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Category Archives: empathy

A better word than peace?

Writing books makes you aware of the many things for which we don’t have word, or even a particularly good phrase. My online thesaurus gives me twelve pretty useful synonyms for “worry” but it struggles to provide a single adequate one for peace.

One problem is that we stick this poor five letter word with so many meanings. There is lack of armed conflict (armistice). There is quiet (silence), there is inner peace (enlightenment), there is lack of argument (agreement) and there is actually getting along (harmony). Do we all want peace. Of course we do. What kind?

When I first crafted the 46. Ascending collection in my head, I knew that the first book was going to be about peace, and I knew just what sort of peace I had in mind. I was building something, a concept of the pull and tug of life that tied to colors in my head. (I think in color a lot, sometimes to the point where I suspect I have some sort of mental disorder associated with it.) It looked like this picture below, but without the Microsoft Office Chart feel to it.Yes, my first book was red, the color of war, and it was going to be about peace. It made perfect sense to me because red is the color of blood, the color of heart, and the starting color. You know, red for Aries, the first sign of the zodiac and red for the base chakra and all that.

I knew that the sort of peace I had in mind was tied to empathy, that wonderful quality of being able to put oneself in the shoes of another and feel their fears and pains. Microsoft Office also struggles with words for empathy, suggesting compassion, sympathy and identification, none of which quite do the job.

The word I needed meant this.

A lack of armed conflict or even argument due to the kind of deep understanding that we all would have if we could see into the hearts and minds of others.

Needles to say, I could not find a word or a succinct phrase that came close to capturing the concept.

I’d gotten to this odd place because I was determined to write a book about telepathy, which to me is just empathy on steroids, an actual ability to wear the shoes of another. I was, and still am, fascinated by questions such as: could you harm another person if you were a telepath? Hate them? Kill them? Remember, you’re not just hearing their thoughts; you are feeling their feelings.

There are, of course, some quandaries. What about those doing things so heinous that they must be stopped, no matter what the internal rational? Do real humans do such awful things? Yes, we know that they do, though not nearly as often as entertainment, the news and feuding politicians would have you believe. But yes, I do know that there is a time to fight.

That would become the subject of another book, on the other side of the color wheel. For me, green would become the color of courage, another word which is harder to define than one would think.

 

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2017 in empathy, peace, telepathy, writing, x0

 

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Those Far Away Places Could Be Next Door

I knew when I began my first book that my main character would develop a telepathic link with a woman who lived far away. It didn’t realize that my love for places that are difficult for me to get to would continue on into the remaining five books in the collection, with each book each containing events occurring in a remote part of a different continent. But that is how they turned out.

Two things about far away places appeal to me. One is how different they are. The other is how similar they are. I think I like the second fact even better.

The modern and independent young Nigerian woman I write about in x0 has a run in with her village’s older practitioners of traditional medicine, known as dibias. In order to make her conflict as realistic as I could, I researched the history of traditional medicine in her Igbo culture, and enjoyed what I learned. It did not surprise me that mixed in with the sorts of superstitions that plague humans everywhere, was both wisdom and centuries old knowledge of ways to heal the human body.

I tried to include the point of view of the dibias, and to accord them respect, even while my character was in conflict with them. And yes, I loved learning about the ways of others that were so different than my own.

But I never forgot how half of my story ended up taking place in Nigeria in the first place.

It’s a country I have yet to visit, which makes it an odd setting for a beginning novelist. But I began the book right after taking a new job in the Houston office of a Nigerian company. They were cramped on office space, and several of us were crowded into a large workroom. Most of my co-workers were young Nigerian scientists and engineers and over the ensuing months I became seeped in their conversions, their food, and their memories of home.

Did I hear about things that were exotic to my ears? Occasionally, and some of those are in the book. But far more often what I heard were things like this as they made their phone calls home.

“Yes, mom, I am eating well. I know. Vegetables.”

“Of course I miss you, dear. It’s just that last night you caught me still at work, trying to get something done. I had a big presentation today.”

“You’ve got to pass chemistry. Email me the your review sheet your professor gave you. We’ll go over it together. Tell mom not to worry. I’ll help you.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s the sound of humanity, from my home town and from every one else’s home town in every far away place in the world.

You see, we have our differences, and I think that they are fascinating. But then we have our common ways of showing care and concern for those we love. And I think that commonality is even more amazing. That is why I watch with dismay as the United States turns more towards nationalist politics and embraces a fear of the rest of the world.

I no longer live in Houston. Today, I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, so I was interested to find the John Denver Song “Take me Home Country Roads,” being performed by Playing for Change. I’m a big fan of this multimedia music project that “seeks to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music.”

