theorangeinkblot

Looking at life through orange colored glasses…

Archive for the tag “Opinion”

Being Temporarily Abled

My vision without my glasses is pretty bad.  My own hand in front of my face is blurry and even though I would probably be able to identify a large object that is ten to twenty feet away (something the size of a car or larger) I can’t see smaller objects or read any lettering or signs.  Anything further away then twenty feet is just a fuzzy blob of shape and color.

About twenty years ago, I went to a ‘Lenscrafters’ in a shopping mall in suburban New York. The frames to my glasses had bent but could be repaired while I waited (in about an hour!).   I sat down in a chair in the waiting area and picked up a magazine which I quickly realized I couldn’t read unless I held it about three inches from my face and even then it was tricky.  I put the magazine down and just sat there for a minute or two and then I thought of my friend who is has a visual disability and has used both a cane and a guide dog to assist her over the years.

I decided that instead of sitting in that chair for an hour staring at a fuzzy wall, I would use the time as an opportunity to try to gain even the smallest glimmer of understanding of what it would be like if my ability to see without glasses was the best that I could expect.  I assigned myself a task to find a coffee shop, buy a cup of coffee and then find my way back to ‘Lenscrafters’.

I was able to complete my self assigned tasks but not without asking for help.  Being unfamiliar with the mall I had to ask someone to help me find the coffee shop and then I had to ask the coffee shop employee to tell me what kind of specialty drinks they had and how much they cost.  I had to hold my money pretty close to my face to make sure I was paying with the correct bill.  I had to navigate getting on and off the escalator with limited vision.  By the time I returned to Lenscrafters,  I was grateful to be reunited with my glasses and my ability to see.

It was an interesting experiment which definitely required me to step out of my comfort zone. I felt vulnerable and a little uncomfortable having to ask strangers for help. But let’s be honest, any discomfort or vulnerability I felt was tempered by the knowledge that it was temporary.   Still, when I told my friend who is blind what I had done, she was touched.  She said very few people would even try to take it upon themselves to understand what it is like to be a person with a disability.  She also said that most able bodied people take for granted that they will always be able bodied, when in fact, at any time, any one of us could be faced with an illness or injury that leaves us with chronic pain, mobility issues, or an inability to see, hear, speak or think the way we used to.  Any one of us able bodied people could very well be so temporarily.

Why am I telling you all this?  I have a good friend who deals with chronic pain on a daily basis. She has recently had two major surgeries and hospitalizations but sadly has had no relief.  In addition, she is now facing mobility issues and finds herself needing to use a wheelchair to travel any significant distance.  To add insult to injury, as she has reached out to her friends and community for help and support, she has found that many people are shutting her out.  Some people have just stop taking her calls altogether.  Others have told her that her level of illness makes them uncomfortable or that they are not comfortable having a friend who uses a wheelchair.

I have two lines of thought about these feelings of discomfort:

1.) I understand that feeling uncomfortable feels, well, uncomfortable.  Anytime we are faced with a situation that is unfamiliar or new or in which we don’t know what to do or say, the temptation can be to avoid the situation altogether and shut down that uncomfortable feeling.  This can apply to visiting or supporting our friends when they are sick or injured or any other plethora of new or scary situations.  But before moving into avoidance and denial consider that the feeling of discomfort is also signaling an opportunity for personal growth.

By being willing to sit with that feeling of discomfort, we give our brain the opportunity to confront and resolve the cognitive dissonance between how we are actually feeling, and the guilt or shame we may feel for feeling that way.  Then, we can find our courage, lean in, and access feelings of empathy and compassion instead of succumbing to fear.  We may find that we are awkward and clumsy in our attempts to reach out in these situations- but at least it is authentic. And the more we are willing to try, the less awkward and clumsy it becomes.

