Archive for December, 2011

Conservative support

December 31, 2011

I didn’t understand David Brooks’s column today.  I started reading some of the later comments just now, and got some sense of what it meant to some people.

If it’s about how conservatives can be supportive, not just liberals, or moreso than liberals, well, I’m not buying that it’s a particularly helpful way of analyzing who helps who and why.  And if that is the point of the column, we are, as my deceased spouse would have put it, in violent agreement.

But I am tired of help based on a set of emotional motives involving attachments being paraded as altruism.  Especially because it is unreliable and selective.  I guess I think that focus on particular cases in this way keeps us from reforming our ways so we actually include everybody in our help.  In addition to being based on motives that don’t support sufficient generalization of the behavior, our usual approach also allows us to congratulate ourselves on doing only an imitation of what we should be doing, as if we were doing the real thing.


Cotton candy

December 29, 2011

I was thinking the other day

that sometimes what we usually mean by “our lives”

looks like synchronicity spun around our respective egos

like the way they make cotton candy.



“No, thank you,” revisited

December 29, 2011

I wrote a post a week ago about people who decline to do their share when it seems to be their turn, analogous to asking for the bill in a restaurant and then giving it back (unpaid).

After reading about contexts in which cluelessness might be more relevant than intentional negative behavior (linked to in this post, fifth paragraph), I wanted to revise what I said, and suggest that maybe there are contexts in which what feels like getting stiffed is more like what happens when the other person has a completely different understanding of prior interactions.

The components of “empathy”

December 28, 2011

I have the impression that I am not au courant with what people mean when they use the word “empathy,” so I may be examining here something that should be given a different label, but it is, at the very least, the point of departure for my thinking.

I think about this subject as an adult in part because I have finally figured out that one of the reasons I often find myself in difficult relationships is that I was taught to regard people without empathy as no different from people with empathy — both sets were to be treated the same and as normal, even if in fact the dynamics of the relationships with each set bore no resemblance to each other.  So, I have had unrealistic expectations of long-standing about people.

On top of this, the people without empathy and who also had other issues behaved in ways that I found damaging to me, and this subset of people without empathy has loomed larger in my life than the subset of people without empathy who would be aghast to discover they had inadvertently caused damage or harm.  So, I have probably developed an aversion to dealing with people who have difficulty with empathy, and I know I have a developed coping mechanisms to deal with one subset of them that may actually not be appropriate for dealing with other subsets of them, only I’m too tired of incurring the damage that seems to come with interacting enough to find out to which group a person belongs, especially since for me the type who persist in damage even when given feedback have predominated in my life (this type I think is often labeled “narcissistic” or something similar).  I tend to cut and run when it looks to me as if the pattern is repeating with a new person.

But I am wondering whether for people who have trouble with empathy but really would like to behave more like people who have it, it is worth my while to try to figure out what happens when the relationship seems to founder over a lack of empathy, and how that might be helped.

The NYTimes articles on the couple with Asperger’s trying to negotiate a romantic relationship and one on Mitt Romney’s awkward conversational gambits have led me to try to tease apart a number of the strands that seem to be involved.

If Person A steps into the shoes of Person B, all that really has to mean, I suppose, is that they have picked up some information, not what emotional aura they may have cloaked it with.  It is quite possible that most of us empathizers immediately jump to a common emotional cloak for the same information: Person B is distraught, therefore I feel a certain way about them, out of which arises my desire to comfort them, which I can then can go about doing with one of the behaviors I am familiar with that accomplishes that goal.  If Person A (the “I” here) does this almost instantaneously, the whole thing may get labeled an empathetic response.

But the information that the distress exists is actually separate from the other pieces (and of course reading the distress in the first place is a whole other kettle of fish).  A person could have trouble with attaching emotional aura and thence consequent response to their perception of the other person’s distress (including helpful behavioral strategies for reaching a goal of resolution).  They could need a point by point road map for what for others is almost an intuitive linear route from perception to behavior.  I’ve known people who have required me to explain exactly how their body weight squishing my arm at an angle against the couch hurts before they can figure out to reconfigure what they’re doing (with the dogs, I think “Move” was the operative command, with more intuitive people, “Ouch” would suffice).

So, I guess I’m wondering with people who are said to “lack empathy,” which of these components are compromised.  And then there’s what to do about it.  Because it can be hard for me to step into their shoes to figure out their view of me — how do I figure out what their reaction to me should be and then explain that to them in little increments?  I’ve had people ask me to do that very thing, but those people have, at least in the past, all been people who would not use that information to behave any differently in the future or even then — for them, it turned out to be just a way to learn what behaviors to fake in the future, and so I eventually refused (not just to continue supplying information, but to continue interacting with them).  But if I had the impression that explaining more, even if it’s just from my point of view, would actually help the relationship proceed in a way helpful to both them and me, I would probably try it again and continue it for longer.  Although at this point in my life it would take a huge leap of faith in the face of many attempts at this that turned out to be futile — being able to parse the other person’s good will unequivocally would probably be a big help to me.