I can’t help but notice that much of the nationalist movement that concerns me so is being driven by people who live on country roads, just as I do. But a lot of the world lives on country roads, and drives home on them each day to those we care about. We all have that, and so much more, in common.

Enjoy this video of musicians from Japan to Brazil  as they sing “take me home country roads.”

(For more thoughts on Far Away Places see Leaving a Light Footprint in a Far Away Place, Caring About Far Away Places, As Far Away Places Edge Closer  and The Courage to Embrace Those Far Away Places.)

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2017 in empathy, music for peace, Nigeria

 

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A way to wish you joy and peace

sunriseI woke up to this sunrise today,  a reminder that every day brings us a fresh chance to embrace, improve and enjoy this wonderful gift we call life.

It’s been a tough couple of months for me, and for others who want to encourage tolerance and empathy. I’m looking for positive ways to deal with my concerns about the direction in which my country is headed, and I hope that you are too. Lucky for me, my sister, who is full of good ideas, had a suggestion for me.

With her encouragement, I reviewed, edited and sorted through the 159 posts on this blog and put the best of them into a new book called “Face Painting for World Peace.” This short (121 page) volume of essays attempts to be both humorous and thought provoking as it examines what I like to call “intra-species harmony” (aka world peace) from a wide variety of angles.

The eBook is available for FREE on Smashwords, for a short time. Soon it will be published on Amazon as well, and distributed by Barnes & Nobel, Apple and other retailers, at which point I will be required to charge ninety-nine cents. This is not intended to be a money making project; I have pledged to donate half of all proceeds to “Doctors Without Borders”.

Here is the description:

I am passionate about the cause of the world peace. From early 2012 on I have maintained a blog in which I often write about empathy and peace. I have arranged these short essays in book form, to be published for Christmas 2016. A lot has changed in the world over the past four years, but what has not changed is how I continue to cherish time with those I love, and how others do the same throughout the world. This book is my holiday card; my way of wishing hope, joy and peace to every human on earth, with no exceptions.

Please download, please enjoy, and please share with others. Meanwhile, I will try to wake up every day during this coming year, catch a glimpse of that beautiful dawn, and then seek out positive ways to add my voice to the chorus still being sung by those who believe that kindness should guide our politics, our words and our actions. I invite you to sing along, too.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2016 in being better, empathy, peace, writing

 

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Happy International Day of Peace, Lahcen and Najet

The Airbnb site says my hosts at the Riad speak English, French and Spanish along with the local Arabic, but it only takes a few minutes for me to realize that the claim regarding English has been exaggerated. Lahcen, the helpful house manager who greets me, probably does know several hundred words of English, compared to my several dozen words of French and two of Arabic, but his ability to answer my questions is limited. Najet, the cook and custodian who assists him, speaks some French and no English at all. Soon the three of us are communicating with gestures, key phrases and facial expressions, and it’s not going as poorly as you might think.

img_3275Still jet lagged, I get a slow start the next morning and Najet is anxious to begin cleaning my room. I am sitting in the public area getting organized for my day when she gestures to her cleaning equipment and my quarters and gives me a questioning look. I nod my consent. She pauses.

“No douche?” she asks clearly and politely. I’m sure that my eyes widen before I remember that douche is the French word for shower. “No douche aujourd’hui,” I declare, thinking that sometimes even a few words in a common language can make all the difference in the world.

When I return that evening, there are lots of things that I want to ask Lahcen. Is Najet his wife? A relative? Is he from Marrakesh? Is this his full-time job? What does he think of tourists, of Americans? But every time I start talking he nods and smiles and looks confused, which is exactly what I do when I can’t understand someone.

img_3290The next day he volunteers some information. “I love Hollywood,” he tells me. “I love your movies, but I watch them in French.” He shrugs, a little embarrassed. “In English I can’t tell what they say.” And I get that I’m like one of those movies to him. He thinks that he ought to understand me but I talk fast and use idioms and shortcuts and make no sense to him at all.

“I wish my French was half as good as your English,” I reply and I mean it.  I think he understands me for once because he gives me a genuine smile back.

“I think that all of your country should learn Arabic. In school,” he adds. I’m sure my eyes widen at the idea. “And we should all learn English here. In school.” He looks at me hard for signs of comprehension. “If we could understand each other, then we would get along.”

img_3284I get where he is going with this and I have to admit that I like it a lot. I appears that my gracious host is a kindred spirit of mine, someone hoping to bridge the gap between cultures, filling it with empathy and a compassion born of recognizing our common humanity. I lack the vocabulary and the inclination to argue with him about the practicality of his plan, so I just say “I hope it happens.”

When I settle my bill, ready to move on to my next destination, I leave him and Najet a generous tip. He takes my luggage to the cab and speaks to the man in rapid Arabic. I realize that he is using part of my tip to pay my cab fare, which I also notice is a only small fraction of what the cab drivers have been charging me. I appreciate his gesture.

