is personal, but the context also matters. I look at the news, and I am heartbroken again and again. I am cognizant of the chaos that’s going on around me. I feel the injustice and the widespread fear down to my bones.

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Here is a photo of Nala looking particularly goofy. In case you need that today.

We live in Interesting Times, my friends. This blog is a drop in the ocean of the world. But I like to believe sometimes this blog may cause you to think about something in a new way. I do hope the small stories it tells can sometimes lift up, inspire, and soothe. Or at the very least, that me writing here can provide a small respite from the larger stories with which we must wrestle and agonize.

Perhaps it can serve as a reminder that we are all here, and we are all human, and that in spite of all the tragedy and all the deep rifts between us, there are also some things about us that are the same.

I am still enough of an idealist to believe empathy matters.

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I’ve been thinking about retellings.

A few years ago I wrote a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and I’ve recently started a new novel that is also a retelling. I’ve done a few short story retellings as well.

So yeah, my sample size isn’t all that big. But just large enough to give me food for thought.

Anyway, what I find in retellings is that things tend to get dark. And I’m inevitably a bit surprised when this happens. Originally I meant for the Beauty and the Beast retelling to be on the light side, maybe even a little frothy, which blows my mind now, because that is not how I’d categorize that novel at all. It is, in many ways, a dark book, and in order to write it, I had to explore some pretty dark places. In fact, before I’d even started writing the rough draft, I realized it was going to be really dark, which changed some of my plans for the story.

And now, with this new retelling, I am finding some similar darkness. Not as much, I don’t think, but again, this wasn’t supposed to be a dark story at all.

Now, you might be saying, well, maybe it’s you, Amy. Maybe you are drawn to making your stories dark. And that is a valid point.

But I also think I don’t recognize the darkness at the beginning of working on a retelling because the original story is familiar. It doesn’t feel dark. It feels like the way the story goes. It feels normal.

And it’s only when I delve further into the story elements, when I start weaving them into a logical world and a logical story, that I began to realize that something in the story that I am accustomed to is actually pretty messed up. And even when I’m working with something like Beauty and the Beast, which doesn’t take a lot of analysis before its dark side shows up (Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?), I find more dark sides underneath the obvious one that I wasn’t necessarily expecting.

Photo Credit: alfamosa via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: alfamosa via Compfight cc

This is like real life. When we’re used to something, we are less likely to interrogate it. We are less likely to realize it might not actually be normal or that it might not actually be okay. It’s just the way things are, right? And the weirdness or the darkness or the dysfunction becomes invisible, or at least really hard to see.

We see this effect all the time, both personally and systemically. We see it in dysfunctional families when the child doesn’t realize there’s any other way for a family to be. We see it in learned helplessness. We see it in all kinds of dysfunctional interpersonal relations and in thought patterns as well.

And we see it in broader strokes when we look at the way racism and sexism and classism (and other kinds of prejudice) shape American society today. We see it in the myths that allow these institutional injustices to be perpetuated, stories that allow people to ignore the underlying violence that leads to such inequality. We see it in the things we notice on our own versus the things we need pointed out to us.

But just like in writing, through interrogation and empathy, we can challenge what we think we know. And through retelling, we can see other sides of the same old story.

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I write a lot about friendship.

A few days ago I saw someone share an article about friendship, and someone else responded to their post by saying that this was literally the first article about friendship they’d ever read. This made me feel good that I’m already writing about it, and also sad there is a relative dearth of information and thought about friendship out there.

When I write about boundaries and friendships, I know some of you are wondering what kinds of boundaries are common to need to set in the context of friendship. I think this varies a lot from person to person and from friendship to friendship, but I do have some general thoughts on what I look for in my friends and what kinds of boundaries sometimes come up.

Kinds of issues that come up in friendships that sometimes require boundary setting/enforcing:

  • Responding to invitations
  • Responding to favor requests
  • Having to cancel plans due to illness or emergency
  • Arranging logistics (including scheduling, timing, transport, choosing restaurants, choosing activities, issues of payment)
  • Addressing mobility/health issues
  • Asking for empathy instead of advice
  • Negotiating the flow of the house guest (either being one or hosting one)
  • Figuring out frequency of communication/visits, response time, safeguarding work time, etc.
  • Seeking safe spaces at public (or semi-public) events
  • Dealing with problematic behavior in communities and friend groups
  • Responding to sexual requests
  • Responding to peer pressure
  • Asking for and giving emotional support
  • Speaking up on issues of social justice
  • Asking for consideration
  • Taking someone into your confidence

I’ll be honest for you: I look for friends who don’t need much boundary enforcing because that’s the part I find the most difficult and tiring. I can often set a boundary now, especially if I have a little time to consider, but enforcing it against push-back wears me out extremely fast. And no wonder. Boundary enforcing means your boundary has already been crossed (or is not being taken seriously after being stated), and it often involves hurt feelings, or at the very least disappointment, especially if it’s a repetitive issue. So it’s much easier to reach a point of diminishing returns if you’re having to enforce regularly. (Also, one way of enforcing is to introduce space into the friendship, and if you have to introduce enough space, you’re not interacting much with that person anymore anyway, so selecting for low levels of enforcement tends to happen at least somewhat organically.)