2.) Consider the idea that your able-bodiedness may be temporary.  How would you feel if tomorrow you found yourself unable to use your body in the way you are used to using it.   Scared? Confused? Frustrated? Angry? Sad? Now imagine that feeling all of those feelings you reach out to people – who have been your friends for years – for emotional support or assistance and their response is that due to your not being able to use your body in the same way you used to they are no longer comfortable being your friend.  How devastating would that be?

It’s okay- normal even- to feel uncomfortable.  Imagine though, how that discomfort can be transformed into something so much more powerful if we are willing acknowledge that we can simultaneously feel uncomfortable and also make an effort to be empathetic and compassionate.  Can we find the courage to say, “I’m feeling uncomfortable with what you are going through but I’m working on it and want to find some way to try to be supportive.”

We don’t have to make a commitment to “fixing” whatever our friend is going through- there may not even be a viable solution.  And it is totally healthy to set boundaries.  I am not suggesting that it is required or even appropriate to be available to someone 24 hours a day.  I would say to try, for a moment, to put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about how you might feel if you were going through what they are going through.  Remind yourself that at any moment on any day your world might be completely turned upside down.  Imagine what it might be like if you needed to learn to navigate the world in an entirely different way.  And then choose your actions based on how you would hope your friends would respond to you.

It’s easy really- treat others the way you would want to be treated.  Even if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

 

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Please Stop Expressing your Condolences that I have a Teenage Daughter.

I met a new neighbor yesterday.  Upon hearing that I have a teenage daughter, she replied, “I’m sorry.”

This happens quite frequently.  Someone asks me how old my children are and when I mention my teenage daughter the response is often, “My condolences,” or “I’m sorry,” or “Can I get you a glass of wine?”

I’m writing this today to ask of you: please stop expressing your condolences that I have a teenage daughter. I’m not the least bit sorry or upset about it.

Yes, she sometimes rolls her eyes or uses “that tone.” Occasionally, when I ask her to help me to unload the dishwasher she replies, “No thanks, I’m good.” My daughter some times does these things, but these things do not define her. Look past the occasional eye rolls, dramatic interludes, and the ear buds that seem to have taken up permanent residence in her ears and you will see that my teenage daughter is not someone who needs apologizing for.  She is, in fact, nothing short of amazing.

Diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in first grade, my now 14-year-old is one of the bravest and strongest people I know.  Every morning, she gets out of bed knowing that at some point during the day she will need to battle an inner demon and she knows there is a chance she won’t win.  Yet, every morning, she gathers her courage, puts on her emotional armor, and goes to school.  Do you remember middle school? Not exactly a nurturing haven of emotional safety nets (even at her tiny private school there is a fair amount of middle school drama and kids who say mean things).  Nevertheless, she persists.

My teenage daughter is fierce.  She is a self-proclaimed feminist and social justice warrior who is forging her own path in the world.  She has relevant and informed opinions about issues impacting our town, our country, and our planet. She will stand up for people if she thinks they are being treated unfairly – even if they are someone my daughter considers to be, in her words, “a butt.”

My teenage daughter is developing a strong sense of self. She has no interest in wearing something because someone else is wearing it and, so far, she thinks peer pressure is “stupid.” She is authentic and real and won’t apologize for being an independent thinker or outspoken young lady.  She is unapologetically her own person and we encourage her to be just that.

My teenage daughter is interesting.  She reads books and asks questions and is curious about the world.  And yes, occasionally, halfway through my answer to a question she has just posed to me she will completely stop listening. She is, after all, still a teenager.  She is still learning.  But I’m an adult and I’m still learning too.  Sometimes, I roll my eyes and use “that tone,” and overreact to a frustrating but inconsequential situation.  Where do you suppose they learn that behavior to begin with?

It seems to me that women already apologize far more than necessary, sometimes, merely for existing.  Do we really need to exacerbate that problem by apologizing for teenage girls even being a thing? Again, I can’t speak for anybody else’s teenage daughter but I suspect that if you look past the eye rolls, and the obnoxious tone of voice and the drama that sometimes accompanies them you will find that there is a lot of complex, beautiful, and amazing stuff going on right under the surface.

