Empathy

comfortOne of my former students recently lamented what she saw as a lack of empathy in the world today. I have to admit that I have been fortunate to have encountered empathetic individuals over and over again. They have taught me how to forget myself and surrender to a state of pure understanding.

Just what is true empathy? The dictionary describes it as an awareness and acceptance of another’s feelings and emotions. In a sense it is the capacity to put oneself into another’s heart. Roman Krznaric, a founding member of The School of Life in London, has described some of the components of empathetic behavior in his book, Six Habits of Highly Empathetic People.

Dr. Krznaric notes that empathetic individuals are usually highly curious about strangers. They are genuinely interested in learning about other people, especially those who seem different from themselves. On my most recent vacation I continually found myself wondering about the men and women that I met along the way, particularly those who lived in tiny towns that appeared to have been forgotten by society. So many rural areas have little or nothing to offer their citizens. Life is a dreary prospect when the local economy is blighted. I saw so many abandoned businesses and factories that may have once provided hope but were now simply ghostly reminders of work that is now more and more difficult to find.

The people who lived in such places looked as though they were somehow trapped in a never ending cycle of want. They sat in front of broken down trailers or homes with littered yards, seemingly having nothing to do even in the middle of a work day. I imagined the dreariness of their lives. I felt that I understood why they might be attracted to the craven promises of politicians promising a way out of their situations. I also saw that they were proud people who would not want my pity. They held their heads high and stared straight at me in defiance.

They reminded me of a family to whom my grandmother had introduced me long ago, a group from the hills of Arkansas who lived in the most primitive conditions that I have ever seen. My grandmother cautioned me to suspend my judgement of them for they were hard working and kind according to her measure. I have never forgotten the way my grandma honored their humble hospitality and the treatment of respect that she insisted that we give them. I suspect that my first experience of empathy came at that moment.

Another empathetic habit is challenging prejudices and finding commonalities. I suspect that this is sometimes difficult for most of us because we rarely leave our own comfort zones. I grew up rather isolated from people who were different from myself. My mom taught at the local Catholic school so that my brothers and I might attend without paying tuition. Most of my classmates were middle class and many had well educated parents. While my family satisfied the government definition of poverty, my mom was adept at hiding that fact from us and the outside world. We fit in not realizing that we were imposters.

As a young woman in my twenties I began to encounter individuals who had experienced life in ways far different from my own. Their parents were classic blue collar types. They cleaned buildings for a living and drove dilapidated old cars. They often lived on the economic edge and had little interest in education. At first I felt as though I had landed on the moon when I met them but eventually I learned a great deal from them. They were not book smart but they had a common sense that made them quite intelligent in the ways of the streets. They were good people who showed me how to relax and enjoy the smaller victories in life. They were the kind of individuals who would not have thought twice about running into a burning building to rescue a puppy. I liked them very much and grew to respect them enormously. I found that in many ways I had more in common with them than with my college educated friends.

Empathy often comes from trying another person’s life. When I was in high school one of my teachers called that walking in someone’s shoes. He urged us to consider others’ circumstances before making judgements. Over time I have been in so many different situations and some of them have been quite dire. There were times when my mother was very ill that I felt abandoned by all of society. I understand what it is like to be responsible for someone and to have every door shut in my face. Along the way I always managed to find kind souls in the most unexpected places, people who held out their hands to help me when I was the most desperate. I learned to share my story and admit to my weaknesses. I realized that none of us are ever able to be all alone. We must sometimes be willing to accept the kindnesses of strangers.

Learning to be empathetic is not that difficult as long as we are ready to just listen. Often all a suffering individual needs is a friendly ear. At those times we don’t even have to actively find solutions to their problems. They only wish us to understand. When action is demanded we should be ready to go the extra mile for them like my long time neighbor and friend, Betty, has always done. It was well known on our little street that her door was open 24/7. Sometimes we didn’t even have to knock if we had a problem. She would see us heading for her door and meet us there, inviting us inside for a cool drink, a bit of dessert and a whole lot of loving wisdom. I suspect that over time Betty has helped countless people with her folksy intuition. I can’t remember a single time that I left her presence without feeling as though I had just conferred with an oracle of Delphi. To this day she is willing to drop everything to make a weary soul feel whole again. She has mastered the art of empathy just by being totally there for whomever seeks an audience.