I remember my last encounter with people with whom I could not speak. A few months ago a couple in Portugal named Alberto and Maria helped my husband and I rescue our rental car when it became stuck on a dirt road. A few days later, when I discovered it was “International Day of Peace,” I wrote a post about them, and about how the wordless experience was so intense that Maria and I hugged each other afterwards with tears in our eyes.

img_3304I have enough cultural sensitivity to realize that a hug would be inappropriate with Lahcen, especially in such a public place. But I am equally grateful to him and Najet and I wish them both joy and peace, even if I do not know how to tell him so. I can only nod my thanks to him as we part, two souls seeking the same harmony in a fragmented world.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  That’s Why you Make the Trip, I see ghosts , It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2016 in empathy, peace

 

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Happy International Day of Peace, Alberto and Maria!

Thanks to a crude bomb that just exploded in a dumpster in New York, much of the world learned that the United Nations General Assembly is preparing to convene in New York, as it does it does every year at this time. What much of the world does not know is that at the same time the U.N. sponsors an annual International Day of Peace “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.”

1-multiGiven that I write a blog about world peace, I’m a big fan of this day. This year, I will celebrate it in another country. I’m also a big fan of travel. I believe that war is often (though not always) the result of old grievances and common fears being nurtured and ignited by politicians eager to preserve power and prestige for themselves and wealth for their friends. I recognize that any interaction that results in armed conflict is complicated, and that many people try to do what is best. However, my own reading of history tells me that “bloody few” armed conflicts were ever noble or unavoidable; the only thing they all have in common is that they were bloody.

Those of us not in politics have few ways to steer the human race away from the machinery of war. One of those is travel. As we spend time with others who are currently demonized, or who once were, we learn to question the assumptions about other nations, religions, races, continents, and what ever else you have when you describe “those people” in terms vile enough to make the average citizen believe that they must die. Of course, you can’t just get on a bus or plane and go somewhere. You need to interact.

roadYou need to try to drive up a road that your GPS should never have thought was a road in the first place. You need to try to turn around on a steep, narrow hairpin curve and manage to get your rental car stuck with its nose in the dirt and its ass two feet off the ground while your tires spin. You need to hike down the hill, stand out on a highway, and hope that some decent people will stop and give you a hand.

Odds are they will. If you are lucky, someone like Alberto and Maria will pull over cautiously, looking nervously at their daughter in the back seat. They will see how sweaty and frustrated you are, and ask what is wrong in a language of which you speak only a hundred words quite poorly. You will figure out that they speak no English, but you might manage to convey carro for car and espouso for husband and point up the hill. If you are very lucky Alberto will say “cima?” very clearly, like he cannot believe both the car and husband are up there, and you will recognize his word for “on top of” from your hours with Rosetta Stone and you will nod.

On a good day, Alberto and Maria will take it from there. They will drive their old car up the road that brought you to a standstill, chuckle with sympathy when they see your predicament, and gesture to the two of you to help them lift your car and literally set its rear end down in a better place. While you marvel that it is even possible, it is done. You will try to press some money into their hands, helpless to thank them any other way, and they will not want it, at least not until you insist. Maria will give you a hug and, as she does, you and she will both have tears in your eyes, brought on by the intensity of the exchange you have managed without a single word. They will drive off and you will never see them again.

c_norman_rockwell_do_unto_others_2But later that night, as you read about the ideals of learning to coexist with your fellow humans, you will think of them, and understand how one can travel for world peace.

So, Happy International Day of Peace, Alberto and Maria. May others always treat you with the same kindness that you showed to us. And happy Peace Day, as well, to your seven billion brothers and sisters, most of whom have needed help at least once or twice and, in turn, have helped a stranger or two along their way.

(For more vacation-inspired epiphanies see The Moon Rises on my c3 blog, Our Brand is Crisis on my z2 blog, and That’s Why They Play the Game on my d4 blog.)

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2016 in being better, empathy, peace

 

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Do less harm

Is a course of action better if it results in less harm? Most people would say yes, at least until they are confronted with the reality of the choices made by those who struggle to improve the world without making it perfectly right.

What am I talking about here? Well, drug addiction and educating women in Afghanistan and preventing pedophiles from molesting children and female genital mutilation and pretty much everything else I’d rather not discuss or think about. It turns out that there is a lot of icky stuff in the world, and it’s hard to make it any of it go away.

