Tag Archives: empathy

What we see… (Part I)

14 Oct


Imagine that you live in a house with a window that looks out on the view above. I suspect, whether you would prefer oceans or mountains or woods or city scape, most of you would think this view is a pretty good one. Beautiful, in fact. As you look at it, what do you notice? The mountains in the background? The pond? The trees and expanse of green? The sunset glow? How might it make you feel to be sitting in your own house looking out at that view? Would you enjoy and take comfort from such a view?

Now let us consider some of the aspects of that landscape that might not be apparent from this window. Might there be deadly-disease-carrying mosquitoes around the pond? Ticks in the grass? Poisonous mushrooms growing under those trees? Hornets nests? Snakes? Wolves or coyotes or bears that could attack if you went out, or gobble up one of your pets? Maybe a fast-moving storm with lightning that would start a wildfire in the woods? Are any of these things likely to come immediately to mind on looking out this window?

 

If you were to say yes, those are exactly the sorts of thoughts such a view would engender, I might advise you to start looking for a good therapist. It’s true that any of those things might be in the world outside that window, in fact some of them almost certainly are, but to perceive mostly threats in a view of such calm and beauty would suggest an unhealthy level of paranoia.

Now think about the other kinds of windows in our world:  television, email, Face Book and Twitter feeds, cell phones, or even, here or there a newspaper. And think about the view they show us of the world just outside, or maybe beyond (or even very, very far beyond) our immediate surroundings. There is so much focus on the threats, whether there is anything we can do about them or not, that it’s difficult to see anything else. Statistics show levels of anxiety and depression skyrocketing in many or most of what are called “the developed” countries. If every time you looked at the scene above you could see only images of ticks and predators and wildfires, why wouldn’t you be anxious and depressed?

Some years ago I gave a talk about “Good News” at NAGC. Back then it was possible, with some persistent searching, to find compilations of positive stories from around the world, in spite of the “if it bleeds it leads” pattern of news programming. One major network in the United States (I believe it was ABC then) had newly decided to end each half hour national news program with one short positive story. Others now have taken up that policy. Most of these short positive stories actually take fewer minutes from the allotted broadcast time than a single commercial break, while before that final story, almost every other segment tells of catastrophe, violence, political struggle, warfare, medical threat, injustice, accident, mass shooting, storms, earthquakes, or other horrors. And now “the news” provided by our media, isn’t only half an hour in the evening; it’s 24/7 and very difficult to avoid.

Parents who attempt to limit their children’s exposure to this kind of news coverage are fighting a losing battle once the kids start school or get their own phones. And the brighter kids are the earlier they begin to take an interest in what goes on outside their own homes or neighborhoods. It isn’t that this is an entirely new phenomenon. When our older boys were kids, one of them came into the living room one night when we happened to be watching an old war movie. He started to tell us something and then said, “Never mind, I can tell you after the news is over.” During his whole lifetime the evening news had devoted much of its air time to the war in Vietnam.

But now it is next to impossible to escape being deluged with the worst of human experience, no matter where it is happening in the world. I remember when parents were advised to tell their children, when there was shocking news from the other side of the world, “Don’t worry, it isn’t happening here.” And I pointed out to parents then that gifted kids know that much of this isn’t happening here, but it isn’t themselves and their own families they are worried about. They worry about kids wherever they may be threatened, even on the other side of the world. And they worry about the apparent depravity of the human species, especially when that is very nearly all they “see” out the technological windows on the world.

And of course, now, they hear about every school shooting and instead of the “duck and cover” nonsense method my generation was given in school to protect ourselves from a nuclear bomb, they are given “active shooter” drills from kindergarten on. In addition, along with Greta Thunberg, they worry about the fate of the planet they are going to inherit. “Will there still be a world for me to grow up in?” many of them are asking. And it can be especially scary when they see that much of our culture goes on as if none of this were happening.

If “what you see is what you get,” we need to consider not just what we see, but how we look. It is possible to focus more attention on what is going right. We can begin the effort to see beauty and caring and the willingness to help.

Instead of focusing on how much school violence there has been, we could, for instance, use the resources of the internet to estimate how many schools there are in this country and consider how many kids, therefore, have not faced gun violence in their schools. It doesn’t diminish the tragedy of what has happened, of course, or the need for positive change—it just helps change our perspective. We’re told it is foolish to say “It can’t happen here,” but it’s also foolish to allow every child to set out for school expecting that at any moment it may happen here,

Both parents and schools can make a constant, serious, and determined effort to find and report to our kids (and show them how to go looking for) stories of the massive efforts on the part of real humans to counteract the threats that exist in the world. Focus whenever and wherever possible on the other aspects of the view through our windows. There are organizations formed to work on most of the problems we face. As Mr. Rogers’s mother told him, watch the helpers. For every story of catastrophe there are more stories (though not always as easy to find) of individuals, organizations, often massive nationwide efforts to help. Encourage kids to find ways they, too, can get involved.