When we focus on the lives of others rather than our own we are well on our way to becoming empathetic. I have been fortunate to meet many such people and my hope is that my former student will be lucky enough to enjoy such encounters. It is an amazing experience to realize that somebody has looked into your heart and truly understands and loves everything that they see. Each of us has the capacity to be that kind of person. We just have to begin the process by taking one step at a time and risking a suspension of judgement. It is not really that difficult to be empathetic once you get the hang of it and the rewards for being so are immeasurable.

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A Heavenly City

Torrey-Pines-State-Natural-Reserve-California-community-of-La-Jolla-San-Diego-California-1024x682My youngest grandson William sometimes gets lost in the raucous crowd of his fellow grandchildren. There are seven of them in toto, ranging from a second year college student all the way down to a rising fifth grader. They are a good bunch of kids who are all quite polite, bright and hard working. Mike and I decided some years back to give each of them a special vacation with us. Our journeys across America began with a trip to Boston and over time took us to San Francisco, Washington D.C., New York City, Seattle, Canada and a host of national parks, museums and art galleries. At long last it was William’s turn to choose a destination.

After briefly considering a drive along the Atlantic coast or a Florida excursion featuring Miami, he quite surprisingly settled on going to southern California, specifically to San Diego, and he wanted his sister Abby to accompany us. His determination overcame my own misgivings. In all of my years I had never thought of trekking to that city. I’d heard about it from my mom whose descriptions of the place came from a time when our country was embroiled in a world war. I thought of it mainly as a military town that just happens to be on the border of Mexico as well. I found little reason to desire seeing it and my only connection with it was a brief stop over on the tarmac of its airport which allowed me to view the harbor as we landed. I felt that my glimpse of the city was all that I needed and thought no more about this little jewel that is so often forgotten in the shadow of its California siblings like Los Angeles and San Francisco. When William insisted that this was his ultimate destination I concurred but wondered why it had been his choice.

We decided to take our travel trailer on the trip which necessitated a more extended time together than usual. It also allowed us to see the amazing sights along the way to San Diego. We enjoyed so many incredible places and activities as we slowly made our way west that I generally believed that our ultimate goal would be a letdown. I learned soon enough just how wrong I was.

San Diego is a beautiful city with a temperate climate even in the dog days of summer. Almost as soon as we had entered its boundaries we had left behind the soaring heat that had stalked us for days. Instead we were cooled by a constant breeze from the bay. The waters of the Pacific Ocean were an inviting, glimmering blue that shone in the sunlight like a blue topaz. The streets were clean and filled with smiling people who appeared to be participants in a permanent celebration of life. A huge gay pride festival gave way to Comic-Con while we were there. The skies were filled with colorful kites and laughter. The beaches were family friendly with little of the superficial sights of Malibu and enough warmth in the water for a day long love affair with the waves. I felt as though I had found a little paradise.

There are so many things to do in San Diego but William chose the leisurely route. He wanted to tour the U.S.S. Midway and took hours experiencing its many features. Afterwards his only desire was to enjoy a picnic at one of the city’s many parks and to drive along its scenic highways. Along the way we caught a glimpse of the downtown area and smiled at the fans making their way to a Padres game. We cooled our heels in the evening at our campground on Santee Lake, a lovely spot where we felt quite relaxed and happy.

Our premiere enjoyment came from a day at the beach. We had hope to go to La Jolla but our efforts were thwarted by the huge crowds and lack of parking spaces. Instead we discovered Torrey Pines State Park where we rented boogie boards and prepared for the sun with gallons of sunscreen. Mike built an enclosure with a tarp and we spent the rest of that glorious time dancing in the water, walking along the shoreline and watching the birds and the people who had joined us. Somehow our food tasted magically more delicious than usual and our smiles seemed permanently tattooed to our faces. We only grudgingly left when the sun grew dim. We wondered how the hours had ticked by so quickly. We laughed and excitedly talked over one another as we made our way back to our trailer. I knew that the beach had been a hit with William when he struggled to decide whether he had most enjoyed his romp in the ocean or his time in the land of Harry Potter at Universal City.

