Archive for September, 2011

Empathy, codes, and ego

September 30, 2011

David Brooks is observing that the popular notion of “empathy” doesn’t seem to be a sufficient basis for helpful behavior.  I don’t disagree with a lot of his descriptions of the unhelpful behavior that goes on under the banner of “empathy,” but I think the problem is that (1) this interpretation of empathy is off, (2) a complicating factor is the protruding ego (of the people behaving under the banner), and (3) (real) empathy is a by-product of willingness (to serve), and as such, leads to what some might call moral action, what I would call behavior that serves a greater good.  Finding the answer in codes I think is what we do when we don’t have our own sense of color and artistic sense of how to achieve the effect we want, and so instead use a color-by-number system.

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The appearance of impropriety

September 30, 2011

I’m enough of a lawyer (member of the bar and all that) to be familiar with the canon of ethics and its concept that we need to avoid even the appearance of impropriety (Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, and all that).

So, in some ways it feels like my wanting other people to split hairs when I get frustrated that some people apparently think I slept with someone I didn’t.  I have no doubt I engaged in behavior that gave the appearance of impropriety, but it was smoke without the fire, so to speak.  The only person who needed to understand that understood that, and I am in many ways content with that limited state of affairs.

But I do find it annoying to have people who think they know something repeat their own misunderstanding as something more, especially when they like to hold themselves out as being particularly morally correct.

Graduation coaches

September 29, 2011

I was reading in my local paper (I can’t find the article in that paper on line, but the same article seems to be here) about a state legislative proposal to have high schools hire graduation coaches to help students in danger of dropping out stay in school.  Other suggestions include revisiting the use of detention and expulsion as punishments to enforce discipline.

I don’t doubt that not having a high school diploma is correlated with serious negative outcomes in the job market, etc., and I’m not against what’s being proposed (in fact, not using tools like suspensions and expulsions that make it harder for students to keep up with school work and feel part of the community makes a lot of sense to me), but it strikes me that the dropping out and the lack of diploma are symptoms of a more primary driver, namely the student’s having become marginalized in the high school community.  While grad coaches probably help ameliorate this issue, maybe examining how kids get marginalized in school, by fellow students, teachers, and administrators, to begin with, should also be addressed.

In the same paper, I read how the interim high school principal told parents, in response to an incident involving some students abusing cold medicine, that such issues can involve not only “‘bad kids.'”  Maybe I’ve misunderstood what thinking lies behind how she couched her point, but to me the use of that kind of nomenclature in and of itself reflects that some kids are marginalized.  I would speculate that kids who are thought of as  “bad kids,” are more likely not to finish school.  Maybe the grad coaches can work with the school administrators, too.

Selecting tomatoes

September 28, 2011

One of my current projects is to deal with what I’ve come to suspect is a hidden assumption on my part that everyone should be (at least, more) like me.

So, I’m in the supermarket with the son who lives with me (the younger), and he’s complaining that he can’t find any tomatoes that don’t have soft spots or moldy spots, etc.  He suggests I take a look while he does the deli counter thing, and I go off and see exactly what he means, and then ask for some (spiritual) help picking out tomatoes from this unpromising looking bunch, and I find my hand guided through the heap and I actually find fairly quickly three that are fine.  Jordan’s happy (and surprised), and no, he doesn’t want to know how I found them, he is clear about letting me know.

I want to sell him on the idea that he too can find good produce if he’d just cultivate his spiritual life.  But I also know he doesn’t want to hear about it — he’ll put on a British accent and start quoting dialogue about The Force, at best, if I don’t let it alone.  So, I realize I need to learn to be more respectful of other people’s ways of living their lives, even if I think it would make mine easier if they would spend more time communicating with the universe at large, and figure out why I’m so keen to proselytize, or whatever it is I want to do.