So, if I mention that I have a teenage daughter, ask me how she’s doing or what she’s involved with or what her opinion is on a $15 minimum wage (she does actually have an opinion on that) but please, do not apologize.

 

I am light.

I will be completely honest.  When I woke up yesterday morning and confirmed the election results, I had a moment where I wished I could be my dog; blissfully ignorant and content with digging holes in the backyard and receiving the occasional belly rub. Like many parents, I struggled with how to tell my kids that our candidate had lost.  Like many of my friends, I was worried about what this election means for our country.  And like many people I have spoken to and read about, I have shed some tears.

I have stopped reading the articles that try to articulate how we got here because the fact of the matter is this is where we have landed.  We need to decide how we are going to move forward and in doing that, each of us has a decision to make about how we are going to put ourselves out into the world from here on out.  The great thing is, that with so much work to do, there are many roles to play.  So how I decide to put myself out there doesn’t have to look exactly how you decide to put yourself out there.  The important thing is, we have to put ourselves out there.

Yesterday, my daughter, who is an 8th grader, texted me a selfie of herself and her good friend Lubabah.  To see this beautiful picture of my Jewish daughter with her Muslim friend reminded me of why we must continue to do meaningful work to affect change and why we must refuse to be silenced.

I woke up this morning with great clarity of my purpose in this world. As I drove home after dropping my daughter off at school, these were the words that were streaming through my head:

I am light.

I am peace.

I am love.

I am calm.

I am listening.

I am a beacon in the storm.

I am a safe harbor.

I am gratitude.

I am powerful.

I am kindness.

I have clarity.

I  have purpose.

I have vision.

I have been practicing for this moment in time for my whole life.

I am a soul.

I AM LIGHT!

I am shining.

I am unafraid.

I am unstoppable.

 

This is how I am choosing to put myself out in the world.  Every day. I will make a difference by putting myself out into the world as the best version of me that I know how to be.  I am excited to see how all of you put yourselves out there too.  With every great challenge comes great opportunities.  Go be the best you.  Only you can make your contribution.

Accountability. Kindness. Forgiveness.

I was driving my 13 year old to school this morning and I may or may not have committed a minor traffic violation.  Without going into too much detail, I allegedly made a left turn at a four way intersection at a time when I apparently was not supposed to make a left turn.

There was a woman in her car, stopped at a stop sign at this intersection who started honking and yelling  at me as I made the left turn.  I didn’t realize at first why she was yelling so when I cleared the intersection I stopped my car and rolled down my window.  To say that the woman was unhappy with me was an understatement.  Her window was rolled down as well. She was screaming quite loudly, waving her arms, and pointing out my apparent error.  She was angry, really angry.

Once it sunk in that in this woman’s mind (and very possibly in reality) I had done something that had triggered this response I had to figure out how to respond.   A few thoughts went through my head:

  1. My 13 year old was in the car with me and I wanted to set a positive example.
  2. If there was even a possibility that I had, in fact, screwed up I should take responsibility and apologize.
  3. It didn’t matter in that moment whether or not I felt like the woman’s reaction was out of proportion to the situation.
  4. It was not my place to  judge that woman or her reaction to my error.

For a few seconds I sat there and just listened to her yell.  Then, when she paused, I said, “I am sorry.  I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention and I made a mistake.  Thank you for letting me know.”

The moment the words, “I’m sorry” came out of my mouth the woman’s whole face changed.  The anger disappeared. Then she looked confused for a moment.  Then she gave a small nod, quietly said, “okay” and then she drove away.  The whole interaction probably took less than 30 seconds.

My daughter and I were both quiet for a minute.  Then my daughter said, “that woman was really mad at you.”

I replied, “yes, she was.  But that’s okay.  She was allowed to be angry at me.”

My daughter asked me, “did you make the mistake she said you made?”

“Maybe,” I said, “I’m not actually 100% sure.  But I don’t really think it matters either way.”