We decided to forgo a visit to the famous San Diego Zoo when we learned that over a third of the famous landmark is presently under construction and that the entrance fee would be about fifty dollars each. Commentaries from people who had been there warned us that the crowds were brutal and many of the animals spent most of their time sleeping, sometimes in hidden areas. The complaints were so frequent that William declared that he wanted to spend more of his remaining time outside in the invigorating ocean that so inspired and energized us.

We drove to the island of Coronado and explored its beaches and streets filled with quaint homes. We rode a boat into the harbor and marveled at the ships and the San Diego skyline as helicopters and planes flew overhead. We purchased a kite that featured a many colored parrot whose wings flew high above us in the gentle wind. Somehow we all knew that we would always remember that simple moment with the kite soaring aloft under William’s able guidance. Everything around us was perfection. The sky was a brilliant blue devoid of the pollution that had enveloped us in Los Angeles. The air caressed our skin unlike the harsh heat that had seemed to follow us all the way from Texas. The city and the ocean provided a gorgeous backdrop to the fluttering object that seemed as heaven bound as our own spirits. Nothing might have been more perfect and I found myself feeling especially grateful to William for having the foresight to choose San Diego for our once in a lifetime vacation together.

It was with great reluctance that we left San Diego. We all agreed that if we were ever to move to California we would want to live in that wonderful city. All of my preconceived notions about the place were laid to rest. It might possibly be the best of all the wondrous cities in this picturesque state and I plan to return again one day and maybe even bring William with me when I do.

Easy Does It

toleranceI’ve only felt total revulsion for a handful of people in my lifetime. One was a boyfriend that my mother had who was a real true blue racist and emotional abuser. Listening to him spout his political views made my skin crawl. Even worse was the power that he seemed to have over my mom. She eventually rid herself of him but not without a great deal of trauma. Around the same time I also abhorred President Richard Nixon. I sensed that he was a crook long before the rest of the world caught up to my thinking. I suppose that there are moments in everyone’s life when they find themselves in the role of a hater. It was an uncomfortable feeling for me because I generally attempt to find redeeming qualities in virtually every soul that I meet. For some reason those two were so vile that I was unable to open my heart to them.

In spite of my own experience of falling victim to hateful ways I still believe that the vast majority of people worldwide try very hard to be good. For the most part the haters are outliers and yet when we are victimized by them we tend to generalize their evilness to entire populations. The young man who shot up the church in Charleston was a white power deviant who represented only himself and a small group of people who lean to the far right. He in no way was typical of the average white person. The black man who shot five police officers in Dallas had his own set of problems none of which reflect the hearts and minds of African Americans in general. The list goes on and on. Muslims who kill party goers in San Bernadino are actually quite different from the majority of peaceful Muslims who live in our country. The shooter of school children in Connecticut was not a typical gun owner. Criminals and rapists come in all forms. To assert that they are mostly confined to a particular ethnicity is faulty thinking designed to rile unhealthy emotions. Of late so many of our politicians seem intent on making sweeping generalizations designed mainly to feather their own nests rather than to solve our real problems. The divisiveness that they are spreading does little good for any of us and leads to a choosing of sides that has no room for compromise.

We sadly play along with this ridiculousness all too often. If we decide that we don’t like some of President George W. Bush’s actions, we refuse to give him credit for doing anything right. He becomes a caricature that we only view as a lying idiot. If we have problems with President Obama we never allow ourselves to congratulate him even when he in fact does something remarkable. We only note his flaws and mistakes. We assert that haters are going to hate but never put ourselves in that category. We complain that our presidential candidates are ethically challenged but rarely mention our own making our country like the most dysfunctional of families. Perhaps it’s time for each of us to reflect a bit to determine if we are unfairly judging individuals or entire groups. If the recent spate of violent events has proven anything it is that we have problems that will require us to work together and yet we generally continue to carp back and forth. It is long past time for each of us to admit that all humans, including ourselves, are imperfect but rarely all bad. We should save the hatefulness that we dredge up so readily and so often for those who are truly evil.

