Perspective Taking

Born a Crime

NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

I’m thinking a lot about empathy lately.  I am less cynical today than I might have been a few months ago, maybe.  I have uttered the words, “People suck” more this year than any other year in my life, perhaps.  But maybe writing about things I’m for rather than things I’m against, or reflecting on things I have learned and am learning, and from whom I’m learning them, has given me some hope.

Another person who gives me hope is Trevor Noah.  I mentioned in the first post of this month that I listened to his book, Born A Crime.  He really is an impressive and worldly young man, and I look forward to following his career and life for a while yet.

The best part about the book is the accents and impressions that Trevor does throughout his reading.  I have not actually read the book, but I am sure that hearing it on Audible is much, much better.  The second best part about the book is the actual book.  It’s a memoir, you must hear it!  In a series of non-chronological and yet expertly woven stories, he describes his childhood and adolescence in South Africa, son of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father.  Apartheid, outright racism, family conflict, domestic abuse and violence, crime, he lived it all.  Any of it would have probably killed me—jumping out of moving cars, for instance.  But he tells it both matter-of-factly, and with tremendous love.  I don’t mean that he loved all the terrible things that happened to him; rather I feel he has a deep and abiding love of humanity.  He accepts that it all happened and made him who he is today; I hear no resentment or bitterness.  He especially reveres his mother, and rightly so, she is a total Badass Mama Goddess.  I won’t give any of it away, you just gotta hear the book, she is UH-MAZING.  She is the best part of the book.

No, actually, the best part of the book is Noah’s ability to convey his understanding of everybody’s perspective in his life.  He translates for us the mindset of his independent mother, his stoic father, his wise grandmother, his friends from various, sometimes opposing, ethnic groups, and his hotheaded stepfather, among others.  At the same time he describes unbelievable atrocities committed by others, he does not vilify them.  There is never a hint of victimhood in a life story full of loss, poverty, and violence.  Hearing his perspective, and then his explanations of various other people’s perspectives, I was reminded that everybody’s point of view is shaped by so many things that I cannot possibly know even a part of it.  Every single human is a product and a manifestation of all of their genes, environment, experiences, and influences.  Every single one of us is unique.  And yet, most of the time, I make assumptions about what other people think, how they feel, what must motivate them, as if I know.  I think we all do this more than we’d like to admit.  I just wrote yesterday about how we humans have the capacity to relate, despite our disparate experiences.  Today I consider the flip side of that, which is ‘othering’ people by ignoring shared humanity, denying that capacity, repressing it.

Trevor Noah practices perspective taking as a routine.  I think that’s what makes him such a gifted comedian.  Comedy shows us our foibles so we might reflect but not so much that we feel shame.  He did this beautifully recently speaking about the migrant caravan from Honduras:

I’ve noticed other news networks in America specifically seem to focus on what the caravan means for America, and less on what the caravan means to the people in the caravan. 

He recalls growing up in South Africa, seeing news about Zimbabwe during the worst times of Robert Mugabe’s rule.  South Africans understood why Zimbabweans were leaving the country and coming to South Africa.  They may or may not have wanted them to come, but they nevertheless related to the motivations for migration.  He contrasts this with how Central American migrants are painted as threatening criminals, coming to pillage and plunder America.  This prevents us from acknowledging our shared humanity, from seeing ourselves in those around us.  It divides us unnecessarily and to the detriment of us all.

I have done a poor job explaining Trevor Noah’s comedic and humanitarian genius.  But seriously, just read (no, listen to!) his book, and watch his Between the Scenes videos on Facebook.  They are uplifting and fun.

Good night!

Decide in Advance

be the lighthouse

NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

It’s the first Sunday of November of an election year.  The political ads are ramping up.  Tension rises; the agitation is inescapable.  Some media would have you believe that one outcome or another is all but inevitable, the world will positively end if one side or the other wins.  I admit, I have felt my share of darkness and despondence at the words and actions of some (many), not just the last two years, but for a long while now.  It’s hard not to feel sucked into an inexorable downward spiral of animosity and rage.

Thankfully, I still hear voices of uplift, words that speak to the optimist and idealist in me.  Let me share some of those voices and words with you here.

* * *

My friend Donna Cameron, an expert on kindness, reminds us that we have a choice, not just on election day, but every day before and after, about how we conduct ourselves with one another:

We have to ask ourselves now, before we know the outcome of the election: Do we want a united country? Are we still capable of coming together to productively and positively address the complex issues that have divided us?

Civility and compassion are not weak. It takes strength to accept loss and move forward with resolve rather than bitterness. It takes strength not strike back when our buttons are pushed or our values are derided. It takes strength to recognize the pain someone else may be feeling and not belittle those feelings or dismiss their right to grieve.

