The Trouble With Texting

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SMS (short message service) began in 1992 and was initially a way of sending brief informational messages like “I’ll be late” or “there’s an emergency” or when you need a quick “yes” or “no” answer.  It has evolved now into… well, I don’t have to tell you what.  There’s no question it’s useful, I use it all the time now, but it is SO easy we let it rob from us the quality of our human communication.  SUCH an easy crutch to use NOT to face each other, NOT to be spontaneous, immediate, genuine–REAL.

Professor Albert Mehrabian has pioneered the understanding of communications since the 1960s.  Mehrabian’s research provided the basis for the widely quoted statistic for the effectiveness of spoken communications.

Here is a representation of Mehrabian’s findings on the communications of feelings and attitudes:

  • 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken. (or, presumably, written in a text?)
  • 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said; tone, inflection, etc.).
  • 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression. (This includes body language and physiological ‘presence’)

Think about this the next time you try to explain your feelings and attitudes by texting.  Think about how you can pop that paltry 7% all the way up to 45% just by pressing a button on your phone.  With this bonus, do you really have to fake not seeing a text just to give yourself time to think about what you want to say?  Your voice is beautiful, and the way you search for the right words says as much as the words you find.  Any premeditated communication bears an inherent falseness to it.  Do you really want that burden?

The written word can certainly be powerful in expression if used in poetry or full-blown, quality prose, but how many excellent writers are out there?  I’m the guy whose texts are very long and complete, with fully spelled words and correct punctuation when I try to express my feelings and attitudes.  It often makes me feel self-conscious, wordy, and verbose, but I don’t care.  Having my meaning heard as I meant to convey it is important to me.

Truncated, abbreviated and “emoticated” messages mock the beauty of language do they not?   How many times have you said less or left out a thought because it was too long to text?  How do others perceive you when your average response is under five words?  What kind of value will they grant you if you present yourself as the equivalent of a coloring book outline?  And, what treacherous depths of misunderstanding will you never even be aware of?

I’m as guilty as you, nearly.  I use it.  I do my disciplined best to preserve language, craft my words, use metaphor, allusion, (and try not to use) etc.  But, if you take the time to write well when you text, you will more often find yourself saying, “Aw hell, I’ll just call and talk.”

I don’t know about you, but I like hearing peoples’ voices.

 

Mortal Decisions: How life can turn in an instant

 

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The warm and sunny February day was not to be denied.  I left my computer and my phone and went for a walk today.  I usually choose the rural direction from my house, quiet roads with no one to see me, but today I decided to walk toward the human race.  I’ve driven Searsburg Road up from town a thousand times, heading to and from home, but realized I had never actually walked it.

One particular spot stopped me cold, I had stood there before.  I was next to a low flat trailer home on the edge of a rise, I turned to take a picture of it.  I didn’t notice a man standing on the porch until he spoke in that slightly defensive tone you reserve for strangers staring at your house.

“Can I help you?”

“I had an accident here a few years ago.”

I had always meant to knock on their door and explain the tire tracks in the snow that went right up to his front wall, so this was a small but welcome closure.  I briefly recounted the accident, one where no one was seriously hurt and how it nearly ended with my Prius in his living room.

“Oh, yeah, I remember, geez we only left the house for a little while and when we came back we were like, what happened here?”

We laughed and shook hands.  His name was Nick.  “Now if you ever do find a car in your living room, you’ll know what happened.”

What happened was that as I was driving home on a very cold fifteen-degree day in January five years ago, black ice on the clear pavement and a wheel grabbing mealy slush on the shoulder, I saw the car in front of me, about a hundred yards away, suddenly swerve to miss an oncoming vehicle that had crossed into his lane.  This Subaru station wagon now headed for me and began to fish-tail as the driver woke up and over-corrected.

As the car got closer, I could see that the driver was a woman, and alone.  I watched her swerve back and forth across the road and my options dwindled quickly.  A Prius is little more than a glorified golf cart, they don’t GO when they need to go and they do not STOP worth a god damn.  There was no way I could slow down enough to lessen injury, if I braked too hard I’d spin myself.  Our closing speed was about 80 mph.  I tried to time my passage by her, between the swerves, but she fish-tailed with her driver’s side broadside right across my lane.  Nowhere to go.

There were trees and a telephone pole off a four-foot embankment to my right—no escape there it seemed.  To pull into the snowbank would clearly pull both wheels into the ditch and I would end up sideways headed straight into a large tree that would take the top of my car off, and my head along with it.

The only reasonable option was to hit the car.  Cars crumple, airbags go off, this would easily be survivable and I might even walk away unhurt.  I resolved to hit right behind her driver’s door square on her passenger door—the soft spot, don’t hit the wheels, don’t hit the driver.  I had just totaled another Prius the year before, because, guess what, the brakes failed.

“Goddammit, I don’t want to total another God damn Prius!  This idea makes sense, but it just feels wrong.  I WILL NOT DO THIS.”

I glanced to my right and saw the last fleeting chance at a trajectory that MIGHT take me between the trees and the pole.  It’s not an easy sell when your brain tries to tell your body, one that spent a lifetime learning to keep the car ON the road, to suddenly fly your car off an embankment and into the midst of big scary trees.  In the fraction of a second left of my fleeting window of opportunity, my thoughts returned to hitting the Subaru’s passenger door.

