Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

I am not in a good mood right now.

I have spent the last few weeks dealing with my landlord and his real estate agent, both of whom act like they’re doing me huge favors by, say, not illegally breaking my lease or being willing to pay for professional cleaners to clean their property before their open house event. No acknowledgment is being made of the fact that I am the person in this situation who is hemorrhaging money and time and stress from the inconvenience.

Where is our compassion?

I am supposed to be appalled at how non-inclusive the science fiction community is becoming because of the recent hoop-la about this year’s Hugo host. Did things get out of hand? Yes. And ultimately both sides of this drama suffered. How terrible it must be to have to worry about having your win of a major writing award punctuated with a joke about your weight or gender. Can we stop for a moment and imagine what that would feel like? (Kameron Hurley has more to say about this, and it’s worth reading.) And how unfortunate that the con committee didn’t prepare Jonathan Ross for the current climate of SF&F and take more care in making and presenting their choice. Meanwhile, how ironic that this is being held up as an example of science fiction not being inclusive, when the circumstances from which this situation arose exist because of a backlash against science fiction not being inclusive.

Where is our compassion?

I recently had a conversation with a female writer, who also happens to be a mother, about how she was told that since she is a mother, she will never be as good a writer as either someone with no kids OR a man who is a father. How painful a comment that is, to tell a serious writer, “Nope, sorry, since you have reproduced, you’ll never live up to the rest of us. Oh, and by the way, if you were a man, this wouldn’t apply.” Painful, unnecessary, and untrue.

Where is our compassion?

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Now that I try to be very mindful about setting boundaries and standing up for myself (go, Backbone Project, go), I notice it all the time, this lack of compassion. Some of it is simple thoughtlessness, and some of it is deeper and more troubling. Some of it is people who honestly feel if they can get away with taking advantage of somebody, then they should do it. I have been told there are entire cultures based on this principle.

There are two obvious choices when confronted by this problem:

Choice 1: Shut up, sit down, pretend everything is fine, blame everything on yourself, learn to believe your emotions aren’t valid or important, become used to being treated like there’s something wrong with you for having perfectly normal emotional responses to being treated badly, take what is given and be thankful for even that much, lose your voice if you ever had one to begin with, or else never learn to speak in the first place, let people trod all over you as you sink deeper and deeper into the muck and learn to value yourself as little as you’re being valued. In short, be a victim.

Choice 2: Stand up and demand respect. Value yourself. Protect yourself. Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be talked or shamed out of them. Be compassionate, but do not allow your compassion to be used against you. Trust people, but only when the trust is deserved. Love people, but do not try to save them because they’ll be perfectly happy to pull you down with them. Give yourself the compassion other people may not be willing or able to give you.

With the landlord situation, I picked Choice 2, and I am now going to be compensated for my time and inconvenience. This would never have been the result if I hadn’t spoken up. Loudly. More than once. And I’m prepared to do it again.

Where is our compassion?

It starts with ourselves.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately, and then today I saw Stina Leicht’s beautiful post about empathy and the fine balance required in remembering that everyone is simultaneously different and the same. So I decided I’d write about empathy, and then I surprised myself by how vulnerable I feel writing about the topic.

Heart in hand

I’ve realized lately that I have a high amount of empathy. This is not something I’ve known about myself all my life, so I still don’t feel completely easy with the knowledge. It makes a lot of sense, though. One of my strengths as a music teacher was my ability to make my students feel comfortable and supported, even while they were exposing themselves with their singing. As a writer, I enjoy delving deeply into the heads of my characters. And certainly for my adult life, it’s generally been fairly simple for me to put myself into other people’s positions and to see many sides and perspectives of an issue. It’s comfortable like slipping into a broken-in pair of shoes.

Having high empathy is a very mixed experience. My empathy has brought me many of my greatest joys and also many of my hardest challenges. At its best, it truly is a gift without compare. Being able to create connections and be truly present with people is a deeply meaningful and satisfying act. On some level we all want to tell our stories, and there’s a powerful resonance that can be achieved by being a loving witness to that.