Don’t look to the politicians or pundits to lose—or win—with grace. They’re going to be gloating in victory and blaming in defeat. It’s up to us to model what constructive behavior looks like and to demand it of our elected officials.

But what can we actually do?  How will we know when to act, and what to do in any given circumstance?  Isn’t it just too abstract to say, “practice empathy,” or “be compassionate?”  Maybe.  But if these are values for us, then we can translate them into actions and practice.  Empathy manifests as active listening, holding one’s tongue while hearing someone else’s story, resisting the urge to interrupt and tell our own story.  It means relating to their feelings and expressing understanding and solidarity.  “That sucks, I know that feeling, Me, Too.”  Empathic listening, validating words, and simply sitting with and holding space are good practices to start with.

The Southern Poverty Law Center offers 10 concrete steps to fight hate.  Examples include:

Repair acts of hate-fueled vandalism, as a neighborhood or a community.

Use whatever skills and means you have. Offer your print shop to make fliers. Share your musical talents at a rally. Give your employees the afternoon off to attend.

Report every incident.  Pressure your representatives.

Finally, look for role models.  If you have not read Ari Mahler’s personal account of caring for Robert Bowers in the ER, please click on the link now.  He is ‘the Jewish nurse.’  What would you have done in his place, called to the trauma bay to care for the man who may have just killed members of your family for their religion?

I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?

* * *

Sometimes I wonder if my posts are redundant.  I have decided to think of them as iterative.  Looking back, I found a couple of posts relevant to today, written in similar periods/mindsets of portent, reflection, and seeking.  Right before January 20, 2017, I shared words I had written to friends.

They represent my intentions for managing myself in the coming years, of reinforcing my core values and focusing on my highest aspirations.  As Simon Sinek posted once:  ‘Fight against something, we focus on what we hate.  Fight for something, we focus on what we love.’

Months later I connected with conservative friends in an attempt at mutual understanding. It was not as comforting as I had hoped; I did not really feel heard or understood.  And I learned a lot about managing expectations.

I admit that I felt a little defensive at times, as if anything I said about the origins of my distress would be met with, “You’re overreacting,” and “You’re worried about nothing, please…”  We later agreed that it is never helpful to invalidate someone’s emotional response to a stressor, regardless of whether or not we can relate.

Last week I had a new opportunity to hear a colleague’s conservative point of view on gender.  With practice, I have become so much more comfortable sitting back, listening for understanding, quieting my inner debater.  My urge to counter and convince did not escalate.  I heard earnestness, confusion, some fear, and mostly a desire to understand and integrate, to find balance and peace.  I was not asked for my opinion, and this time I was okay with it.  I hope we can engage again and again in the future.

Today, two days before we all head to the polls (if we have not already—please please vote), we can decide what kind of neighbor, colleague, friend, parent, child, coach, teammate, employee, boss, coworker, and American we want to be.

What if we choose to be the kindest, most empathetic and compassionate ones we have ever known?

Moving On From the Last Two Weeks

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Hello again, friends!  Is this the longest I’ve been away since I started this blog?  Can’t remember, doesn’t matter!  Good to be back!  Hope you all are well. J

I aim to get back in the swing of writing before November’s National Blog Post Month, or NaBloPoMo, as it’s known… I have my list of potential topics all laid out, can’t wait can’t wait!  So here is the first of four weekly posts I hereby commit to attempting in October.

Soooo…  Is anyone else as mentally and emotionally exhausted as I am these past few weeks?  It would take too long to write it all out, and I am really trying hard to get to bed on time these days, so suffice it to say here that it’s been ugly and damanging to many, and we had all better figure out how to move forward lest we eat each other alive.

Throughout the debates on sexual assault, teenage promiscuity, alcohol use, judicial temperament, character, and integrity, I have truly appreciated voices that speak to our higher capacities for connection and understanding.  More specifically, I have sought people on one side of an issue seeking to bridge the gap between theirs and the other.  Now that the deed is done, I look back on the most thoughtful articles, the ones that give me hope for the future of civil discourse.

First, Benjamin Wittes wrote two pieces for The Atlantic.  Initially he laid out how Brett Kavanaugh could present himself such that we Americans could sleep at night with him on the high court.  Despite the impossibility of proving or disproving the allegations against him, Wittes argued, it was his responsibility to convince us that he is truly worthy of the post.  After his rageful and disrespectful performance at the second hearing, Wittes wrote again, expounding on why the judge, despite his legal qualifications, should not be elevated due to his apparent lack of candor and the caveat that would always follow his opinions.  In both pieces, Wittes makes clear that he has no problem with conservatism and Kavanaugh’s jurisprudence.  But as a progressive myself, I felt reassured by Wittes’s words that someone on ‘the other side’ understood my concerns and validated them.