( “GARY. DO. NOT. HIT. THAT. CAR!” )

“Fuck it.”

Still going 45 mph, I yanked the wheel just past the passing bark of the last tree and aimed for the right side of the distant telephone pole, then felt the wheels leave the ground.  There was a lot of snow, and I honestly thought it would cushion the fall.  It did not.  I lost both bumpers on my little sleigh ride and missed the pole by less than six inches.  Next, I realized that there was no way my Prius was going to stop before going into the house.  In the spirit of “I really don’t give a fuck anymore,” I turn the car sideways intending to stop like a downhill skier after the finish line.  It actually worked.  A Prius will stop…sideways.

The car still ran, and I walked away although my back was pretty messed up.  The young woman, barely past twenty, was in a ditch by now on the other side of the road.  I approached and asked if she was okay as she got out.

“Yeah, I’m fine… I was working late last night and I… I was so tired I…”

“Don’t worry about it (YOUR insurance will pay for everything) as long as you are okay, you need to sit down?”

“I’m okay, I just don’t know what’s supposed to happen now… my dad will be…”

“Don’t sweat it, I’ll call 911, they’ll send a police car, they’ll write up an accident report, you call your dad, he’ll call the insurance company, it will all be okay.  They’ll fix your car, everything will be fine, okay?”

“Okay.”

I peered through her dirty windows into her station wagon.  I could see that one half of her back seat was down and could make out that there was junk all over.

“Hey, it could be worse, ” I said.  “You could have a kid in the back there.”

“Oh, I think he’s alright.  Just got jostled around a bit.”

“…you what?”

She opened the rear driver’s side door, the one I was about to hit, and there was a seven-month-old little boy in a car seat right behind the driver’s seat.  Right in the “sweet spot.”

“…umm… Let’s get him out of there and out of this cold.”

It was cold, but only then did I go numb.  Neighbors came out to let her stay in their house to wait.  I stayed out and directed traffic around her car which was partly in the road and just over a blind rise.

I can tell you, as sure as I am writing this, that I would have killed that baby, had I decided to hit the car rather than taking the harder choice.

Do you know how people who experience tragedies sometimes spend a lifetime asking themselves “Why did I do this”, “Why didn’t I do that?”  They torture themselves with “what ifs” because they know that one tiny decision could have changed the course of their life or that of someone else.  I know that this outcome was a happy one, but those what ifs still make my blood run cold, even five years later.

I never told the girl just how close she came to losing her child, or spending the rest of her life hating and questioning herself (or how close I came to it).  I spared her that.

It makes me think, though, how easily we forget how incredibly powerful we are; how with every passing instant we can change the course of our destinies.  I think about this most in relationships, especially these days, of how if our choices are not genuine and right, or if they are made out of panic and fear instead of love and compassion, how they can injure the lives of those around us, and perhaps rob us of our own best destiny.

Have you ever noticed that the decisions that are hardest, so often turn out to be the right ones?

Do we speak up or hide our feelings?  Do we answer or remain silent?  Do we stay or do we walk away?  One quick turn of the wheel and our lives diverge forever.  Or is there a way to circle around again?  I’d like to think there is, but I am also a dreamer.

I’m glad I met Nick today, I’m glad I chose to walk toward people instead of away, I’m glad I solved his mystery, and I’m glad for my small closure.  I’m glad I turned the wheel on that very cold day.

I can’t explain how connected I feel to that little boy, I think about him a lot.  He would be as old now as my daughter is in this photo.

I would like to meet him someday.

Just to see how he’s doing.

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Change the World: It’s easier than you think

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The world is a dangerous place.  Life is unfair.  People are cruel.

We must all unite together, stand up and demand change!  Politics, the global stage, war, business, arts, society, economy, all are rife with cruelty, abuse, and inequity.

These things have existed since the dawn of civilization, and it is time that they STOP!  Join with me and we will make the world the place it is meant to be; safe, secure, prosperous, equal, joyful, and compassionate, once and for all.

In an uncertain world, there is one thing for which we can be virtually certain.

We will not succeed in this.

We can look back upon ten thousand years of human evolution, seeing where we have come from and compare it to where we have come to and know that the world has not changed at all.

It is essentially the same as it has always been.

Despair?  Maybe not.

Let’s reframe.  Let us take the evidence at face value and concede that perhaps the world is not SUPPOSED to change.  This is a high-altitude view, so get your wings on.

PERHAPS, struggle is the nature of the human experience.  Struggle is why we are here.  Struggle is our gift.  The innocent mind will discover the cruelty of the world, rightly conclude that it is wrong, and falsely assume that it is the world that must change.

Maybe, just maybe, in the heart of our hearts, the home of our homes, the self of ourselves, our mission and destiny are only to find our course through this world of marvels and maliciousness, danger and wonder.  What if we are here only to learn for ourselves to make the right choices, turn the correct turns, find our own small, safe, and sacred beauty in this world.