Studies were done back during the Cold War when the threat of a Russian nuclear first strike made the possibility of nuclear winter and human extinction seemed very, very real, that showed children whose parents had themselves become involved in organizations working for peace were less likely to be afraid than children whose parents only watched the news and talked about it. Any actual action, no matter how small, gave their children a sense of hope and possibility. Often, now, it is kids who are pushing the adults to do something! We need to encourage that and join them when we can.

How we choose to look has a great deal to do with what we see, of course. It is not denial to change our focus to find the best in humanity, and more often than not turn off the news that focuses on the worst.

Part II of this post will come soon…

P.S. New addition: Here is one of the “good news” sources: https://www.findhorn.org/programmes/an-introduction-to-project-drawdown/

 

 “The flowers and the candles are for protection.”

18 Nov

flowers-candlesI myself was protected last weekend by being out of touch with television and the social media at the NAGC convention in Phoenix.  I was lucky enough to see not a single image from Paris until I got home on Sunday night, by which time memorials had sprung up at every site of the violence.

The title of this post will be readily recognized as a quotation from a video interview that went viral—with more than 14 million views on social media. In case you haven’t seen it, a father and his very young son were being interviewed in Paris at one of the sites where those lost in a bombing on Friday were being memorialized with banks of flowers and hundreds of candles.  The boy was very much afraid of the “mean people with guns.”

“We have flowers,” his father told him. The boy began to protest about the effects of mere flowers, but the father assured him that they were protection. Flowers and candles. The boy looked for a time at the banks of flowers and candles, and gradually his face relaxed. “For protection,” he repeated. When the interviewer asked if that idea made him feel better, he nodded. “I feel better,” he said.

In a powerful way, that father was right. The purpose of the terrorists is to spread fear, and at first, for that child, as for so many others, they had succeeded in their mission. The little boy wanted to move to a new home, a place safe from mean people with guns. “Paris is our home,” his father told him, and said that there are mean people everywhere. But in telling him that the flowers were protection, he showed his son the absolute truth that there are many people—vastly more than the paltry number of terrorists on this planet—who care.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said that his mother told him when he was a child and upset (as so many sensitive kids are) about news from some disaster, that instead of paying attention to the disaster, he should “watch the people who come to help—there are always people who come to help.”

A great many of the children we work with and care about are deeply empathic, feeling the pain of others, and easily overwhelmed by news of man’s inhumanity to man, of images of what “mean people” do in the world. How do we help them (and ourselves) deal with the chaos we see around us? Far more dangerous to a child than the possibility of a terrorist attack is an ingrained fear of other humans and a world of random violence. How do we protect them from the terror that is being purposely unleashed in our world today by people who themselves are terrorized by what they perceive to be massive world powers ranged against them?

By seeing, really seeing, under, over, past and around the images of death and destruction that the media insist on pouring into the atmosphere of this interconnected world.  By focusing on the vast majority—on the helpers, on those who bring candles and flowers.  We can think of every candle as “the light of truth” and every flower as a symbol not just of love and caring, but of the beauty of life itself.

When fear is being ratcheted up around the world not just by the terrorists and their guns and bombs, but by the news media that continually push those images on us, warning us that this sort of horror could happen anywhere at any time we can focus differently, and use our very good minds to support us. The numbers are on our side!

There’s an Allstate ad that says, “Man-eating sharks live in every ocean, but we still swim. Lightning strikes somewhere in the world, but we still play in the rain. So many things can happen. However, bad things in life can’t stop us from making our lives good. People live for good…”

While we tend to think of insurance companies intentionally frightening us to get us to buy their product, consider for a moment the principle on which that industry was created in the first place—that there is more “daily life” than catastrophe.

At this time in the history of the world our countries still respond to guns with guns, to bombs with bombs, to killing with killing.  But that father, pointing his son’s attention toward the flowers and candles, was giving him more protection than any gun or bomb ever could, by showing him that there are more people who care than who kill.  More people who help than harm.  He is giving his son faith in the deep, natural tendency of humans to help each other, and softening his fear.  It is fear the terrorists want, fear that becomes a deadly viral infection if we can’t look away from the killing and focus on the caring.

When parents ask me how to protect their super sensitive children in a chaotic world, I tell them to focus their own and their children’s attention on what there is to be grateful for, to notice every sign of life, of love, of caring. The more we look for it, the more we see. We need to know that what we pay attention to expands in our world. Yesterday in an article written long before these most recent attacks, I encountered a quotation attributed to Plato:  “Even the God of War is no match for love.”

Notice the flowers and the candles.