I read a lot of social media posts pointing to the devastating sequelae for men when falsely accused of rape and sexual assault.  I felt gratified to find at least one article reviewing evidence and statistics for this, basically showing that the number is vanishingly low, compared to the incidence of actual sexual assault and violence.  When I post such articles, though, my friends who support Kavanaugh’s nomination are unlikely to read, and more likely to feel I simply ignore their concerns.  So when I found this article, written by Emily Yoffe, a victim of sexual assault herself, advocating due process for the accused, I wanted to share.  I thought that by acknowledging and validating ‘the other side,’ I might open a window for my point of view to enter my “opponents’” minds and prompt consideration.

I admire Senator Murkowski from Alaska, for voting and speaking her mind, pointing us all to the larger picture of the integrity and reputation of our democratic institutions, while also pointing to and maintaining the humanity of all involved.  And then this article by Howard Zinn from 2005 came across my feed this weekend, reminding us citizens of our role in the workings of government and societal progress.

Finally, I was able to unwind with the kids today by watching some Avengers movies.  We like Black Panther in particular, with its epic vistas, futuristic technology, and rich cultural backdrop.  At the end, when King T’Challa addresses the United Nations, his words struck me as exactly what we need across our country and indeed around the world today.  I may print and post them by my bed, to remind myself of how I want to think, speak, and act:

We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

Now is the time, more than any in my life so far, when we must call loudly and desperately on the ‘better angels of our nature.’  How can we manifest them the most radiantly?

 

An Early Resolution

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine—Last Post

It’s December 1 here in Chicago, but I have almost 2 hours before midnight in California, and 5 hours in Hawaii, so I’m still counting this post as on time.  Meh whatever, it’s my blog and I can do what I want—last post for NaBloPoMo 2017, woo hoooooooooo!!

Okay so, when was the last time you gave another driver the finger?  I can’t even remember myself, maybe high school?  Definitely by the end of college I had stopped, and I can honestly say I probably only ever did it a handful of times.  In college I was in a car with friends and the driver cheerily wagged his finger at another car that had cut us off.  He didn’t get angry, but rather acknowledged the rudeness with humor.  At least I thought it was humorous.  So I’ve been doing it ever since—but with varying degrees of good humor.

Last week I was driving to work (you know what’s coming).  As I approached an intersection about 1.5 car lengths behind the sedan in front of me, where we had no stop sign but the cross street did, I could see a car inching out at the corner.  I anticipated that it would try to make a turn after the car in front of me passed, thereby causing me to have to slow down.  Sure enough that’s what happened, and I wagged my finger.  I suppose my intent was to shame, I’m embarrassed to write.  If I were that driver, I might have felt ashamed, and also annoyed at the gesture.  He, in turn, showed me a stiff, straight middle finger, accompanied by an unmistakable expression of the very same message—eye contact and all.

That hurt my feelings, I’m also embarrassed to report.  Not quite sure why I’m embarrassed—because I kind of deserved it, or because we’re not supposed to let stuff like this get to us?  Whatever, it felt bad and I didn’t like it.  After reflecting over the next mile or so, I decided that from now on I will simply treat other drivers with kindness first, regardless of the crazy antics they perpetrate on the roads (and let me tell you, in Chicago it can get pretty crazy).  That is the resolution that makes me feel the best.  And now I’m even more embarrassed and ashamed because this is pretty much how my mom treats all drivers (all people, really) since I can remember.  Well, better late than never.

I’m trying to remember how I came to this conclusion, because it took like quick-drying super glue, and I have abided by it firmly ever since.  I tried to imagine myself in that driver’s place.  What would make me in such a hurry that I would intentionally inconvenience another driver, who has the right of way, to get going just a few seconds sooner?  Was he really late for work, or to see a sick relative in the hospital?  Was he just an impatient driver in general?  Regardless, was my finger wagging helpful to either of us?  Would it make him less likely to do the same thing again?  Maybe it would have been better if I had waved, offered some grace and generosity of spirit?  If I were him, I would certainly appreciate that more than a pompous finger wagging.

Exercising patience and generosity on the roads is easier said than done, though, am I right?  Surely I cannot be the only one challenged by this?  Now that I think more about it, maybe my embarrassment at feeling hurt by his gesture relates to the fact that society tells us in a lot of ways that we’re not supposed to treat other drivers as human—and thus not be affected by them.  Jockey for position, don’t let ‘em in, fuck ‘em.  Stupid gestures should mean nothing, because we’re simply expected to treat one another like garbage.  It feels like this when I let someone in my lane and they don’t wave.  No acknowledgement, no appreciation.  That doesn’t feel good, and it’s not who I am.