Does that sound too selfish?  Too easy?  Instead of only being satisfied with a changed world, can we be satisfied with just our changed self?  It’s easier to blame the world than to task ourselves.

The truth may be that we do not own the world and that we may have absolutely no right to it.  We may only own and have the right to our individual path THROUGH it.  Within the part of my path that touches yours resides my experience of the world.  I don’t need to change the entire world, I just need to make your’s and my experience of it better.

We all can make ourselves mad with anger and despair by living with the mindset that nothing is right until the whole world changes.  We can split our guilty consciousness with a thousand worthy causes, ten thousand, and ten times that.  We can maim our spirits and throw away all belief in the goodness of life by refusing to accept that the world is the way it should be.

What if the world were not the insurmountable “task” we imagine it to be, but a “garden”; a garden of love and fear that we get to pick our path through.

Instead of insisting that the world change for us, that every wrong should be righted, every problem solved; let’s instead, from this high-height, understand that the context of the world will never change.  Light the path in front of you, and avoid the darkness.

What would the world be like, I wonder, if we all chose ONE CAUSE that resonated deeply for us, aligned with our own personal destiny, and strove for that one achievable goal, being at peace with the rest; knowing that the rest is for others to choose.

I would rather help one person utterly, than a thousand imperceptibly, and let the collateral goodness fall where it may.    

But I guess that’s my path.

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Cutting Cords: The Right Way to Say Goodbye

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Saying “goodbye” and “letting go” are not the same thing.  Knowing the difference can mean everything to you.

Cutting ourselves loose from friends and intimates is something that we all must learn to do at some point in our lives, and it’s one of those things that there are no lessons for.  We inevitably make mistakes.

Saying goodbye is difficult, but being said goodbye to is much harder, and that is what makes saying goodbye so hard to do.  Deserved or not, we are all reluctant to hurt another.  We tell ourselves it is for fear of reprisal and discomfort, but that’s not really true is it?  We’re really afraid of being wrong, of hurting a good soul wrongly.

I hardly need to say that there are sound reasons for us to say goodbye to another, of removing him or her from our lives.  People who hurt us, physically, mentally, emotionally, or those who are a danger to our growth and happiness must be removed—that‘s the no-brainer of goodbye.

Other times, we must accept the fact that we will grow apart from people we’ve had significant relationships with, and understand when someone no longer positively affects our lives.  We owe it to ourselves not to let them hinder our growth.

As you move forward in life, you may need to change your circle of friends.  Everyone around you isn’t interested in seeing you improve.

Still others may be positive forces in your life that you do not yet understand.  Those that challenge you, lead you to face your demons, love you deeper than platitudes, or offer you things you are not ready for.  These can be family, friends, or lovers.  Saying goodbye to these important people can be more dangerous for you than any of the others.  But how do you know?

The worst goodbyes are the ones that neither of you choose; circumstance does the choosing.

My childhood friend Pete was taller than I, a grade up from me, and went to a different elementary school.  He was raw, guileless, and wildly creative; we were thick as thieves.

With Pete nothing was as it was, it was always something greater.  I grew up in a rural suburb adjacent to a dairy farm and endless pastures.  Pete lived just up the road.  We were cornstalk fighting ninjas; jungle explorers searching for a lost Goddess; spear throwing aboriginals who flung thoughts with our spears; we braved bat nests and climbed mythic trees; we spent our idle times wondering what the world would be like if we lived it upside down, what colors smelled like and how sound tasted.  Pete and I ruled our hundred-acre wood.  We would return at dusk for dinner, drenched in glories.

There were only two summers before Pete’s family moved to Massachusetts. It may as well have been Asia.  Our parents weren’t close friends and in those days, the only choice for a kid was pen pals.  We both knew it wouldn’t due and agreed not too.  I stood at the end of his driveway as he jumped into the rear of their packed station wagon.  As the window closed I heard him say, “Aw.. goodbye Gar.”  I never heard anything so final.  He put his hands on the glass as they drove away—and the cord snapped.  I kicked the roadside gravel all the way home in the late August dust.  I never saw him again.

To this day, that is the image my mind carries as “goodbye”.

Even as an adult, I look to my friendship with Pete for teaching me where I thrive…imaginative, playful souls who cannot forget the child inside.  My profession in the arts allows me to collect them, which is a privilege, but true connections are still rare.

When I grew up, goodbye was as final as a gunshot, if you didn’t have a number or address that was it.  Today our vast virtual connections soften goodbye and makes it too easy a choice.  We no longer need to decide, we just fade.

The saddest goodbyes are the ones never spoken.  The ones where you never get to hear your crime; what you said, what you did, why you weren’t enough.  There is a great difference between hurt and damage.  This goodbye does damage.  It is a cruelty that exposes what you are left to conclude was a lie; that you were ever truly close, that you ever truly mattered enough to warrant their discomfort.  A goodbye needs to be spoken; there is no other way.

s goodbye.jpgA woman I once loved beyond measure told me this before she left my life, “I have decided that you will be alright, that you will find someone just like me and that you will be fine, I know it.”  As hard as it was to hear, it was one of the kindest, most loving things anyone has ever said to me.  She knew the right way to say goodbye and cared enough to do it.  It was her words that allowed me to move on.