But high empathy is tricky to manage. I’ve talked to other people with high empathy, and it appears that many of us have a chameleon-like ability to be who is required. We are the people who can figure out the right thing to say. We are the people who know how to smooth everything out. We can turn our own emotions and needs off like a switch if that’s what we think is necessary. We are the people who can sit quietly and reflect the other person back at themselves without the judgment that would make that too painful.

Unfortunately, we are the people who need the strongest boundaries, and we are the people to whom those boundaries come the least naturally.

Without those boundaries, we become people-pleasing, codependent, or emotionally drained. We can see the other side so clearly that we can accidentally neglect our own perspective or place less value on it. Being so aware of different options and viewpoints can paralyze us into indecision. We can lose ourselves in trying to be who someone else wants us to be. Nothing good lies down that path.

I’m going to tell you a secret about highly empathetic people. We want what we give. Sometimes we want it desperately. We want other people to see us the way we see them. We want other people to listen to us the way we listen to them. We want people to slip into our shoes sometimes too, and we want our experiences to be validated the way we’ve validated so many other people’s experiences.

In the end, we’re just like everybody else. We all want to be recognized for who we are.

The blooper photo: Nala really wanted to be involved.

The blooper photo: Nala really wanted to be involved.

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Seth Godin said something wise the other day:

“The hardest way to disagree with someone is to come to understand that they see the world differently than we do, to acknowledge that they have a different worldview, something baked in long before they ever encountered this situation.”

His suggestion for dealing with this kind of disagreement? To stop assuming the other person is ignorant or stupid or doesn’t get it, and instead focus on telling compelling stories. Stories, I’m assuming, that encourage empathy, that maybe crack open the door to give a glimpse of another worldview in a sympathetic way.

We’re telling stories all the time in our culture. We tell stories about the running of our government (politics). We tell stories to convince each other to buy something (advertising). We tell stories about how we do our jobs (annual reviews). We tell stories about how to live life (philosophy, child-rearing, religion). We tell stories about how the world works (mythology, pop science).

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I was thinking about a question on OkCupid asking whether you have a problem with racist jokes. My answer was yes, I do; but plenty of people answer that racist jokes aren’t a big deal. I’ve never been a big fan of racist jokes; I don’t usually find them terribly funny. However, I might have once agreed that maybe they weren’t a big deal.

But then I read a lot of stories that showed me how racist jokes can cause harm, how they perpetuate the status quo of privilege and racism, and how they tangibly affect real people. And because of those stories and the empathy they caused me to feel, I notice these jokes and I feel uncomfortable. And yes, I do have a problem with them. My worldview changed. So now for me, those jokes ARE a big deal.

A worldview doesn’t always need to change dramatically. Sometimes it’s enough to recognize other experiences, even if you’ve never had them yourself. Even if you don’t agree. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever agree. The respect of recognition goes a long way to allowing a dialogue to take place.

The bedrock of empathy is the idea that however different our worldviews may be, we are all human beings. We all suffer, and we all want to be loved. Sometimes stories are the key to reminding each other of this truth.

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Thank goodness for Jonathan Carroll and his Facebook page, because whenever my brain is feeling slow, I take a look at what he has posted recently to get my thoughts flowing again. Recently he shared this quotation:

People will kill you over time, and how they’ll kill you is with tiny, harmless phrases, like “be realistic.” – Dylan Moran

This makes me think about how subtle an influence a person can have on us. So subtle, in fact, that often no one in the room is conscious of what’s happening. A comment here, a snort there, and a little body language thrown in for good measure, and our thoughts and emotions can be deeply affected:

“I’m not good enough.”

“Maybe I’m being stupid.”

“My career/life goals aren’t important/valid/valuable.”

It’s so easy to diminish, to de-motivate, to plant the seeds of doubt, to make someone feel lesser. It’s so easy to neglect to listen to what other people have to say in favor of listening to ourselves. It’s so easy to sting someone without even thinking about what we are saying.

As a writer, I believe that words matter, perhaps more than most. The written word matters, and the spoken word matters. Body language, tone of voice, and mannerisms matter, all contributing to the overall message that someone is communicating.

Because I think words matter, I pay a lot of attention. I listen. I think about what people say to me. I think not only about the words used, but about the manner of their delivery, the context, and other circumstances that are relevant.