Gifts, bargains, and paying full price

December 28, 2011

I was thinking this afternoon about how much trouble I have with bargaining.  Jeannette (who makes necklaces for me on occasion) assumes we are bargaining — she’s from a part of the world where that is the norm.  I have trouble with that, but that’s more like awkwardness in not really knowing the unstated rules she uses.

But there’s, I think, a more interesting problem I’ve noticed.  I can decide I’m okay with buying something at the price being asked, or, in another context, I can decide (and be fine with the decision) to do something for another person without expecting or wanting something in return.  But when a situation is somewhere inbetween, I get into trouble.  Maybe it’s that a “gift,” including a donation of services or even something more nebulous like emotional support, comes out of one mind-set, and negotiating for something in return, even when initially I would have been fine without receiving anything, comes out of a different emotional orientation.  The relationship between the two scenarios comes up often enough in my life that I’m suspecting it’s one of those challenges I am being given multiple opportunities to work on.

What I am struggling with is how to take something that I could have done as a charitable gift and do it as a bargain I’m not especially comfortable with.  The interaction is clearly different, the kind of participation is clearly different.  Why is it that accepting half a loaf sometimes feels worse than eschewing any part of a loaf?  There’s probably a simple answer to this, but apparently I’m not there yet, much less arriving at a perspective that makes this kind of shift acceptable.


December 27, 2011

So I was thinking not too long ago, I think because people often ask me if I’ve gotten another dog yet, that maybe it would be nice to have a bunny as my next pet, when I feel inspired to acquire one.

On the way home from Christmas dinner, it comes up that Irene has a friend who has a rabbit and is interested in finding a new home for it.

My younger son is cautioning me not only not to do it, but also not to even meet the bunny, because then, he figures, I will have a very hard time resisting welcoming it into our home.

Well, he’s right about the second part, that’s how we ended up with the very large and very difficult poodle in our lives.

I’ve emailed the owner to ask about what rabbit care entails.  Maybe I shouldn’t’ve even gone that far.

Animals without ego

December 26, 2011

I really am not sure what people have in mind when they say people with Asperger’s are able to stand in the shoes (?) of an animal, but since it apparently gets contrasted with standing in the shoes of another person, I am going to wonder aloud whether what they are talking about is the lack of “ego” present in an animal, as contrasted with the “ego” of a human being.  Ego structures make it more difficult to climb up to the higher level of the (human or otherwise) animal’s consciousness, and if people with Asperger’s stumble over other people’s ego structures, it would make a lot of sense to me that they find it vastly more comfortable to interact with an animal without one.  What they might then be observing is simply that they can find some part of the animal to relate to that is more hidden from them in a person.  This would not necessarily be about an increased capacity to relate to animals, it could be rather about the openness of animals that makes it easy for all of us to relate to their capacity for being cleaner or clearer conduits of higher energies.  I really don’t know if this is what is going on, but if someone is asking me for a competing explanation, this would be my thinking, at least as far as it has gotten.

Empathy with animals

December 26, 2011

I am trying to figure out how to harmonize the claim in one part of the NYTimes front page article about “people with Asperger’s” that “People with autism, Dr. Grandin suggested, can more easily put themselves in the shoes of an animal than in those of another person because of their sensory-oriented and visual thought process,” with the last part of the piece, in which the protagonists are requiring a cat to chase a laser beam and wondering about whether it is smart enough to recognize its reflection in a mirror.  I don’t see the behavior as consistent with “put[ting] themselves in the shoes of an animal,” let alone having an increased facility for doing so.  Dr. Grandin’s fascination with cow slaughtering I have never understood, either, for that matter.  These kinds of apparent inconsistencies leave me with the impression that we have no idea what we are trying to map, and we exchange one set of biases and inaccurate model for another.  Maybe eventually we will have a more objective understanding of what the symptoms we can observe arise out of, of the rest of the iceberg beneath the water, so to speak.

Holiday eating

December 25, 2011

I have thought for a long time that one way I can tell when I’ve been celebrating a holiday is from the telltale signs of having overeaten — for me the two go hand in hand.  I’ve always assumed it was tied to actually celebrating the holiday, so I am puzzling over having overeaten today at a friend’s family Christmas dinner (and having enjoyed it thoroughly) without actually thinking I was celebrating the holiday — I sort of assumed I was a tag-along, not really a participant.  I’m wondering whether the system is transitive, if by engaging in the meal I am actually participating in the holiday.

Thank-you note

December 24, 2011

Where are my manners?

(I actually recently photocopied a few pages of our 1956 edition of Emily Post for someone I know who wanted to know how to address the minister of a church, so I am not above consulting the codes.  Here’s something I think is probably not covered by such things, and I guessed at: this person who asked about how to address the minister has had the same kind of very aggressive cancer my husband died of within weeks of being diagnosed.  He’s talked to me about his cancer and treatment and I’ve watched him go through the impacts of his treatments.  He’s better now.  He knows my husband died of cancer.  I’ve never told him it was the same kind.)

Anyway, I wanted to thank my friends at the NYTimes for sending me links to my comments in their old-style format (my computer would thank you too if it had the wherewithal) — it always makes me smile and feel welcome — and for all their other kindnesses, as well.  They do not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

‘Tis the season, hope it’s a happy one for all,