Unspoken goodbyes land in me as betrayal.  I’ve had my share.

I remember my first marriage counseling session, where after an initial forty-five minutes of me brightly bringing him up to speed on my life, my work, friendships and relationships (who doesn’t like to talk about themselves, right?), I looked up and saw him staring at me, then he said,

“Wow.  So.  You’ve dealt with a lot of betrayal in your life…”

“Say What?”  It was an eye opener for me.

There was no sense or use in wearing that as an identity, but I have become smarter about recognizing it and learned that it is the denial of it that is dangerous.  I know its effect now too, for me, it makes me numb and drains all the color from a person.  (This feeling is ungood and unfair.  Sometimes those who are heartless once cared too much.)

I will always choose to be hurt rather than betrayed.  I think anyone would.

No matter if goodbye is your choice or another’s, you still both share it.  It creates an absence only; it is then up to you to resolve it.  Saying goodbye is different than letting go.  You’re never done until you have cut the cords that connected you and bound you to each other.

Unresolved goodbyes eat your cells.  They create a “dis-ease” and a host of stresses and mind-body trauma that many believe creates disease.  In any case, it is decidedly unhealthy and must be dealt with.  Literally dealt with, not mused over, denied and forgotten—that will put you in a cancer ward.

cords.jpgThere is an ancient Hawaiian ritual called “Ho’oponopono” that I have used.  It is considered a forgiveness ceremony.  It is somewhat complicated and counter-intuitive so I won’t attempt to explain it here, but suffice it to say that these cords cannot be cut with anger, fear, or resentment.  They can only be cut with love, compassion, and forgiveness.  This is the way to let go.  (Nothing is easy is it? Yeah, tell me about it.)

There is an advantage here, however, so cut those cords, cut all of them and don’t worry about whether you are wrong about goodbye or not, because an extraordinary thing will happen if you are.  The cords you truly need will grow back.  You may or may not have that person in your life again, as you or they choose, but those cords that represent truth will always reach and find their way back.  Love is not diminished, like Shakespeare said, “It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks upon tempests and is not shaken.”

Don’t mistake this for an addiction to self-damage by way of repeated attraction to dangerous or abusive people.  You must learn to discern this for yourself, and if you are one who does it—you must stop that.

I do a lot of reassessing after New Years so I’ve been thinking about all of my goodbyes, the ones I would be glad to have back and the ones I am glad I don’t.  All of them, all together are easy now to picture.  We are all within social media’s easy reach (though I have yet to find Pete).  There are a number of them I have reclaimed, and still others I know I will yet. Even those that have passed on; I can still feel their presence.  They’re all still here.  So what is real, what is permanent?

If we could be honest with ourselves and face down the real lie, we would know this:

There is no such thing as goodbye.

There is only hello.

Where, and when, and whether you say it is always up to you.

 

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As I have been thinking of my “disconnections” recently, a Beatles song keeps playing in my head—not “Let it Be”—it’s called “Hello, Goodbye”.

 

 

What the World Needs Now: 9 Ways to Develop Empathy

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Empathy is part of our humanity, allowing us to organize ourselves into community and create society; we all have the ability to empathize, but to what extent do we use it? There’s the rub.

Empathy is the feeling and experience that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feelings, even if they are far removed from your own.

Empathy in business and communication has recently become a new buzzword; one can readily find people teaching techniques to increase one’s ability to use empathy for one’s self and others. (Not surprisingly, they have found a way of monetizing it.) I’ve been doing some research on this and my personal reaction has been, “What the fuck, you mean people don’t already know how to do this!?” Apparently not.

I have always been afflicted with this ability (and you’ll see why I ruefully use that term later on), so it has been hard for me to realize that it is not as pervasive as I have assumed. How easy it is to simply assume that everyone else holds an ability that you find natural?

One evening, when I was just out of college and pursuing my plan of being a famous comedian, I had an extreme experience of empathy that taught me a lot. I was living in a rented room at a friend’s house, broke, in the midst of a college town in Syracuse New York. Barely surviving, head full of dreams; I took a walk one balmy evening down a quiet street of lovely turn-of-the-century homes that knew generations of families long forgotten, now used for frats and college life, and some few families still raising their children as their immigrant elders did. It was dusk, just that time when the lights from within each house illuminated the rooms inside, allowing you that accidental glimpse of the lives they harbored.

I loved looking inside as I passed. Like a wind-blown skirt exposing a hidden thigh, I couldn’t help but look. I loved environments and what they revealed of the lives that created them. As each one passed, I’d step further outside of myself and into those rooms; the pictures on the walls, the keepsakes on the mantles, the arrangement of furniture, the mislaid clothing, all drew me into the feeling that they were my home. This favorite chair was mine, that picture full of my memories; before long I could see a half-open bathroom door and know that behind it was a bathrobe, a belt hanging, and a cap on the hook behind it, out of my view but known to me. I felt the people who lived there as if they were I; all of the joys, the troubles, the love, back through time, were mine, were me.