With some people, the answer to this “why” is that it’s because they want me to do stuff I know is just their particular idea, and I am quite sure that if they consulted beyond their reasoning, they’d come to a different understanding — I think we would get on the same page if that page were what we hear from the universe.  With other people, it’s because I have a difficult time watching them suffer.  And with a set that includes some members of these other groups, it’s that I think they would do even better at what they already do well if they were firing on all cylinders, so to speak.

But I think all of these things reflect my challenge to recognize what I do in my life as just that, what I happen to do in my life.  Writing blog posts, I think, has made me more inclined to discuss it than I otherwise would, or maybe should, do.  Maybe I should declare a moratorium on blog posts about my spiritual life.  I’ve thought of this blog as a way of keeping myself from going on about spiritual things so much in other contexts on the web.  But maybe I should make this blog about something else, and avoid writing about my own spiritual stuff altogether.

Tam Lin, Daphne, the sleeping Princess, and the butterfly

September 27, 2011

I was just listening to Fairport Convention’s “Tam Lin,” and it ends with the implication that this character the Queen of Faeries, or whoever she is, would have “won” in some definitive way if she had taken the opportunity to turn the hero into a tree.

There’s also the story of Daphne being turned into a tree, this time for her protection from Apollo in a way (I once met someone on the island of Crete whose father had arranged for him to be jailed in order to protect him from people who were after him — similar concept, maybe.)

I actually don’t think being turned into a tree is such a permanent and negative thing.  I think it might take more effort for the prince or princess to be reawakened from their slumber, but there’s always a spark that can fanned into growing enlightenment.  Maybe the Daphne story points to how it may not be such a bad thing, and the stories of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White indicate that it may be a passing phase, like a butterfly goes through.  And maybe the Tam Lin version, with its implication about the threat of “Evil” winning out,  represents how a story about transcendence can be reduced to dualism.

Detachment and detachment

September 27, 2011

I’m thinking about the detachment of a spiritually disciplined person and the detachment of someone with a pathological emotional disorder (psychopath, sociopath, whatever we label people when there seems to be no there there).  The difference between the two approaches seems to be whether the seam of detachment includes the bobbin thread of compassion that comes from engagement with something beyond ourselves and makes the detachment only a piece of a greater interaction that includes something positive.

I think about this from time to time because I have known people who do the pathological variety, and it has struck me that maybe they (erroneously) think they’re doing something they should, because they are unaware that they are not engaged with what they’re not engaged with — how do you know you’re missing something when you’re missing it, how do you know what you don’t know, in effect, especially if you’ve arranged for all your feedback from others to be rerouted to your spam folder?  Such people are part of why I harbor such an aversion to the notion of “fake it til you make it” — faking things can be misleading to others — trompe l’oeil is fun to look at but what happens if we try to open the painted window when there’s a fire?

Once I am beyond the reach of such people, though, I can wonder what I think they should do; wear a scarlet letter so people know there’s a sink hole where there should be something positive, that there’s concavity where there should be something convex?  I think I have finally learned that one of the ways of detecting them is that when I interact with them my perception is mirrored back to me upside down and backwards — maybe their perception is that way, too, and that’s how they came to be so maladaptively self-protective.  Because if you’re constantly getting very different outcomes from what you foresee, maybe you become disengaged from the whole project of listening for guidance.  And then I start thinking of the Hubble Space Telescope and how its original mirror was misshapen.  I wonder whether some of us function as lenses that can compensate for such deformities in others and allow the disabled to make spiritual progress, and whether some religious tales have developed to explain what happens when such a lens is shattered by the person whom it is trying to help?  Lucky for everyone involved there are second chances (and even thirds and fourths and so on), but the person doing the helping needs to learn to maintain both their detachment and their compassion while in a complicated hall of mirrors and being buffeted by all kinds of difficult phantasms, as the story of Tam Lin seems to suggest.

Simple future, however vivid

September 26, 2011

I was just reading “Why the Antichrist Matters in Politics,” by Matthew Avery Sutton, in the NYTimes, and I would like to make the simple point that if our present times look like what’s predicted in biblical passages, maybe it’s because those passages were based on people looking into the future and thinking, erroneously, that they were having spiritual experiences.  The content of that future has no particular cosmological significance, from what I can see, that was an over-interpretation of what would more appropriately be viewed as a simple factual description of events.  It’s tantamount to being scared by our own reflections in a mirror.