“But she YELLED at you,” my daughter said.

“She was upset.  Or, maybe she yelled because she thought I was going to yell back,” I responded.

In those moments, it was not about who was right and who was wrong.  It was about how I thought I could best diffuse the situation; and I followed my gut instinct.

Just driving off did not seem like the right choice in this particular scenario.  I did not feel at all threatened.  I had (inadvertently) caused someone distress.  Becoming defensive and yelling back would have only escalated the situation. As soon as I apologized and saw the woman’s face completely change I knew that I had made the right choice in this situation.

Sometimes, even when we suspect we bear at least some responsibility for a situation, but especially if we suspect we don’t- and especially if someone is screaming at us, there is a temptation to flee or to fight.  If we can take a moment and take a step back, sometimes there is a third option.  Accountability, Kindness, Forgiveness.  I was completely sincere in everything I said to the woman but the look on her face suggested that she wasn’t expecting that response from me.  She looked confused, shocked, and then having had her feelings validated, and without the need to continue to yell, she left.

I don’t know if I handled this situation correctly.  Someone I shared this story with earlier today expressed concern that my safety may have been in jeopardy if the woman had possessed a weapon or been mentally unbalanced.  Perhaps.  But I also wonder how much power each of us have to diffuse a potentially negative or even violent situation if we can put our egos and fears aside and just treat each other like human beings.

It’s likely that when the woman got wherever she was going, she told somone this story.  It’s likely, that the story started by pointing out something stupid I had done.  But maybe, by choosing to apologize and be accountable, I was able to rewrite the ending of the story and she was able to choose forgiveness instead of carrying that anger around all day .  All I know is that with so much judgement and negativity in the world right now, I didn’t want to add to it.

We are human.  Sometimes we are the person making the illegal left turns.   Sometimes we are the person who yells at the person who just screwed up.  Today I decided to be the person who stopped, listened, apologized, took responsibility, forgave, and let go.

 

 

 

 

I’m shocked that they’re shocked.

I was listening to the radio in the car this morning and heard spokespeople for both the democratic and the republican parties be interviewed in response to Super Tuesday election coverage.  The spokesperson for the democrats said he was “shocked” that Donald Trump was leading the pack of Republican nominees.  The Republican spokesperson said it was “shocking” that a “socialist” should have any influence at all over the Democratic party.   My response?  I’m shocked that they’re shocked.

For at least the past two or three decades, our two party political system has been  breaking down.  Our democracy is supposed to be a government “for the people, by the people” but the deeper we look into both major parties, the more it looks like a government for the corporations, banks, and lobbyists by the politicians who are completely out of touch with their actual constituencies.

Most of what we have heard from our elected leaders has been fear based rhetoric designed to convince Americans that whatever hardship has befallen them is the fault of the “other” party.  Politicians on both sides have lied, cheated, broken the law, manipulated the American people, filibustered, held secret meetings designed to keep their opponents in the dark, been obstructionist, and even shut down the government in the name of “protecting” the American people.

They are caught having affairs as they preach family values, their own teens have gotten pregnant as they pour millions of dollars into abstinence only education.  Our schools and education system have not gotten better, despite spending more per student that most countries in the world.  We are seeing increasing numbers of Americans suffering from decreasing levels of mental health with little to no money being designated to  mental health services for those who cannot afford private treatment.

At the hands of political hypocrisy and power plays we have watched thousands of American soldiers die; hundreds, if not thousands; of American children be poisoned with lead laden water;  and mass shootings happen on an almost daily basis all because politicians are more concerned with towing the party line and catering to the corporations and lobby groups that line their pockets than they actually are with speaking up for what they believe in and trying to address the issues at hand.

With each passing election, more voters have become more disenfranchised and feel less represented by their representatives.  For years, American citizens seemed content to play the blame game and just argue with each other. It seems, though, between wall street and bank bailouts, the government shutdown a few years ago (which nobody benefitted from), the non-stop arguing and tantrums of our congresspeople, and the current attempt to block the supreme court vacancy (and yes, the democrats have done the same thing),  our current politicians have pretty much shown that they do not have the best interests of Americans at heart and they are incapable of actually doing the job they were elected to do.