Long ago I realized that I almost never need to get anywhere so urgently that I need to cut people off or risk my safety, or that of my passengers, in the car.  Whenever I see someone signaling to get in my lane, I almost always make space for them.  I try to avoid entering intersections I cannot clear, because I hate when cars do that and cause gridlock, especially at rush hour.  But somehow I didn’t see the finger wag as contrary to these other acts of driving courtesy—in this respect I guess I was stuck in the ‘fuck ‘em’ mentality.  So it makes sense that after experiencing the other side, and so emphatically, I realized that the only thing to do for my integrity is to reject that behavior altogether.

So, no more finger wagging.  Maybe I’ll take a deep breath and find some other, more neutral expression?  It feels necessary to acknowledge my own frustration, but not necessarily to project it on the other person.  Maybe I need a mantra.  *Deep breath* “You be safe now.”  *Deep breath* “You do you, I’ll do me.”  *Deep breath* “Thank you for not hitting me.”  *Deep breath* “I remind myself that you are a fellow human being, and we are all here doing the best we can.”  Maybe a more succinct version of that last one.  I’ll work on it.  I’m sure I’ll be working on it for a long time yet.

_ _ _

Thanks to all who have read along this month, it’s been fun!  Now onto holiday cards, each of which I will once again attempt to write by hand this year.  It just feels like the right thing to do, and I get to break out my fun colored pens.  In case I don’t make it back in time, Happy Holidays to all, and best wishes in 2018 and beyond!

Mom Love

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Somehow tonight I got to thinking about all my patients who are moms.  I am filled with love and admiration, and compassion for all of them.  Maybe it was because today that is what I did most—momming.  Chauffer, meal planner, shopper, meal preparer, science project thingy seeker, organizer of the week to come (meal planner, babysitter/transport arranger, meal planner, shopping planner, piano lesson re-scheduler)…

I feel so grateful that I can work part-time.  I accomplish most of these life tasks on days when I’m ‘not working,’ as I used to say.  Now I call them days on which I ‘don’t see patients.’  All moms work; it’s a full time job with intangible and transcendent benefits, as well as hellish hours, often disproportionately low appreciation, and obviously no financial compensation.  Some of you may have seen a popular article this year on the mental workload of moms.  I highly recommend the short read.  Here’s a slightly older article that also includes references to research on the ‘work-home gender gap.’  And I absolutely love this eloquent, hilarious, and heartfelt to tribute to moms from last year, which is basically encapsulated in the first sentence: “I am the person who notices we are running out of toilet paper, and I rock…”

What tugs at my heart the most sometimes are the moms who have chosen to stay at home, giving up, at least temporarily, a fulfilling and meaningful professional career.  So many of them feel conflicted over making this choice, and then shame over feeling conflicted.  Countless times I have heard some version of, “Please don’t think I don’t love my kids, because I LOVE my kids!  …But (sheepishly) being with them 24/7 is so tiring, and I really miss using those other parts of my brain, having conversations with adults, and solving problems that employ my education and training.  But I love my kids, really I do, and I love being with them and I chose this and I know I should feel so grateful that we can afford for me to stay home, I just feel so guilty for ever wanting to be away from them, what good mom wants that??  But I’m so tired, and sometimes (pause) I wonder if I should have kept my job, worked it out somehow?  I never thought I would feel so torn.”  In these encounters I do my best to validate my patients’ choices, to reassure them that in no way do I question their love for their children just because they long for the company of peers and colleagues, and to address the consequences of their inner conflicts on their health and relationships—with self and with others.  I feel sad and angry that anyone would shame a mom for wanting to have a meaningful life outside of momming.

There’s the guilt of the working mom, also—which springs from the same pathological thinking that no good mom would want to be away from her kids.  But somehow these women seem easier to console, in my experience.  They often derive significant meaning from their work, and even if that is not the case, they take pride in providing for their families.  They also often report seeing themselves as role models for their daughters.  Regardless, I hate that these women have to deal with the same social gremlins as their stay-at-home counterparts—that somehow being a mom and having a career are necessarily divergent ideals.  This is an example of a false dichotomy that serves no useful purpose, and causes many of us to suffer unnecessarily.  Thankfully, others have written extensively on solutions; I really like this article on 8 ways to overcome mom guilt, regardless of your W2 status.

