theorangeinkblot

Looking at life through orange colored glasses…

Archive for the tag “Opinion”

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.

 

Independent Thinking: It’s like Pilates for your brain.

“It’s not our differences that divide us.  It’s our judgments about each other that do.”

                                             -Margaret J. Wheatley*

Like I said in my previous post (though you don’t need to read it to understand this one), the way I think about the world was sparked by my participation in The Appalachian Semester program (a semester long domestic study program for college students at a small private college in Southeastern Kentucky).   So before I get into my world view, there is one more Kentucky story I need to tell you.

It became apparent very quickly, that belonging to a church was a very important part of life in Southeastern Kentucky.  I got asked on several occasions by students who attended the college that I was visiting which church I belonged to back home which inevitably led to a discussion about my being Jewish.  This generally got one of two reactions.

Reaction 1: You mean don’t have electricity or drive cars or anything? (Actually, that’s Amish.  I’m Jewish.)

Reaction 2: But if you’re not a Christian and you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your savior then you can’t go to Heaven.

Reaction 1 usually became Reaction 2 once I explained what Jewish meant.  Reaction 2 was followed by a very enthusiastic invitation to attend whichever church the individual belonged to.  Maybe they were awarded extra points per person ‘saved,’ as some of the college students I met were very concerned about the future of my soul.

Growing up, I had heard that there were people out there who believed that because I was not a Christian, I was doomed to spend eternity in Hell.   I had made the assumption that anyone who thought that, must be coming from a place of hate- you didn’t relegate to Hell people that you love.  Now, here I stood, face to face, with “the people” I had been warned about.  But I didn’t hear hatred in their voices.  I didn’t see hatred in their eyes.  That’s not to say that there aren’t people walking around with hate in their hearts.  It just wasn’t my experience.  In fact, except for one negative interaction with a woman from a group called ‘The Christian Crusaders’ I found that people were genuinely concerned about me and scared for me.  They wanted me to feel the same comfort and security that they felt through their relationship with Christ.  They were coming, at least in part, from a place of love, and in part, I think, a place of fear.

Being able to understand the intent behind their belief system allowed me to remove judgment from my side of the aisle and see them as individuals.  Despite my disagreeing with their religious beliefs, we shared many similarities. These were college students, just like me; active, service- oriented community members.  They worried about their grades, and were trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they “grew up.”   Our commonalities seemed to outweigh our differences.

This experience got me thinking.   How do we know what we truly believe?  If we just take the belief system we were raised with (be it political or religious) and carry it into adulthood without questioning it, is it really our belief system?  I had extremely strong opinions when I was in high school and college and I was pretty vocal about them.  It wasn’t until I took myself out of my comfort zone that I realized that some of those very strong opinions weren’t my opinions at all.  They were my parents’ opinions.  It had never really occurred to me before then to question what my parents had taught me, but beginning that semester in Kentucky, and for years afterwards, as I experienced life for myself I began to realize that I didn’t believe everything my parents believed.

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Should people take their belief systems out for a test drive?  If so, how does one go about doing that?   When we are young, we are tested constantly by our peers who try to get us to go against “the establishment.”  Whether through peer pressure, or games of Truth or Dare, kids are constantly pushing each other and themselves to test boundaries and see what they can accomplish.  As an example, sit down and watch snowboarding or BMX biking the next time it is on TV.   These young athletes invent all sorts of moves that seem to defy the laws of physics, and they do it by pushing past previously set boundaries to see what is possible.

As we get into adulthood it seems that we are pushed (by our peers and ourselves) to conform to the establishment, instead of against it.  People who operate outside the “norm” are considered “radicals” or “extremists.”  The OWS protesters are “hippies” and Michelle Bachmann is “crazy.”  In my opinion, people who push the boundaries serve a very important purpose in our society.  They force us to actually think about what we believe.  By sparking dialogue they get us to actually talk about the issues that are important to us.  They make us think about where we stand.  The problem comes in when we don’t take the time to understand why we believe what we think we believe, and how we can better communicate that piece to those who stand across the aisle.

As adults, we have the option of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people.  Instead of   encouraging each other to explore alternative points of view, we rile each other up and feel even more justified in our belief system than before.  We also end up feeling more “right” thereby making the other side completely “wrong” in our minds eye.  That works great for politicians trying to gather support from their base, but it completely disregards the valuable life experiences that we have all had that are at the roots of our belief systems.

If our system of values does, in fact, originate in our childhoods, then it makes perfect sense that our belief systems are different.  We live in an extremely diverse country with many different cultures, religions, and geographic topographies.  Just based on geography alone- whether you were raised in the mountains, near an ocean, or in the desert, changes the things that you value.  Once you throw religion, ethnic background, and socio-economic circumstances into the mix- it’s amazing that any of us have anything in common at all.  We are never all going to believe the same thing.  People have tried throughout history to make us all the same- The Crusades, The Holocaust, the recent genocides in Darfur and around the world.  It has never worked, and it will never work.