So should we really be “shocked” that we see a large percentage of voters gravitating away from the establishment candidates who will simply maintain the status quo and moving towards candidates that are at least laying their cards out on the table?  If our political leaders are truly shocked by this then they should really let it be a wake up call that the current system is not working because the current system, IS NOT WORKING!!!

I am not at all shocked that we have found ourselves where we are.  I am sad, disappointed, angry, and frustrated.  But I am not shocked.

Just Stop Talking

Just Stop Talking

A Poem

Maybe we should just stop talking- after all, we disagree.

Should I even listen if you don’t agree with me?

When you say those things that go against what I’ve been taught,

It makes me feel these feelings: anger, sadness, and distraught.

 

When feeling these emotions there’s a strong need to defend

my position (which is right) so that you can comprehend.

After all, I must be right-otherwise that means I’m wrong.

How could that be true when my feelings are SO strong.

 

And yet you are the one who thinks you’re clearly in the know.

It seems there’s nothing left to do but argue to and fro.

It doesn’t really matter WHY you’ve come to hold your view-

though if you were to share that I might think of things anew.

 

If you haven’t shared it’s probably ’cause I haven’t asked.

But if I asked that question I might find myself off task.

The task, of course, at hand is to convince you that I’m right

(and make you feel quite foolish that you haven’t seen the light).

 

This might make you angry- you may even think it’s rude

which explains your coming at me with a pissy attitude.

Now you’re storming off because you say, “Enough’s enough!”

I can’t understand why you must leave in such a huff.

 

I was only pointing out the errors in your thoughts.

People are so touchy when they’re not calling the shots.

What Kind Of Legacy Do You Want To Leave?

When I was a senior in high school I auditioned for a lead role in our school musical.  I didn’t get it.  I auditioned for solos in choirs that were awarded to other people and applied for leadership opportunities that I didn’t get.  I must have lamented about my bad luck to my parents because I remember them saying to me once, “Maybe the universe is trying to tell you it has bigger plans for you.”

I carried that with me for a while, wondering when my “big moment” would arrive.  But as life went on I came to realize that my most rewarding moments were the little ones.  Thoughtful gestures, small acts of kindness, being there for my friends, volunteer opportunities, making somebody smile- it was in these moments that I felt happiest with myself and most connected to my community.

I decided that the universe wasn’t telling me it had something bigger in store- it was telling me that the legacy we leave is not in our grand gestures or public performances but in how we live our small moments every day.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the legacy I want to leave behind when I am eventually gone.  What do I want people to remember about me?  The answer to this question puts everything into perspective for me, clarifies my values, and helps me focus my energy each day on the things that really matter.  If I want to be remembered as being a devoted and loving mother, wife, sister, and daughter then my first priority should be my family.  If I want to be remembered as being a positive person then I need to put myself out there every day in a positive way.  If I want to be remembered as being kind and thoughtful then I should deliberately choose kind words and be mindful of the feelings of others.

That’s not to say that anyone should say or do nice things solely because they want people to think highly of them- but if we think about the kind of legacy we want to leave behind it can help us focus on the values and priorities that are most important to us and help us to not get distracted by life’s minor inconveniences or dragged into other people’s negative drama.

Instead of waiting around for our big moment to shine, why not make every small moment count?  Put yourself out there in a positive way, be kind and thoughtful whenever possible, get to a place of peace and forgiveness as quickly as possible.  Being open minded is good- being empathetic is better.  Try to go 24 hours saying only positive things.  If you have nothing positive to say choose to say nothing.  Make somebody smile.  Express gratitude.  Go out of your way to find a silver lining.  After a while, those silver linings just start jumping out at you.  Create a living legacy of kindess, positivity, and gratitude that others will want to emulate.