I recently saw a video on Facebook of rival protestors who took the time to talk with each other and find common ground in the midst of what might have been a heated encounter. They broke through their own preconceived notions and by the end of their discussion they realized that they actually wanted the same things. Instead of being distracted by anger and division they realized that they would be more powerful by joining forces. It was a beautiful sight to see them linking arms and hugging one another. It’s something that I believe we need to try more often because the anger that seems so rampant surely isn’t helping anyone.

The Black Lives Matter group has brought our attention to the concerns that so many of our African American brothers and sisters have. The statistics show that they are far more likely to be stopped by police officers than any other group, often for little or no reason. For a perfectly honest, hard working black man to be killed over a broken tail light is absurd and yet such tragedies do occur. Unless the Black community raises awareness of such injustices we may never truly understand what life is like for people of color. Sadly some of the recent unnecessary killings of innocents or those whose infractions were minor have placed a spotlight on a dirty little secret that most of us never have to endure.

I often invite my former students to visit my home. I should not have to worry about whether those of minority status will be stopped by the police as they travel in my neighborhood but I always do. I warn them to stay within the 30 mile per hour speed limit that is strictly enforced by local law enforcement officers and pray that if for some reason they are targeted they will remain calm and not exacerbate the situation. I can only imagine how their parents feel whenever they go out into the world if I am so nervous for them.

On the other hand, the vast majority of law enforcement officers take grave risks on a daily basis just to keep us from harm. I cannot even imagine how much courage it must take to run into a dangerous situation when the rest of us are fleeing from it. We cannot generalize bad motives to all of them. Instead we need to work to ensure that criminal justice reforms enhance their jobs while extending fairness to all people. Perhaps we need to rethink how best to use their services. It may be time to relieve them from having to worry so much about broken tail lights or past due license tags.

Whenever we find ourselves leaning toward group think we should pause to assess the situation and our own prejudices. It is never healthy to jump to conclusions or accept statements based solely on appearances or alliances. We can’t fall into that kind of trap regardless of how we believe that our problems should be solved.

I remember a time when I took a group of honor students from South Houston Intermediate to Moody Gardens in Galveston. They were exceptionally well behaved and I was quite proud of them especially in comparison to a more middle class set of students who were also there. I was stunned when the employees continuously yelled at my kids for no apparent reason. It was as though they believed that my pupils were bound to create problems simply because of the way they looked. Like me, my principal eventually became so fed up with the workers’ negative attitudes that he reported them to their supervisors. I have never quite gotten over my embarrassment and outrage over the totally unfair treatment that traumatized all of our group. Since my kids were both well behaved and polite the only explanation for what happened was that they were being targeted because of their brown skin.

If anything positive is to come of the horrific days that we have been experiencing it should be a willingness to embrace all good people, which we know is the great majority. It’s time for us to be honest with one another and quit reverting to soundbites, absurdities, propaganda, and stereotyping. We have to consider that most Republicans may actually be nice and that the majority of Democrats have the best of intentions. It’s important for us to dialogue rather than revolt, show tolerance rather than prejudice. If those who would be our leaders can’t seem to work together without casting generalized aspersions on all members of the other side then we citizens need to take the lead. It is important that we not allow ourselves to fall victim to hyperbole regardless from whence it comes. We need to be the kind of people who cross over the lines that divide us to embrace our fellow human beings. We know its the right thing to do.

The City of Angels and Demons

Los_Angeles_-_Echangeur_autoroute_110_105I have just completed a five thousand mile road trip with my husband and two of my grandchildren. It was a glorious adventure that will be forever imprinted on my memory. Together we saw and did wondrous things. This morning I am experiencing the letdown that so often comes with a return to normalcy. It has been three weeks since I was last inside the realm of reality. I managed to avoid the depressing news cycles and the speechifying propaganda of the Republican convention. I suspect that my journey would have exceeded perfection if it had been timed to ignore the Democrat convention as well. If there is one thing that I know for certain it is that a single speech does not define a political animal so I really don’t need to watch the cleverly rehearsed commentaries to decide how to vote in November.

When last I submitted a blog I was on my way to Los Angeles. We were driving through the Mojave Desert from Needles, California, a place so hot and devoid of personality that I had to wonder why anyone ever chose to live there. I noted that it was the home of Spike, one of Snoopy’s brothers, and had to chuckle that it must be a dog’s life in that dry and forlorn place.