I look for friends to whom I can say no. Sometimes that will be no to a favor, and sometimes that will be no to an invitation. In an ideal world, I could say yes to everything, but the reality is that I have lots of commitments to fulfill, as does any adult: in my case, to my work, to my own physical and mental well-being, to my dog, to my boyfriend, etc. I have idiosyncracies to work around for maximum well-being, like my general dislike of driving too much, especially in traffic, and my sleep issues. I have budgetary restraints. I get sick and injured. All of these things mean that sometimes I have to say no, and I look for friends who will understand that it’s not personal and that I would help them or hang out with them if I could.

I look for friends who will make a commensurate effort. This doesn’t have to be equal in an obvious sense: for example, I have friends who always come over to my place and other friends who I always visit at their places, and as long as everyone is cool with that, it works fine. But both people have to be willing to find time for each other and to care about how the other person is doing. And both people have to be getting some of their friendship needs met.

I look for friends who are generally kind. I used to think, oh, it’s okay if my friend is sort of an asshole, as long as they treat me well. But I’m not as on board with that line of thinking anymore because it’s so easy for that kind of behavior to eventually spread out to include you. Obviously no one is perfect, but I think kindness is probably the most important trait I look for in friends.

And in that vein, my closest friends are generally pretty good at empathy. I become closest to people with whom I can be honest and genuine about myself and my life without fear of judgment, with whom I can share openly and who will share openly with me, who can listen well, and where there is interest and care on both sides.

Finally, one of the great part about friendships I’ve learned while negotiating these things is that they can be flexible. They do not need to be all things, all at once. While my closest friendships are usually built on empathy, I also have great friendships based upon a shared interest (shocking, I know!) and great friendships based on compatible senses of humor. I have friends who I get to see one-on-one and friends that I almost always see in groups. I have friends who I talk to all the time and friends I only get to see once a year. I have friends who I don’t ask for certain things because I know they cannot give them to me, and I appreciate what they do bring to the friendship and ask for those other things elsewhere.

I used to think friendship came in one certain mold, but in learning the many ways friendship can present itself, I’ve found a lot more interest and connection with the world. I thought by setting boundaries I’d be limiting myself, but instead my boundaries allow me to be more present and more accepting of who my friends are.

Even myself. Maybe especially myself.

Oh look, it's my best doggie friend.

Oh look, it’s my best doggie friend.

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I have not had an easy life.

I lived through significant trauma in my adolescence. I had to deal with some serious shit. When I tell people the highlights of that part of my history, they don’t know what to say. It’s okay. I don’t know what to say either. I tend to downplay it, because sometimes it seems like the only redemptive part of the story is that I survived basically intact to tell it.

That kind of prolonged trauma reverberates through the years. I have made unfortunate choices based on the dysfunction I learned as a teenager. I have health problems now because of the stress of the past. My brain developed differently than it might otherwise have done, leaving me, for example, with the tendency of being hypervigilant. I have trouble convincing myself being hypervigilant isn’t a useful and basically good thing (it isn’t, it really isn’t, but it still seems so very practical).

I have had to teach myself what having a safe and happy and functional life looks like. And I have had to draw some hard lines I never wanted to draw and make some difficult choices I never wanted to make.

I am also incredibly fucking privileged.

I am a white, heterosexual, attractive, thin, intelligent woman. I was raised middle class in California in one of the richest counties in one of the richest countries in the world. I received a college education without accruing huge amounts of debt. I know how to speak, how to dress, how to behave in order to receive better treatment.

People are not randomly afraid of me. People are more likely to give me the benefit of the doubt. People are more likely to assume positive things about me. People are more likely to return my smiles. People are more likely to give me opportunities. People are more likely to assume I’m competent and that my work will be good. People are more likely to offer me assistance. I have access to better medical care, to better dental care, to resources that mean I have a lot more choices and control of my life.

I am oozing in privilege.

I have had a hard life.

These two statements are not incompatible.

What I see so often in conversations about privilege is this insistence on “I.” We all want empathy. We all want to be heard and recognized. We all want acknowledgment of our suffering. And, you know, Buddha said life is suffering, and there’s more than enough of it to go around.

This desire for empathy is normal. It is supremely human. And we all deserve it.