For many years, I internally chided myself for my “sensitivity.” But now I recognize what a gift it can be. Because if I’m paying attention, then I can notice more of those small messages, many of them negative, that I receive from other people. And then I can work to counter them and lessen their impact.

Words matter. (Photo Credit: felipe_gabaldon via Compfight cc)

That’s why choosing carefully the people with whom we spend a lot of time is so important. Not only will they be affecting the activities we participate in, the subjects we talk about, and even the amount of food we eat, but they will be sending subtle unconscious messages that have a real impact (potentially either positive or negative) on our moods, our world views, our self esteem, and what we think is possible for ourselves. The more we notice, the more we can make deliberate decisions about whether to spend time with people who make us feel awesome, energized, and supported for being who we are, or whether to spend time with people who make us feel tired, drained, ignored, and not enough. The choice is clear, but only if we are able to track what’s going on.

Words matter. Our environment matters. The choice to be kind matters.

What tiny, harmless phrase have you taken to heart lately? What would you rather hear?

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I’ll let you in on a little secret. We who carry with us the legacy of a troubled childhood sometimes talk about the people who don’t. You know, the ones who had fairly normal childhoods with just a sprinkling of trauma and have gone on to become well-adjusted adults without years of therapy or going on a spiritual quest in India or having a near-death experience.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I think we attract and are attracted by people who have similar world views to our own. And we are also heavily influenced by the five people we spend the most time with (or three, or ten, but you get the idea). So I have a lot of investment in the idea of spending time with emotionally healthy people, including those who had pretty happy childhoods.

But I’ve noticed a theme in recent conversations about these people. Words like “boring” and “not very deep” tend to come up. And when I pushed a little harder, a friend said, “What I really want is someone who will understand. And people who are happy and healthy won’t be able to understand.”

We get so excited when we find someone who “understands,” and we look with eagerness for our commonalities. “Wow, you’re a Disneyland person? I’m a Disneyland person too!” or “Your favorite book is my favorite book!” or “We both know this obscure fact about this obscure interest!” And abracadabra, instant bonding. We do the same thing with tragedy. There is no time when people will be more likely to share stories of everyone they’ve known who has ever died than when you are grieving yourself.

But I question the whole idea of understanding. Can anyone else ever truly understand what it is to be me, and what it means to have my experiences? We can build up models of each other, sure, and keep adding details for ever-increasing accuracy, but even then we are not understanding so much as empathizing. We can use our imaginations to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, but we can never truly know what those shoes feel like.

We see this in good writing. It’s why choosing the point of view character(s) is so critical. The story completely changes based on who is telling it, even if most of the events and even scenes are the same. I see this when I talk to my sister. We both lived through many of the same formative events, and yet today when we talk about it, it’s vividly clear that we had completely different experiences. The details we remember are different, and our impressions of each other from that time are often inaccurate. We think we understand, and yet sometimes that false impression has actually kept us farther apart.

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Understanding is overrated. What I’m interested in and what I want for myself is empathy. And empathy, and the personal depth and wisdom that having empathy requires, can be given regardless of childhood experience. The whole point of empathy is the cognizance that you can’t completely understand, even if you’ve had similar experiences; that you aren’t the other person and the whole sum of past and present, personality and passions, fears and flaws that makes them who they are. And in spite of that, in spite of the impossibility of understanding, you’re willing to sit with them and listen to them and try to hold as much as them as possible in your mind so you can see who they are, even though it’s sometimes so hard to leave yourself out of that picture. And yet somehow, even though it sounds hard and complicated, many of us are surprisingly good at being empathetic.

I don’t understand you, not really. And you don’t understand me. We come from different places, and we live in different worlds. But we can still find a way to know each other.

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A friend of mine wrote me awhile back and asked me if I could write a post about resources for the YA writer. I’ll admit, I was stymied. In spite of the fact that I began writing in the YA genre, and as such it is my first true literary love, I realized I didn’t know nearly the number of resources that I could spout if he had asked the same question about speculative fiction. There is SCBWI, of course, the teenlitauthors yahoo group (although it tends to get a bit bogged down with congratulations and personal news), and Vera Kay’s Blueboards (where I’ve rarely been active). I’m sure there must be how-to-do-it books on YA (mustn’t there?), but I’ve never read them. Likewise, there must be various relevant blogs, but the few truly YA-focused ones I used to read are rarely if ever updated anymore.