Passing through without getting stuck

September 25, 2011

The story of Jane Fonda and the bond between her biographer and her are compelling, but I think we should be wary of getting stuck in the drama.  Drama is about ego, about pain and suffering and exhilaration and desire.  When viewed in some ways, it is compelling, but when viewed in others, it ceases to be what we want or even to be interesting, especially if we’ve experienced it firsthand ourselves and know that it doesn’t lead to anything more than more of the same and exhaustion.

When I read something like,

Later I sent her the book I’d written about my family, “Anything Your Little Heart Desires.” She read it and e-mailed me, “You understand.” I took that to mean that she knew I identified with her workaholism and relentless caretaking of loved ones and strays. These are traits that many suicide survivors admit to,

I think, “Oh, that’s illness.  Plenty of people have this profile, with or without being suicide survivors.”

There are ways out of this kind of illness.  We can begin by recognizing that it is an emotional posture, one we might have assumed in an effort to protect ourselves when we have been unprepared in our psyches for an experience.  We can learn to change our posture and heal, but I think we need to recognize it first as something we want to change and not something we need to hold onto.  I worry that the kind of appreciation of the pattern reflected in the op-ed piece makes it more difficult to do this, by in effect rewarding people for possessing it through this kind of portrayal of what is in fact a kind of illness.

Shamans and the speed of light

September 25, 2011

I’m kind of relieved that maybe scientists have found that the speed of light is not as ultimate a bound as they thought.

I read the piece on the PBS NewsHour’s blog and the article in the NYTimes to which it links, and my reaction is, “Well, yes, sending telegrams back in time, or even the plumber or a tow truck back to help out, that’s what shamans do.”  And it would be nice for scientists to be on that same page.

I wonder what, if anything, will happen when they do.

I sometimes think scientists could use a shaman or someone similar to help direct where fruitful paths for research might lie, but we’re all too busy tending to our separate magisteria or attending our own conferences or otherwise keeping ourselves in our separate camps.

Kids and parents

September 25, 2011

As I wrote in my comment to Tom Friedman’s column about wanting leadership in today’s Times, Jonas told me on Friday, in passing, how this kid and that kid and the other kid had told him while they were playmates in elementary school that their parents had told them they couldn’t be friends with him.  The full sentence was, “He told me his parents said he couldn’t be friends with me because I’m black.”  Jonas then went on to say how he didn’t think the kid himself came into this world thinking that way, how he thought it was taught to them by their parents, and on this subject Jonas displays no bitterness or anger (on other subjects I can detect some).  Maybe I need to note that there wasn’t anything in Jonas’s behavior that would have made him an unsuitable playmate at the time, and in fact other parents often volunteered to me how polite and well-behaved he was.

My surprise wasn’t that there was this bias, because that became apparent to me when Jonas got to middle school (for example, when his friends refused to walk with him to school the first day they attended middle school; by high school he reported that only the “druggies” were accepting of him), but that it started so early, that it came from “good” families who purported to have other values, and that it occurred in a town that displays banners about its inclusiveness; and that the parents would agree to play dates but tell their kid he couldn’t be friends with him.

And it’s not that I think my naivete is particularly instructive to anyone, but I put this experience out there to make the point that our society accepts a lot of pretext, pretending, hypocrisy, denial, two-tiered thinking, whatever we want to call it: we don’t do what we say and say what we do, and in fact, I have heard this praised as a form of sophistication.

I raise the issue now in part because it happened to come across my radar the other day and in part because maybe that’s the elephant in the room in Washington that is driving the destruction of our country, and we are all going to sit by and be too polite to even discuss the possibility.   Maybe it’s not about politics and re-elections and differences in philosophy but about racial bias.  How will we ever know?