I was overtaken that evening by a genuinely indescribable feeling, uncoveyable—but I will try. Each of these houses were like illuminated books on the self of a great library; rows of cardboard comfort, and I knew all of the lives, all of it, and I made the singular realization that, “everything was alright.” Not only that, but everything had always been alright, and everything always would be. All at once, the light of every hearth was made known to me; I stopped, doubled over, my knees weak, my breathing difficult and halting, my vision blurred and my head (and heart) felt like it was about to explode. The best way to describe it is that it was the exact polar opposite of an anxiety attack. I almost fell to me knees but managed to stay standing. When it subsided, I thought, “I am standing in ‘town center’ of college coed angst, depression, and uncertainty, and here I am blissing-out over interior decor—what a weirdo.” Such is the power of empathy.

All of us have the ability to empathize, but some of us are what they call an empath. (Also known as clairsentient.) It took me a long, long time to recognize and deal with this. There are people who can teach you how to cope with this, but most empaths have to figure it out for themselves. I am not a true empath; I have some annoyingly pronounced empathic tendencies. There are really very few empaths around—only a tiny percentage of the population.

empath 2.jpgEmpaths can have a difficult time in life if they don’t recognize themselves as such and understand it. They must learn how to work with their clairsentient ability without getting overwhelmed, and need to accept that they have a more sensitive nervous system and that this has implications for how they lead their life.

Here are the traits of an Empath: See if any of these sound familiar to you. If they do, I recommend researching how to control the skill:

  • Random mood swings even though you have no idea why. You search for possible reasons why you may be feeling the way you do and attach labels that don’t really fit. (You don’t realize that they are not your emotions; you are feeling the emotions of others.)
  • In crowds, your emotions run high and change often–you get anxiety-ridden, panicky, frustrated, angry. You may want to be in a large crowd, but every time you do, you end up feeling tired (and it’s because you emotionally run a marathon of different emotions).  You can even feel physically ill or have intense headaches.
  • People seek you out to confide in you.
  • People like being around you, but every time they are, they end up talking about their problems/issues and yet, your problems/issues are rarely spoken of, if at all.
  • You have a need to make everyone feel better/feel happier and take steps to make it happen.
  • You somehow just “know” what people need to hear in order to feel better about themselves.
  • You have difficulty expressing your own emotions and much prefer to focus on someone else.
  • You often ignore people’s bad treatment of you–explaining it away because they need you, and on some level, that’s enough for you.
  • You are the natural healer, helper & you always sacrifice for others. You NEED to help people. (This is because their need and pain feels like your own.)
  • You are a magnet/receptacle for negative energy. Not because you started out feeling negative, but because others need a place to put their negative energy (and there you were, ready to receive it!).
  • You don’t like feeling bad/down/negative/sad, but you feel resigned & believe it to be part of your lot in life.
  • You are the natural animal lover! You love animals–they make you feel happy and a love that feels like pure innocence.
  • You are a “nature baby.” Being in the country, by the water, at the beach, a good rainstorm, etc.–anything to do with nature brings you a sense of peace that you just crave.
  • Those you love feel physically connected to you, even when miles apart. You can suddenly feel strong shifts in emotions; good or bad that you know are theirs.
  • You can sometimes see emotions in the form of colors or auras.
  • You struggle with setting boundaries because the disappointment, anger and grief (and other emotions) of other people impacts you deeply. It seems that, no matter what you do, it’s always lose-lose for you. Either you stand up for yourself, and get overwhelmed by the negative reactions of others, or you do what they want and don’t feel good about yourself.
  • Your body often feels icky, murky, dark and unpleasant, even if you have no medical condition to attribute those feelings to. For that reason, you like to do things that take your attention away from being physically aware of how your body feels.

These traits do not make an empath, rather empaths generally exhibit some or all of these traits. If you recognize some of these, you may have a strong empathetic tendency or nature.empathy 3

People who are naturally and consistently empathetic can easily forge positive connections with others. They are people who use empathy to engender trust and build bonds; they are catalysts that are able to create positive communities for the greater good. These are the people who inspire others; people tend to refer to them as “a light”, “an inspiration”, “a gift”. They tend to bring people together and bring out the best in people, without really trying. But even if empathy does not come naturally to some of us, we can develop this capacity.

If you don’t recognize many of the above traits, here is how you can increase your ability to empathize with others.

  1. Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others’ body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
  2. Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.
  3. Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
  4. Practice the “93 percent rule”. We know from a famous study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, when communicating about feelings and attitudes, words – the things we say – account for only 7 percent of the total message that people receive. The other 93 percent of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language.
  5. Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t think of your response while listening to them. Don’t check your email, look at your phone or take phone calls. Put yourself in their shoes; listen as if it is you who is speaking.
  6. Smile at people.
  7. Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up. A simple thing like an attentive nod can let them know you understand them.
  8. Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “This was pure genius”; “I would have missed this if you hadn’t picked it up.”
  9. Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and have genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions and so understand their challenges, their families, and their aspirations.

The bonds that connect empaths to others are not mere metaphors; they have power, they are actual, visceral, energetic bonds. These connections have real physical/emotional consequence, and can be confusing and problematic for the unwary Emp. Though few have this ability (or affliction, as I jibed earlier), all of us can learn the positive aspects of empathy and use it to make a better society and a better world.