We only get one life. We don’t get to choose everything that happens to us in that life but we do get to choose the kind of legacy we want to create now and leave behind when that life comes to a close.  In thinking about how we want to be remembered perhaps we can better choose how we decide to live.

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)

For those who have been following my blog you know that last year was my declared, “Year of Meryl.”  It was a year of self-reflection and following my heart and attempting to choose happiness every day (and being mostly successful).  It was a great year filled with reading, writing, and volunteering.  I discovered new talents, made new friends, and learned a tremendous amount about myself and how I want to approach life going forward.  Over my next four or five blog entries I want to share with you what I got out of my year starting with my most recent ‘aha’ moment.

Back in June I came across this quote from a Leonard Cohen song (which I’m sure comes from another quote somewhere else):

“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”

This quote had a profound impact on me.  I am somewhat of a perfectionist and have extremely high expectations of myself.  Nobody likes to make mistakes but if I feel like I’ve messed up I have a history of being especially hard on myself and while I am a master at forgiving others I have a hard time forgiving myself of even the smallest mistakes.

In thinking about the above quote I have decided to be more accepting of my flaws.  It is okay to not be perfect.  I can work towards being a better person every day while simultaneously giving myself permission to screw up and then forgiving myself when I do.  I think there is a tendency for many people to want to just cover up those things that are considered to be “wrong” with us.  They are the “cracks” in our psyche that bring us back to those dark places, bad memories, or low self-esteem moments- those voices in our heads that tell us we are not good enough or smart enough or attractive enough or successful enough that keep us from trying again.  It is the fear of saying the wrong thing that keeps us from saying anything at all.  There is an instinct to want to just plaster over those cracks, pretend they don’t exist, put on a neutral face and go about our day without actually experiencing anything lest it remind us of something we don’t like about ourselves.  After all, if we don’t let anybody in then we don’t have to acknowledge how those people make us feel.  If we don’t put ourselves out there than we can’t mess up or be rejected.

I don’t think this does us any good.  We cannot have a full human experience of our own without opening ourselves up to the experiences of others.  It limits our capacity for compassion to pretend that others are not suffering just because it makes us feel uncomfortable.   Resenting the good fortune of others makes it much more difficult to be grateful for the blessings in our own lives and less likely to want to share those blessings with others.

I have truly come to believe that our greatest vulnerabilities can be our greatest source of strength.  We can’t avoid having those cracks.  There is no such thing as perfection.   Those imperfections, when we acknowledge them and forgive them in ourselves are our greatest chance to be able to better love and forgive each other.  They can be platforms from which to grow and learn and heal the world if we are willing to use them as a springboard for better understanding ourselves and others.  If we are willing to acknowledge our cracks and let light in we have a chance to become light ourselves.

They Have to Be Carefully Taught

A lot has been written and said in the days since George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin.  I have been reading and listening to a lot of it- voices from all sides weighing in on why the jury made the right or wrong decision; network analysis of the trial; interviews with a jury member; blog entries; the presidential address, etc.  I have heard people blame “bad” Florida laws and say that the killing of Trayvon Martin had nothing to do with race.  I have been listening, and reading, and thinking but have remained decidedly quiet on the topic.

Now, I’m ready to share what I’ve been thinking about.  I want to say too that what I am sharing is merely my opinion, my thoughts – not specifically about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, but about race in general and why so many people are so uncomfortable talking about it, especially in mixed company.  I want to raise the issue of how we talk (or don’t talk) to our children about race and how dangerous our silence is.  You are welcome to agree or respectfully disagree with me and maybe we can even have a productive, honest conversation about a very important subject matter that is not going away any time soon.

This past week I have been reading, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, the 2009 non-fiction book written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  Especially in light of everything that is being written and said about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman I found myself fascinated by Chapter three, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.”  The authors cite a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family which found, “that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, 45% said they’d never, or almost never, discussed race issues with their children.”  However, when broken down by race, the number of white parents who said that they “never, or almost never” talked about race with their kids was 75%- almost three times the number of nonwhite parents who answered the question the same way (pgs.51-52).