By the afternoon we had reached our destination in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area after wandering through a seemingly endless stretch of bone dry land that was nonetheless hauntingly beautiful. Many miles out of the city we caught up with the famous LA traffic that slowed our progress to a disturbing crawl. It felt as though we had somehow found our way into a beehive of uninterrupted activity.

Los Angeles is a behemoth of a city. It stretches in every direction with seven lane highways creating pathways from one part of town to another. Even with such gigantic road systems progress along the roads is slow and deliberate. There is no room for the timid. The landscape is a patchwork of ethnic and economic diversity from the plenty of Wilshire Boulevard to the want of East LA.

We stayed in a campground just past Magic Mountain that harkened to the California of the nineteen fifties. My grandchildren voted it the best of its kind with its two kidney shaped swimming pools and credit card operated laundromat. It lay in the shadow of Santa Clarita where we shopped for provisions and cooled our heels on a Saturday afternoon watching a movie. I remarked at the time that the entire area appeared to be a tender box just waiting for someone to carelessly toss a cigarette or match. I mentally planned an escape route if the place were to suddenly become an inferno. Luckily we did not experience any problems but only one week after our departure an enormous wildfire broke out nearby and it continues to rage to this very day. It seems that my instincts were right on target.

We did the usual touristy things in Los Angeles. We visited Hollywood and even joined a snake-like parade of cars in the drive to see the famous sign that sits on a hill overlooking the city. We saw the Walk of Fame and drove through Beverly Hills. We went to Rodeo Drive and up and down Sunset Boulevard. I suspect that some of the luster chipped away for my grandchildren who found the endless traffic and the multitude of homeless to be quite disturbing.

They were much happier at Universal City where they immersed themselves in the fantasies of moviedom. Under their direction we arose early and arrived at the theme park at 7:30 in the morning. We were able to enjoy the Harry Potter section without crowds and partake of the rides a number of times without much wait. The attraction was indeed as magical as the children had hoped and served to reinstate their interest in this incredible city.

We stayed until the park closed at ten that night. We felt an ecstatic kind of exhaustion that comes after an incomparable day. We had braved roller coaster rides and an hour standing in line to tour the studios. We jumped in fright at a velociraptor and were taken by surprise by a giant Egyptian. We walked through the Walking Dead exhibit with delight and I had to laugh that my grandchildren seemed to be the only youngsters daring enough to do so. All in all the park was well worth the long journey that brought us to this place.

We did not have as much time in Los Angeles as we had hoped. We found that getting from one area to another was far more time consuming than we had imagined it would be. I had hoped to visit the Huntington  Library on our final day but my crew was far too tired to make the trip. Instead we enjoyed the southern California sun at the swimming pool and took in a movie which seemed appropriate given our locale. Our journey to our next destination, San Diego, would take us across the entire north south expanse of the city and with wall to wall traffic that hardly moved we managed to see much more of this famous town.

Los Angeles is definitely a study in contrasts. North Hollywood where I lived for a short time when I was eight appears to have seen better days. Back then it was a middle class enclave with stucco structures much like the one where my family resided. We had a big yard with trees that shaded us from the sun. Our living room boasted a fireplace which was quite exotic to me. I recall riding a bus to school through hilly streets that held lovely structures that appeared to be the domains of the wealthy. Sixty years later the area has lost the luster that I remember from my childhood. It has a run down appearance as though it has been abandoned for greener pastures.

The LA freeways are in constant motion even at midnight. It seems as though the city never sleeps. In the more wealthy areas the streets are manicured and clean. In those where the economically disadvantaged reside there are mountains of trash littering the roads and bright and creative graffiti voicing the frustrations of those who experience want in a land of abundance. It is a vibrant place where one must keep moving just to stay in place. In many ways the city wore us out.

Even though my own home of Houston, Texas is the fourth largest area in the country it is a far cry from Los Angeles in terms of population and the problems that come with ministering to such an enormous number of residents. I found LA to be more than I want to handle at my age. I enjoyed the excitement for awhile but longed for a slower pace by the time that we departed.