If we can all learn to step outside our own perceptions, beliefs, attachments and behaviors, and seep into those of another, even if we do not agree, and can see, if only for a moment, the world through their eyes and in a compassionate light, we can understand them—and through understanding comes harmony.

Empathetic people are precious and important. Be one.

When we look at the news today, and witness the hatred, intolerance, violence and unconscionable lack of compassion in the world, it is easy to hear the words of that famous 1960’s song sung by Dionne Warwick, “What the world needs now, is love sweet love…”

We can always use more love in the world, but what we really need now is EMPATHY.

“It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…”

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Helping Hands: 9 Ways Helping Others is Not Good.

helping hands4 (1)In Catholic school first grade, they taught us about sin.

Sister Mary Somethingorother drew a picture of a soul on the chalkboard that looked just like the outline of a t-shirt. Then she made little specks, like stains on a shirt, and called them Venial Sins; these were little sins like lying or picking on your little brother. These, she said, God would forgive if we did our penance for it. Then she turned the chalk on its side and made a big blob and told us this was a Mortal Sin, like killing someone (or spilling a bowl of soup on your shirt–presumably); these, she said, God would never forgive and he (always “he”) would send us to Hell where we would burn in fire and agony for all of eternity with no hope of ever getting out.

Not meaning to be cheeky, but nonetheless compelled, I asked her, “Why is it that God asks us to forgive others no matter what, but he never forgives people who do mortal sins?” She looked at me crossly and said, “Because you are not God, Master Izzo.” I think that was the moment that Catholicism fell apart for me. (I’m not a dogma kind of guy, though I respect those who are.)  I did, however, become more careful when eating soup.

With five other siblings, my mother gave us baths in groups of three until we were too old for that sort of thing. Being a middle kid, I always got the shallow end; it was a big deal for me when I finally got to take a bath alone. I loved baths. The tub became an entire universe all my own, a place to think and imagine. I would keep adding hot water as it got tepid, keeping it as hot as I could stand it. Sometimes I’d overdo it, get dizzy, and experience an excruciating thirst. I would run the cold water in a tiny stream and put my mouth under the faucet, letting the cold-water trickle down my throat—it was true bliss! Really, there’s nothing like it. If you’ve ever stayed too long in a hot tub and reached for an ice-cold beer, you know what I mean!

As I did this, I would think about the souls in Hell, of what it must be like to be burning alive and to have that agony for all of eternity. Trying to imagine what eternity would be like, and burning for that long would blow my little catholic boy mind. I mean, would you get used to burning after a few centuries? Would they make it so that you couldn’t ever get used to it? How could anyone ever do something bad enough to deserve that? I thought that they must be very, very thirsty.

So as the cold water trickled down, I would ask God to send my cold drink to one of the souls in Hell. I would say, “I know that I am enjoying this—and oh man is it good—but I’m asking you please to send this feeling to just one (or maybe two?) of those burning people in Hell.” I did this at every bath for some time.

My saintly reverie would eventually be interrupted when my mother walked down the hall and banged on the door, realizing I was still in the tub.

(Bang-bang-bang!) “Gary! Are you still in there!? Come out of there before you turn into a prune! What are you doing in there so long?? “

(Defying your God and sending a cold drink to those poor bastards he locked away in Hell.) “Nothin’.”

I never asked anything from those anonymous souls, or from God or anyone else for my help–I just wanted to do it. I thought that God wouldn’t be too happy about my request seeing as how he sent them there in the first place, and that I would probably have to pay for it somewhere down the line, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to help.

I have a strong resonance with “lost souls”, always have; not sure why. I’m not saying that their damned, but I think maybe that’s the connection, literally—like a cord. I found that if you put enough lost souls in one place, they’re not lost anymore. You get a kind of Neverland.

I’ve also found that having a helpful nature isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, at least not for the unwary.

I get to help a lot of people in my work in the theatre, I guess that’s one of the reasons I chose it. I’m no Mother Teresa, but I’ve done well; I’ve saved careers, relationships, probably even lives. I’ve also lost a great many precious things for myself by helping in the wrong way.

Nobody likes needing help; nobody likes asking for help. I definitely include myself in this.  We all like to imagine that where we have come, and who we have become, is the sole result of our own work and effort. We work hard, that should be enough, right? True, everything we are is the result of our work—no one can do that work for us. But who grants us the opportunity to do the work, the tools to work, how to work those tools, guidance on which direction to work to meet our own self-appointed outcomes? The reality is that none of us gets anywhere without allies, those around us that for some reason unknown to us, or perhaps even to themselves, are compelled to help us out.

Accepting help can be dangerous. Manipulation often disguises itself as aid and support from those who seek to take advantage of us. And worse, this isn’t always done with malicious intent. Some people engage in helping others in order to prove their worth to themselves without ever realizing it, and this can also be unhealthy.

I’ve been a White Knight, a Rescuer, and a Fixer; the hell they have wrought in my life cured me of these things long ago. I have nothing to prove anymore, and I am well convinced of my worth.

Why did helping certain people cost me so dearly?