The chapter also discusses another study, conducted in 2006 by a doctoral student named Birgitte Vittrup from the University of Texas who specifically recruited Caucasian families with children ages 5-7, to research whether or not watching children’s videos with multicultural story lines have any beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes.  One group in the study was not given any videos to watch but was asked to raise the issue of “racial equality” with their children for five consecutive nights.  Five of the families in this group left the study altogether.  Two of the families told Vittrup that they did not want to point out skin color to their children (pages 48-49).  The reasons that the other families dropped out of the study were not provided but there is an underlying assumption that their reasons were similar to the other families who withdrew.

I have been thinking about these studies.  I was surprised by the statistics and the anecdotes in this chapter.  Could it be that parents are worried that talking to their kids openly and honestly about race, that by bringing up the subject of skin color, it could cause their children to become racist? To me, the idea that by not talking to our children about race they will not notice or think about race (whether positively or negatively) echoes the largely non-proven argument that by talking to kids about sex and birth control they will be more promiscuous.     As a Caucasian parent, I thought I was having the right kinds of conversations about race with my children.  We talk frequently about everyone being equal despite race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.  I tell them to not judge a book by its cover, and that skin color should not be criteria used to choose friends.  We have talked about the Civil Rights movement and slavery and about brave people of all backgrounds who fight for equality.  All this is okay- I don’t think they are bad things to talk about.  But I am realizing that it is not enough.

I have believed for a long time that children have to be carefully taught to hate.  But it is not enough to simply refrain from using derogatory terms or sing the praises of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I think that for some Caucasians talking about race forces us to admit that we are not where we thought we were on this issue.  That we don’t know as much as we should know and that we are not doing as much as we should be doing to move our nation forward.  There is a discomfort in acknowledging that there is a disproportionate percentage of minorities who are socio-economically disadvantaged and that our criminal justice system works largely in favor of light skinned people with financial means.  Most people do not like to think of themselves as racist in anyway.  But I will be the first to admit that my being a progressive and open minded person does not mean that I do not have work to do.  I have been one of those Caucasian moms who sit around a table with other Caucasian moms and talks about how lovely it is that our children are “blind” to the skin color of their classmates.  As if “color blindness” is really the ideal or as if we actually have any idea as to what is actually going on inside our children’s heads.

I was reminded of this a few nights ago while reading to my daughter.  We were reading the story of a Jewish family many years ago living in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia.  There is a picture in the book of a little boy entering his school house and the question posed to me by my five year old was not, “why aren’t there any girls?” but instead, “why is everybody white?”  (So much for color blind.)  I was surprised that she asked this question, but I was excited too because it gave me an opportunity to raise the issue of race in a different way than I had in the past.  I started out by talking about how some countries, some cities, some towns, are more diverse than others and that there are places in the world where the majority of the people have similar skin tones.  Then, I took it a step further.  We talked about how sometimes people don’t get to choose where they live.  For centuries, Jews were pushed into little geographic areas because the rest of the population didn’t want to live among them because they were different.  I told her that this still happens today with lots of groups of people, sometimes based on skin color, for the same reason.  We discussed how sometimes people are afraid or uncomfortable around people who look differently from themselves, or have different religious beliefs.  I asked her to share with me what she already knew about this kind of thing.  My five year old daughter told me that she knew that there was a time in our country that it was against the law for people of different skin colors to be friends or marry each other and that it wasn’t right.  Then she said that she knew there will still places around the world where people did not have equal rights and that this wasn’t right either.  She also told me that she was glad we lived in a town where everybody did not look the same.

This conversation still may not have been perfect but it was definitely a step in the right direction.  I learned that my child is thinking about these issues and that she is observing everything that is going on around her.  She is trying to make sense of the world and figure out how she fits in.  We have to do more than just not teach our children to hate.  We have to take advantage of teachable moments, we have to let our children hear us speaking out in the face of injustice, we need to answer their questions as honestly and thoughtfully as we can and we need to ask them how they feel about these issues.