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Herr Olsen via Compfight cc

But. It is possible to receive empathy and give empathy to ourselves while also recognizing our privilege. It is possible to gently remind ourselves that actually, not everything is about us and our particular concerns. That our pain and our problems do not always need to get time in the spotlight, that sometimes other people’s problems and pain needs the exposure, the airtime, the discussion, the push for change, more. That injustice, oppression, lack of privilege, these are systemic issues that are woven into the very fabric of our society, and changing these things, it is a long slow painful process that necessarily shifts the focus from individual problems to societal problems. That even if we have valid points, if part of the purpose or result of those valid points is to shift the focus back to us, that is not always a net win.

I have had a hard life.

I am extremely privileged.

These statements are both true.

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Last year at this time, I was feeling uncomfortable about my age.

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm....

Am I 5 or 50? Hmm….

One reason I was feeling uncomfortable about my age was that I was dating someone who was some years younger than me. Six, to be precise. I had my moment of discomfort, and then I caught myself and said, “No, this is not going to be what I’m doing. I am fine with myself at exactly the age I am.”

But after this, he managed to bring up my age several more times in the short time we were dating. This sucked. I felt uncomfortable. And then I felt frustrated with myself about feeling uncomfortable about something over which I had precisely zero control. We can’t pick how old we are. We can’t pick when we were born.

My birthday is on Saturday, and this year I’m feeling fine with the age I’m turning. Occasionally I feel the ghost of this age discomfort. But if someone has a problem with my age, there is absolutely zero I can do about it. So I’ve mostly stopped caring.

No, this year I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about different things.

But what I’ve realized is that this discomfort doesn’t stem from where I thought it did. I’m okay with who I am. In fact, I’m happy about it. I’m okay with where I’ve come from. I’m okay with my emotions. I’m okay with me. All this discomfort is actually coming from one place. True to my empathetic, people pleaser roots, I am still worrying about what other people will think of me. I am still worrying about smoothing things over. I’m still worrying about keeping things from becoming awkward.

Just as I felt uncomfortable about my age even though I’m actually perfectly happy being the age I am, and always have been.

That’s it. That’s all it is.

Of course, now that I’ve recognized this, I have a choice. I can remain bogged down in the discomfort, and instead of accidentally giving “people” this power over me, I can continue to give it to them consciously. Or….

Instead I can say, “Actually, this is very silly.” This is where I come from. This is how I feel. This is what I want. This is what I’m doing. Sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable about some of these things, and that is just another part of how I’m feeling.

I can remember that I don’t really care what people think of my past, or what I’m doing with my life, or how I feel. That what they think doesn’t change anything, doesn’t steal away any validity or value or inherent truth.

I can think about how vulnerability is not about the response I receive. It’s about accepting who I am and where I am, and about sharing these things when I choose. It’s about having a choice in the first place.

Well then.

Actually, this is very silly.

How’s that for a birthday epiphany?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and loss and inspiration and kindness.

How are you going to tie all of those ideas together in an essay, Amy? Yeah, I’m not really sure either. But I am going to try.

When I first checked my phone on Tuesday morning, I learned that fantasy writer Graham Joyce had died. I felt sad. Sad because many of my friends are grieving the loss of someone important to them. Sad because the one time I met Graham, he had been kind and generous to me.

Sad because then I thought about Jay, and I miss him. I don’t talk about it much. I’m not sure there’s very much to say. The sadness is here, inside of me. That’s all.

We try so hard to distract ourselves, and others, from the reality of this sadness. We want so badly to fix, to take away pain, whether it’s our own pain or somebody else’s. Distraction, cheering up, intellectual discussions about philosophical implications.

But at some point we have to stop all of that and just sit. Sit with sadness. Sit with whatever emotions there are. Turn off the fixer, because there is no fixing death. There is no fixing loss. There is no fixing of so many things.

Sometimes there is someone who is willing to sit with us so we will not be alone. But we are not always so lucky. And sometimes being alone makes it easier. Either way, at some point, the sitting must occur.

Graham Joyce’s final blog post is being widely quoted because it is brilliant. This is my favorite part:

“Actually I know what the dragonfly said.  It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.

And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?”

Cherish. There is so much that is beautiful and good in the world, and it deserves the attention. It is so easy to miss seeing it; it’s so easy for it to be drowned out by the ugly and the ignorant and the damaging. But the good still matters; it keeps us going.

Inspire. We all need a hand up from time to time, or a new idea, or a fresh way of seeing. We help each other to be creative and kind and informed and engaged. We help each other to be better than we could be on our own.

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

I’m reminded of another quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s from E. Lockhart’s novel We Were Liars: “Be a little kinder than you have to.”

That’s it. Be a little kinder. I hear these words in my head several times a week. They help me get out of my head when I’m about to stand up for myself or deliver bad news. They help me get past the empathy response that encourages me NOT to stand up for myself, because they give me a guide for how to behave that honors that empathy while also taking care of myself. They remind me that I can be clear and firm and honest without being unnecessarily cruel.

And they encourage me to a little kinder to myself as well.

Cherish, inspire, and be a little kinder when you can. Yes. That is what I’d like to spend my life doing.

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