I remember many times determining to help someone, knowing that they needed help; knowing I had the ability and power to help them, knowing that their particular outcome didn’t matter to me, that it was their outcome, their choice not mine; knowing I would have to challenge them harshly; knowing it would be difficult for them, knowing that I would never really matter to them, even knowing I would be resented for it, and realizing that I would forfeit any connection I would have to what I saw as a beautiful human being. I would hear the voice in my head asking me:

“Are you really willing to give this person up, just to help them?”

I would answer in what I thought was a pure expression of love, “Yes. Yes I am. Let’s go.”

Thus, I would throw myself on a bed of swords for someone I hardly knew, but valued highly, then wonder how doing good for another should leave me feeling so empty. I would do this over and over again, realizing each time that it earned me only their resentment, and a subtle, uncomfortable sense of their feeling indebted to me, neither of which I sought. How could I even be sure that they wouldn’t have gotten there without my help? Was it even worth it? Who am I to assume I can make a difference? I’m not God; I’m just a kid in a bathtub.

The vessel I used to hold these awful things, things I once believed to be the necessary residue of selfless, unconditional kindness, is finally full. I’ve had enough. I’ve lost too much that is precious to me. This isn’t noble; it isn’t kind; it is a fruitless act of compassion–like catching tears in the rain. I’m not sure what to do with this giant cup of resentment guck now that it’s full–though it might make a nice fertilizer for the garden.

It had to be full, of course, before I could hear the answer to my question. Why does helping cost me so much? It came not long ago, at great cost, in six simple, honest words: “I never asked for your help.”

helping-handThe realization was swift and painful. I had never heard that before, and I never stopped to consider how demeaning it is to help someone in need without his or her permission. Our quests, our struggles, and our challenges are not just obstacles, they are also gifts. Although we may never navigate them all without allies, and the love and support of others, there are some that we need to overcome ourselves. They are for us alone to rise to, and help unasked for only takes from us the lessons they carry.

I want to ask forgiveness from everyone I ever helped without their permission, and in so doing disrespected them, and made them feel inadequate by robbing them of their right to struggle and suffer. I am sorry. I never meant any harm.

I am creating some new paths for myself as a result of this great insight that I no doubt should have realized years ago. I have a new set of rules for helping others. They’re not standard fare, but please consider them carefully, before you dismiss any of them.

  1. Never help a person who does not truly want help. (If they don’t want to obtain a new outcome, then no matter how much you help, it won’t make any difference anyway.)
  2. Never help a person unless they ask for help (If they can’t ask for help, it means they have a lesson they need to learn, don’t take that from them.)
  3. Never offer help without their offering something in return. (Their offer needn’t be much at all. It is the offering that is important. I’m not speaking of charity here so don’t misunderstand. Their offer is not for you the helper’s sake, but for theirs. )
  4. Stop helping if another does not at least offer you gratitude. (Gratitude should not be the reason you help, but not showing gratitude is your clue that they are not asking for your help.)
  5. Never help a person who only wants help and not a new outcome. (Some people are addicted to Need, they are black holes that will consume your soul, stay away from them!)
  6. Never help too much. (Always putting others first teaches them that you come second.)
  7. Remember that a person’s potential is not who they are now. (See the best in a person, but don’t assume they can give that to you.)
  8. Never help without permission.
  9. Stop catching tears in the rain.

My daughter loves baths too. We used to have many long, crazy bath-time adventures together. It’s sad to think she is getting too old for that. I would have to add hot water several times on the longer ones. Her idea of hot is nothing like mine, but she would occasionally get overheated and very thirsty. She had a plastic measuring cup that somehow became a bath toy, and would thrust it at me and ask,

“Daddy, could you get me some cold, cold, cold, cold water in this, I am dying of thirst!”

I would rinse it in the sink and let the cold water run a while to fill it. Her eyes would roll back in her head as she drank it down.

“”Aaahaaaa… Oh my gosh that feels good!”

“I know… isn’t that great?”

“You know what daddy? If someone was dying of thirst in the desert, I would give them this.”

“I know you would sweat pea.” Then she would ask,

“Daddy, can I have some more?”

And I knew exactly what she was thinking.

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PART VIII: Father/Daughter Stories–Training Wheels

140913_HO_LedeFor me, there are three milestones that a father is responsible for with his daughter, three sacred trusts that belong only to a dad. These are teaching her to ride a bike, explaining how to deal with boys, and teaching her to drive.

Taking the training wheels off and guiding her through that first wobbly ride is more than an apt metaphor for enablement, it’s a right of passage, living proof that her own capabilities can earn her sovereignty; her first realization, small as it is, that she can steer her own course and go where she chooses. She’ll peddle away, turn, stop and look back, her face flush with pride, delight, and most importantly freedom.

I want to see that face.

I am a divorced, single parent with joint custody, and my daughter Madi lives equal time with both her parents. Several years ago, Madi’s mother had her first significant relationship and introduced that new element to Madi’s life. No matter how well you manage things, your ex’s other will have an impact on your young child–you hope it’s a good one. It is inescapable that you’ll feel a little bit tweaked at another male figure in your daughter’s life that you didn’t pick; I’ve never had insecurities with my status as Dad and neither has Madi, but it’s a caution. Fortunately, this fellow was a lovely and kind man (they’re not together anymore).