My belief in God is fluid.  I believe in something that cannot so easily be defined.  But even if we all believed that we were all created in God’s image that does not mean that God intended for us to all be carbon copies of each other.  If you believe that God created a wide diversity of plants and animals, and widely varying geography, and temporal climates, then why is it so hard to believe that he also purposely created an amazingly diverse population of people with a wide variety of abilities, talents, beliefs, and opinions?

I was born Jewish in New York.  But what if I had been born Muslim in Michigan or Buddhist in China?  In some ways, the initial set of beliefs that we get are random.  We are born at the starting line and given some general rules to live by while we figure the whole thing out for ourselves.  But I don’t believe that we are required or expected to die living by the same exact rules that we start with.  To me, that would mean that we didn’t learn anything along the way.

So how do we put our belief system to the test?  By actually putting ourselves in positions where we have to think about something that is not in our area of expertise.  Here is an example of how I try to test my own boundaries:

A friend of mine is a very active member of her evangelical church.  A few months back she posted on Facebook an audio track of a sermon her clergy member had given during services.  She asked people to listen to it as she felt strongly that there was a very important message about misconceptions that people have about Christians.  I wasn’t sure, being Jewish, that there was a whole lot I could learn from an evangelical preacher, but I decided to give it a listen.  The preacher was saying that there are folks out there who call themselves Christian but perhaps do not act in such a way that personifies true Christian beliefs (for example, people who resort to violence, or who are hypocritical in their actions).  He said that some people might look at those people and generalize about all Christians.   Christians, he said, (and I am summarizing, not quoting) do not want to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  And it was frustrating to him that these were the “Christians” garnering the most media attention.

I thought about this for a while and decided that I agree with him.  I agree so strongly that I’m taking it a step further.  NOBODY wants to be represented by the lowest common denominator.  Whether you are one of the millions of peaceful Muslims being poorly represented by a much smaller group of violent Muslims, or a Jew who does not want to be represented by a small group of ultra-Orthodox who hurl insults at children as they walk to school, we are all individuals who deserve to be judged based on our individual merits and if we are not privy to each other’s individual merits then we should just withhold judgment altogether.   It turns out I did have something to gain by listening to an evangelical preacher after all.

Change is hard and can be scary.  For some people, change only comes as a result of a life altering experience- serious illness or injury, or a great loss, for example.  For most people, I think change is a slow and gradual process brought on by our interactions in the world.  I believe that the greater our interactions and willingness to step outside our little boxes, so grows our capacity for change and our capacity for human understanding.  Perhaps if we approached each other with curiosity instead of with fear and anger, we could find a place where we could have a real conversation.

I think there is a danger in becoming complacent.  On a National level, we have reached a point where we have stopped listening to each other all together.  People seem to want to be heard- they are taking their issues very public- to Facebook, blogs, television, and campaign trails. But despite all the noise we are making, we are not hearing each other very well.

There are personal implications as well.  How many times have we sat at our desk at work, or lay awake at night staring at the ceiling and thought, “I’m in a rut” or “I thought my life would be different than this.”  We might even project our discontent onto other people thinking that our boss, coworkers, spouse, or children are to blame.  Maybe we are feeling that way because we have stopped listening to our own little voice.  We are tired and burnt out and busy doing a hundred different things- many of them things that we maybe don’t want to be doing at all.

So, faithful readers, I am issuing you a challenge- a truth or dare opportunity- if you choose to accept it.  I dare you to step out of your comfort zone and try something new for 30 days.  It can be anything.   Read a newspaper that you find to be biased against your typical point of view and see if you learn anything.  Try a new exercise program.  Visit a house of worship different from your own.  When you start to get that “I’m not so sure about this” feeling, just go with it.  Let your brain actually think about it instead of going straight to that place of anger or resistance.  Try something new for a month and see if it changes your thought process at all.

And just to prove to you that I wouldn’t ask you to do something that I’m not willing to do myself, I have already started.  I have always been curious about the vegetarian lifestyle and have decided to go both vegetarian and dairy free for 30 days.  (Today is day four.)  I want to see if the experience changes the way I think about what I put in my body, or where my food is coming from.  I am already learning (I’m sure you’ll be reading all about it in a future blog) and life is a little more interesting than it was four days ago.

If you decide to take me up on my challenge, I would love to hear about it.  If you think that everything I’ve written is a bunch of malarkey, that’s okay too.  My belief system does not have to be your belief system, nor is it a threat to your belief system.  If you have taken even one thing from what I have written (like I did from the evangelical sermon) then I would encourage you to share this post and get some real conversation rolling.  Thanks for reading!

*Quotation is from Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future Berrett-Koehler Publishers; First Edition (January 9, 2002)

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