Our three days in Los Angeles were wonderful nonetheless and I hope to one day return again. I have to admit that I found LA to be far less beautiful that the northern areas of the state. In spite of the luxurious estates of the rich and famous, Los Angeles still has a kind of gritty feel that evokes images more of the old west than opulent culture. It is a working man’s town where dreams seem likely to come true but often lead to bitter disappointment. It is a place filled with millions of stories that live themselves out while tourists imagine fantasies about what life must be like in this vast expanse. I have to commend anyone willing to try their luck in this city. It’s streets are both paved with gold and filled with dangerous detours but all in all it is a truly amazing place.

City of Faith

Adobe_in_Santa_Fe_at_the_Plaza_-_Hotel_Inn_and_Spa_at_LorettoIn 1610 Spanish missionaries founded a town that would one day become a center of art and culture. Santa Fe means Holy Faith and it must have taken a great remarkable belief to see the possibilities of this desert-like area that lies between mountains. Just as those priests from a foreign land saw something that made them decide to settle in the area, today Santa Fe is a mecca for artists, travelers, authors, retirees and anyone who becomes mesmerized by its haunting beauty.

I find myself wanting to return to Santa Fe again and again. The narrow streets and adobe structures are from another place in time. The lovely buildings center around a tree filled plaza that seems to defy the heat of the summer and cold of the winter. It is a relaxed city where nobody has to conform to a mode of dress or a certain living style. It is one of those places that enlivens the imagination and has many stories to tell. Little wonder that so many have come here to quench their creative thirst.

I always enjoy strolling past the Native Americans with their wares spread on blankets. The artistry of the jewelry, pottery, paintings and other crafts is stunning and the prices are far lower than in the boutiques that dot the area. I especially love the turquoise and silver pieces or those made from shells. Just gazing at the beautiful items is fun in itself.

There is an old style five and dime store that brings back memories of my childhood. Of course there is nothing left today that costs only a nickel or even ten cents but the prices are low and it’s fun just to browse the many varieties that are housed inside. Ironically just down the street are emporiums offering the finest in jewelry, clothing and leather at prices that might require a loan or a splurge with the plastic. It’s fun to walk through and see how the other half lives but rare to find anything affordable.

I enjoy the open air markets where the prices all seem to be low and negotiable. With a keen eye it is possible to find items similar to those found in the finer stores at a fourth of the cost. Even better are the conversations with the friendly sellers who seem to like their work as much as I like visiting their stalls.

I always spend time in the Native American Art and Craft Museum. There is always something exciting to see. This time textiles were featured. For fun visitors got to create their own designs. A short film theater gives a glimpse at future filmmakers and is always thought provoking. The garden is serene and a place for reflection. Somehow is shuts out the sounds of the city and offers a quiet moment to contemplate the true beauty of Santa Fe.

Most people visit the Church of Loretto with its mysterious and perhaps miraculous winding staircase that seems to somehow float upward without the aid of supports or nails. My personal favorite, however, is the Basilica of St. Francis with its life size stations of the cross and a fresco of saints. It is a grand tribute to a saint who I think would have loved the feel of Santa Fe.

We camped just outside of the downtown area on a bluff overlooking the city. At night the lights below twinkled like a fairyland. The warm temperature grew cool and the night sky glowed with stars tempting us to tarry. The tempo of Santa Fe is slow and serene. There seems no reason to hurry. There is far too much to see and rushing around might cause one to miss something.

We enjoyed visiting with the Rainbow Man who offers Native American artifacts in his tiny shop. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the cultures of the Zunis, Hopis and Navajos. Purchasing a kachina comes with a history lesson and a smile as he lovingly says goodbye to his prized items. His store is like a museum and he is the curator.

Not far from Santa Fe are other glorious sights that may be reached in a day’s drive or less. Chaco Canyon, Taos, Albuquerque, pueblos, mountains and festivals abound but I never stray far from the city itself. Something about it is so magical that I hate to leave. My husband likened it to Old San Juan or New Orleans (without Bourbon Street of course.) My granddaughter thought of it as a warmer version of Colorado. Each of us found something to love in this delightful place. The history, the art, the culture and the friendliness of the people make it a destination that everyone should experience at least once. I suggest that setting aside enough time to linger on the plaza and slowly learn the wonder of this glorious place.