Meanwhile, YA continues to be hot, hot, hot, even while agents and editors are cautioning writers that there is a glut of YA, and maybe writing some quality MG wouldn’t be a bad idea right around now. They say this at conferences, in any case, but I’m still hearing stories of agents recommending that their actual clients write YA, even if they’ve gotten their start in writing for adults. (Which incidentally tends to make me cringe. I understand intellectually that there is more money for fiction writers in YA, and the sales might be easier to make due to the aforementioned hotness, so it makes sense from a business perspective. But I’d like to think there’s more to writing YA than just good business sense; that it’s the end result of receiving a calling, of having some kind of affinity to teenagers, of what kind of stories a writer deeply desires to tell. I’m not saying a writer can’t write both YA and adult fiction–I do that myself. I just want it to be a case of good business uniting with a true interest in writing for teens. But I digress.)

I could write another whole post on the differences between the speculative and YA communities from where I sit (and maybe I will), but the fact remains that I don’t have a treasure trove of resources to share. Instead I will give three pieces of advice (which you can take or leave), advice that unfortunately does not offer any shortcuts but has helped me learn more about YA in the last three years than anything else.

READ YA. Read a lot of it. Read MODERN YA written and published in the last ten or so years (at least some of which has been published in the last three years) so you know what’s going on now instead of what was going on when you were a kid (trust me, unless you’re close to being a teenager yourself, it is different now). Read some MG (Middle grade) so that you understand the difference through examples instead of relying only on my handy-dandy list. Read different genres of YA; you might only be interested in writing science fiction YA, but read at least a few paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary novels as well. Read a few of the really “girly” book series so you know what’s going on there. Read the blockbusters of the field. I don’t care if you don’t like Twilight; if you want to write YA, you should read it anyway (at least the first one) so you can understand what about it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time and understand the ripples it generated (and still generates). Likewise, you should read The Hunger Games, and even though much of it is MG (in my opinion), you should read at least some of the Harry Potter books. Then go read some obscure titles no one has heard of.

STEEP YOURSELF IN TEEN-NESS. If you haven’t spent any in-person time with teens since you were a teenager yourself, it’s time to change that. I don’t care how–you can hang out with a family member, volunteer, teach a class, offer to mentor a teen writer. If all else fails, you can scout out where the local teens hang out after school, go there, and shamelessly eavesdrop. You can watch TV shows and movies targeted at teens (just NOT during your writing time, please): Buffy the Vampire Slayer is old school but still helpful, and lately I’ve been spending time watching Veronica Mars, Glee, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl (and I’m sure there are others). I don’t watch these shows thinking they are necessarily a realistic representation of teenage life, but to watch for more widespread trends: how do relationships/hook-ups work now? how do teens use technology? what are the latest fashion trends and the current slang? how do the characters speak to each other? what issues tap into today’s teen experience that might be a little different from your own teenage years? Sure, if you’re writing a far future dystopic novel, today’s slang might not be so relevant, but it’s still important to try to understand how your readers see themselves now.

REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE. Not just the clichés, and not from a superior, “now I’m a wise and mature adult” perspective. How can you understand as deeply if you’re looking down at someone? No, exercise that empathy muscle and try to remember how you actually felt: the frustration of not having complete power over your life, even if you were spending a lot of time watching adults royally screw up; the surging hormones and confusion when trying to deal with lust and affairs of the heart; the uncertainty of not knowing exactly who you were and how you fit into the larger world (or perhaps bending self perception of who you were to fit into a fantasy); the endemic unfairness; the world-crushing importance of everything going on in your life; the huge milestones bearing down on you, one after another (and whether you looked on them with excitement, horror, or a co-mingling of the two). And then remember that all of the above plays out differently for different people, both in terms of which ones are relevant to each person and what’s going on inside versus the show they’re putting on for the outside.

That’s all I’ve got. If you know of any YA resources I didn’t mention, please give them a shout-out below. Also, if you think all a modern YA writer needs to read is the juvenile Heinlein oeuvre, tell me that too because then we can have a truly epic argument.

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