Enter the British news magazine “The Economist.” It shows up every week, and recently I read about the plight of Aziz Amir, an Afghan cardiologist trying to raise funds for an all-female university in Kabul. Dr. Amir particularly wants to offer medical training to women in a world where many females will risk death rather than visit a male practitioner. He knows that some families who would never allow their daughters to attend a coeducational college might relent and allow them to attend his university. But foreigners are reluctant to support gender-segregated education.

life lessons1I agree with the foreigners. I believe that by studying and working together, young males and females learn to respect each other as human beings. But I also agree with Dr. Amir. He is trying hard to make the world better, in a way that will work. My high-minded ideals matter little in a situation in which many girls will be denied any schooling and many women will not have access to any medical care. The issue seems to me to be about whether I am going to look at this through my own eyes, or through the eyes of the girls of Afghanistan.

A few pages later I was drawn into an article about Stop it Now, a group dedicated to reducing the sexual molestation of children. This practical group runs a hotline for pedophiles, and has been criticized for being “offender friendly”. In fact, the group is trying to understand what can be done to prevent pedophiles from acting on their desires, and getting such information requires talking to potential offenders with compassion, and trying to offer them realistic ways of coping. Other similar groups face related challenges by offering confidentiality to those seeking help.

Of course I agree with those who never, ever want the identity of a child molester to be kept hidden. And yet I understand those who point out that if you take that approach, you have effectively decided not to offer assistance to those seeking ways to behave better. Do you really want to do that?

The issue here seems to me to be about whether I am even capable of looking at the world through the eyes of a potential child molester. Am I?

How about seeing the world through the eyes of parents who would insist on mutilating their own baby daughter’s genitals? I can think of few actions I personally consider more despicable, and yet I have come to learn that these parents accept this religious procedure as necessary to their daughter’s upright moral behavior in later life. Luckily, even a tiny symbolic prick with a knife often will suffice for the parents, but a modern doctor willing to perform such a ceremony is understandably condemned. Unable to find a doctor, the parents then turn to non-medical religious personnel who insist on performing a far more horrific procedure.

It seems like what I am talking about here in every case is harm reduction. So I was surprised when a quick little search showed me that the term harm reduction, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition, is actually “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. Harm Reduction is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.” Those working in this field accept that “licit and illicit drug use is part of our world” and they choose to work to minimize its harmful effects.

wise and quietSo the term harm reduction is about practical ways to improve the lives of drug users? That sounds like, you know, once again looking at the problem through the eyes of the ones you are trying to help.

I’m starting to see a common theme. I can look into my own heart and try to make the world a better place. Or I can dare to experience the world through the heart of another human, one as imperfect as me, and allow myself and others to try improve their bad situation using compassion instead of my personal sense of how the world should be.

It’s that old empathy thing again. It just keeps on showing up everywhere, even in “The Economist.”

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2016 in empathy

 

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Back to Building a World of Telepaths

I’m finally picking up momentum on book six of the 46. Ascending collection. I can always tell because that is when I start to have fun writing the story. I work with a very loose outline, and discovering what it going to really happen in my book is, well, my idea of a good time.

This final book was always suppose to be about all five of the main characters introduced in the previous novels. I joked about writing five prequels and then the real story. I still think that is the way it is going to go, but so far I’m pretty immersed in the telepathy part.

x0 was about empathy and compassion and how sensing others thoughts and feelings would ultimately make for world peace. e5 introduces my first evil telepaths, and I am having too much fun devising what set of circumstances would lead a person to become less empathetic as they learn more of how others feel and think.

emI’m lucky to be close to someone who is in the process of getting her Master’s Degree in Social Work right now, and given my journalism schooling and penchant for writing, I’ve been called upon to proofread a few papers. I enjoy doing it, but can’t help gaining perspective as I read. I am learning more about the concept of privilege  — white, male, western, hetero, cis, wealthy, healthy, pretty, young — there are a lot of variations here — but the concept that I am ordained by God or nature to be better than you seems to hold the key to failing to care about you at all. Why wouldn’t a human who is certain of his (or her) greater importance be deaf to the pain of those lesser? Might they just find it annoying? I think it depends on exactly how superior these people think they are. Maybe if they had a superpower, like telepathy …..

This line of thought has also given me a new lens with which to view current events and with which to better understand history. My husband is reading a biography of Charles Darwin right now, in part because Darwin will also play a role in the book I am writing. He recently read about Darwin’s dismay at economists using his theory of natural selection  to support Thomas Robert Malthus’ economic theory. In a nutshell, Malthus postulated that human population would always grow to exceed the food supply and that the poor and the weak needed to be allowed to starve so that the stronger humans could thrive. It would be an understatement to describe the theory as controversial, but can’t you see vestiges of it in some current policies? 

I like books that make me think.  I like to write books that make me think. I’m glad that just because I make up worlds with superheroes in them doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a good look at humanity and a chance to wonder about what makes it tick.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in empathy, writing

 

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