In looking up the articles for this post, I also came across this one, addressing the invisible mental workload of men.  I’m so glad I read it, because it reminds me of another fallaciously dichotomous rabbit hole: when we start exploring and addressing women’s challenges, the discussion too easily devolves into man-hating.  I claim my own susceptibility to this mindset, and thankfully this article helps me rein it in.  The same antiquated social pressures that tell women they ‘should’ always want to stay at home also tell men that they ‘should’ always want to be at work, and GAAAGH, it just kills all of our souls, a little at a time.  The author, Josh Levs, writes:

“All women who notice and keep track of their families’ many needs deserve big props and respect for it. So do the men who do this work. It’s crucial, detail-oriented, and never-ending. It makes a home a home.

“For 2017, let’s resolve to put aside misguided gender assumptions and work together to achieve a better balance and healthy work-life integration—for the sake of women and men.”

I wholeheartedly agree.  Let us stop with the guilt trips and shaming, and give all moms, and dads too, all our love for the ‘momming’ we all do!

 

The Movies That Move Us

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NaBloPoMo 2017: Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

The weekend has gone by too fast, and I have done none of the tasks on The List.  Oh well, it’s all good.  I got up this morning and made the green onion pancakes that my daughter loves so much.  We had a very successful shopping binge at Trader Joe’s and Target, woo hooooo!  And in between, we had something of a Christmas movie marathon:

“Love, Actually” (2003)

“The Holiday” (2006)

“While You Were Sleeping” (1995)

I’ve seen each of these movies so many times that I anticipate my favorite lines with giddiness and delight.  But they often end up serving as background on theTV as I accomplish other things.  Today, though, I was able to relax, sit, and watch.  It was touching and emotional, something of a re-centering.

What I love about each movie is how human all the characters are—there is something to relate to for every aspect of humanity in these films.  No one is perfect but all are lovable, all are flawed.  The relationships between characters—siblings, spouses, neighbors, friends, coworkers, parents, children, boy/girlfriends, and ex-es—are all interconnected, interdependent.  Somehow, watching these three movies in a row today, I’m struck by the portrayals of vulnerability, honesty, humility, judgment, love, and commitment, as well as lapses thereof.  It’s all so real, so human.

The hero’s journey is real.  We are all called to our own adventure, inevitably facing challenges and conflicts against our will.  We search for the easy ways out, alternative paths around our problems.  We avoid the hard feelings, the discomfort, the morass.  And then, somehow, we find a way—we meet someone who can help, we marshal our resources, we find the inner strength to do what’s needed, to carry on.  It’s messy and awkward, meandering and stumbling, often also hilarious and worthy of eye rolls and head shakes.  Looking back we find ourselves thinking, “Well why didn’t I just do that in the first place?”  And we can also appreciate the inevitable, valuable learning from the missteps and wrong turns.

Movies are movies, of course, not real life.  They are an escape.  They are also a mirror, as most art is.  They tell our shared stories, remind us of our relationships and connections through time, across nations, between genders and generations.  They’re called “movies” because they are still pictures shown in series to give the illusion of movement.  But perhaps we can think of them as moving us at our core, drawing us nearer to one another through shared experience and imagination.  The best movie experiences leave us a little cracked, a little exposed, a little sensitive—or a lot.  They remind us of our core humanity, inviting us to bring it forth and live it in authenticity.

Many thanks to all those who create and contribute to this art form.  You make us better.

To You Who Hold Me Up

 

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October 27, 2017

My Dear Friend,

Thank you so much for hosting me this week!  Your home is a simple and inspiring space—you have clearly arranged and furnished it according to your core values, and its energy is palpable.  OF COURSE you’d orient the sofa squarely facing the big window and rising sun!

I am so grateful to know you, to enjoy welcoming access to your perspective, your experience, your generosity of spirit, and your willingness to explore the unanswered, the uncertain, the mysterious, the daunting.  Because of friends like you, I am a better version of myself.  I hope I can return the favor in your life.

Until next time—love and hugs–

🙂 ❤ Cathy

***

I wrote this to a particular friend today.  Then came the joyous realization that I have many friends to whom I could write the same.  They live their integrity every day, out loud and in person, with clarity, consistency, and discipline.  How lucky am I to be surrounded by such uplifting forces of nature?  Our shared curiosity saves us from cynicism.  Collective love emboldens us to ask the scary questions and stand strong facing the unknown.

None of us can know what’s coming around the corner.  It’s okay to feel afraid sometimes.  Things might suck rocks for a while.  And in the end, because we know we have one another, we also know we’ll be okay.  We walk together, laugh together, wonder together, and learn together.  We are truly stronger and better together.

How can I help but feel hopeful?