We also have to ask ourselves why we do not want to talk about this.  What is making us uncomfortable?  What is holding us back?  We have to ask ourselves what our silence tells our children- what permission are we giving them to not care if we give the impression that we don’t care.

There’s more to be said- so I’m going to end this by saying, to be continued.  I need to regroup and think some more about all of it first.  In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.  We need to be talking about this if we hope to make any progress at all.

Maybe what we need is a little less tolerance and a little more empathy…

When I was in high school, my mother took me to see ‘Dancing With Wolves.’  As the theatre lights dimmed and the opening credits appeared on the screen my mother (who had pre-screened the film) leaned in towards me and whispered, “Don’t get too attached to the horse.”

I have always been one of those sensitive souls who seems to feel the pain, joy, sadness, and frustration of others, whether they are a real person, or a fictional animal.  I cannot watch Dumbo without crying because I am imagining that I am the mommy elephant being separated from her baby.  When I saw Monster’s Inc., I really felt the fear of a small child who is afraid of the monsters in her closet.  Despite my overdeveloped sense of empathy (which is at once my best and worst quality), I feel that in general, there is a lack of empathy in this country, which is impeding our ability to move beyond rhetoric and unite as Americans.

It’s important to not confuse empathy with sympathy.  There seem to be a lot of folks out there who ‘feel badly’ for the situations other folks are dealing with.  Sympathy can be a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  Feeling sympathy allows us to feel compassion for others and can lead us to show mercy or extend a helping hand to a person in need.

Empathy goes a step further.  When we feel empathy, we vicariously experience the feelings and thoughts of another.  Through empathy, we can put ourselves in another set of shoes and allow ourselves to step outside our own reality and experience the reality of another individual.  The reason that empathy is so important, in my opinion, is that it allows us to let go of bias and judgement and see a person or an issue from a multi-faceted and broader standpoint.  When we think about an issue or a person from a broader standpoint, we gain a broader understanding of that issue or person.  A broader, more complex understanding of an issue or person, allows for more variables, and requires us to think more deeply (even if it makes us feel uncomfortable for a little while).  Thinking deeply is what opens ourselves up to deeper levels of learning, understanding, humanity, and puts us in a place where we can we can talk about our differences without feeling threatened by them, and potentially come up with some solutions.

I have heard people say that empathy is something we either have or we don’t.  That it cannot be learned.  It does seem to come more naturally to some than to others.  My older daughter, despite being extremely sensitive and emotional when it comes to her own feelings, has tremendous difficulty putting herself in someone else’s shoes, while my younger daughter who is more stoic about showing her own emotions, constantly surprises me by her vicarious responses to the emotions of others.

Whether or not empathy is learned or something we are born with a natural acclivity for, trying to better understand where individuals are coming from- especially individuals with whom we disagree on things- is an area where we can all strive for improvement.

We hear a lot in the media these days about tolerance.  It seems that there is always somebody writing or speaking about the need to be “tolerant” of each other’s differences.  When I hear somebody asking me to “tolerate” somebody else, it really rings of being asked to “humor” them.  We tolerate (or don’t tolerate) behavior from toddlers and puppies, and other entities that just don’t know any better.  Showing “tolerance” doesn’t seem to move us any closer to understanding each other.  Nor does it seem to bring us any closer to creative solutions to difficult issues.

I would rather see people trying to empathize with each other- put ourselves in each other’s shoes, imagine ourselves being raised by each other’s families, with each other’s values.  Think about how our own individual histories and stories have brought us all to the place we are today.  We are products of our life experiences and we all have value and validity.  We are never going to look at the world in exactly the same way.  But if we can expand the way we look at the world, and think about issues in a less dualistic way then it gives us a lot more room to search for common ground and work together to find solutions to the problems that affect us all.

 

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