A few years ago, just before I was to make a first stop at this fellow’s house to pick some items of Madi’s, her mother mentioned that “Dave” had been teaching Madi to ride a bike and had taken the training wheels off the bike she used there. Now, she had no clue about these sacred paternal trusts, because I had never had the opportunity to share them with her, though she may have asked, but the betrayal was none-the-less brutal. I liked Dave, and his family was great, but why the hell was he teaching my kid to ride a bike without asking me?

I guess you could say I was a little distracted as I drove to Dave’s, Madi happily in her car seat in back waiting for her fun afternoon with dad to start. I was trying to tell myself, unsuccessfully, that it didn’t matter. His was an older house with a gravel driveway that sloped down to a rural road, across from a wooded embankment on the opposite side.

I pulled up the drive in a hurry to get this pick-up of ‘stuff’ over with. There was a “thing” going on at the house, which included some other friends of theirs that I had never met, and Madi’s mom was there as well. Madi opted to stay in the car, and I jumped out and headed for the door.

Half way to the door I happened to turn and look at the car. It was rolling, gathering speed towards the road and embankment with my daughter in it. <insert Homer Simpson scream> I had apparently been distracted enough to not quite get the shifter into park and left it in neutral. The beeps and audible protestations of the Nissan Murano went unheard in my distracted funk. Funny how fast you can forget your own body at times likes these. I leapt toward the car, aiming PAST my closed driver’s door so that I had a chance of opening it.

I got it open and threw my body at the moving car and into the seat. The bright flash of light and skull-on-metal sound told me that I had not ducked my head sufficiently to get it into the car door opening. I hit it so hard I really couldn’t see, and felt immediately nauseous.

“Fuck! Don’t pass out! You cannot pass out”

The car still rolling, I grabbed the roof with my right hand and pushed off the ground with my left leg, aiming my right foot in the vicinity of the brake pedal. It found its mark and the car lurched to a stop just before reaching the street. The momentum, however, caused the door to slam shut.

Through the throbbing pain and disorientation in my head, I became aware of another pain. Briefly, I thought it was my left leg, which had been solidly jammed between the seat and door when it closed, but when I reached to free it, my right hand didn’t move.

“Oh, that’s where that hot stabbing pain is coming from.”

I looked with a bleary morbid fascination at my hand shut three fingers deep into a completely closed and latched door. <insert Homer Simpson scream>

“Oh, man, those have to be broken.”

They wouldn’t budge. I cannot explain how badly I wanted to get them out of the door, I kind of panicked for a moment, man, it just didn’t look right, but between my addled head and the odd contortion of my body, I couldn’t reach the door latch.

“Okay Gary, limb check. Left leg hopelessly wedged, right foot on the brake, (don’t move that), left hand crushed, that’s all three, I’m fucked. Wait, there are four! Use your right hand, put it into park, free up your brake foot then turn to open the door.”

(Sure, it sounds simple to you, but it’s brilliant when all you see are stars and you want to cry from the pain.)

It was about this time when Madi spoke up.

“Daddy what’s the matter!” I called up my best matter-of-fact, nothing’s wrong voice.

“Nothin’ I uh… forgot something.” (Yeah, brilliant.)

I stepped from the car and held up my hand, then tried to curl my fingers to see what broke. “Bend suckers!” Astonishingly, they did bend.  Nothing seemed to be broken! I sent a mental note of thanks to the Nissan engineers who worked out enough room in a latched door NOT to shatter a finger bone and made a partial apology to the designers of the spare tire anchors [See Flat Tire]. Pretty cool.

My fingers still hurt like a mofo and my head wasn’t quite right, but I made my way to the door and stepped inside.

As I got to the door, Madi’s mom led me to the kitchen where Dave and a cluster of their friends greeted me with the now familiar, “So that’s the guy” face that I have become accustomed to in certain divorced parent circles. It’s a polite smile and a half-hearted attempt to appear interested, but they didn’t want me there any more than I wanted to be there so all’s fair.

I prouder man than I would have kept the stupid faux pas of the driveway to himself, but I believe that one who cannot laugh at their inner fool, is doomed to forever look truly foolish—and why waste a good story.

“You would not believe what I just did pulling in…!”

It was a good story. Polite smiles all around.

Stuff retrieved, I got back in the car, rested one and a half hands on the steering wheel, remembered the sacred trust forever broken, and sighed.

It is NOT your day dude.”

“Daddy! What are we going to do today, I’m bored!”

I looked at my hand and rubbed my throbbing head, utterly defeated.

“Let’s go ride bikes Madi, I’ll take your training wheels off and…”

“NOOOO!!! I don’t want my training wheels off!”

“I thought you took them off and was riding without them?”

Noooo! I can’t ride without training wheels! Please don’t take them off, please??”

“But I thought…”

“Pleeeease?”

“You got it girl!” And so we did.

Madi’s tenth birthday is approaching now, and I have tried several times since that day three years child-on-bike-008earlier to take her training wheels off, without success. She’ll say, “Not yet Daddy.” And I’ll say,

“That’s alright kid, I’ll be ready whenever you are ready.”

Still looking for that face.