Tag Archives: empathy

“Invictus” A New Year’s Reflection

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul…

             Excerpt from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

On a warm day, during the Christmas holiday, I, the cook who usually whines about winter, was feeling content. But a little more than a month before, on November 9th, I didn’t feel so content.

I had stopped cooking, felt as if I could barely breathe, and teetered on the abyss of lost faith. Damn it. Who were those people that did not vote? The United States Election Project estimated that approximately 56.9 percent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. A fellow writer declared it a national disgrace. I agree. So I asked anyone who would listen, “who are these people?” The answers I got taught me about some of the people in my world. There’ll be some changes made.

As November became December, my anger, frustration, and fear receded. Anger and fear are (for me) such immobilizing forces. I needed to reconnect with that part of me that is unconquered by fear.

So, on that warm morning, I did what I needed to do.  I thanked God for a new day, stared into an empty skillet, and got started with a holiday meal. I needed to turn my attention to the things that mattered in my life: good health, good food, productive thought, writing, and spiritual nourishment. I needed to not be afraid.

I decided to roast a whole chicken in an attempt to make up for a horrifying Thanksgiving turkey disaster. While I’m certain kitchen life is not what Henley had in mind, I needed to keep going. I might have easily given up and cooked pasta because, truth be told, I could’ve killed a prize fighter with the drum sticks from that Thanksgiving bird. But I would not be conquered. With some trepidation, I pushed forward with “Invictus” going around and around in my brain the whole time.

Long ago, a boss of mine said with amazement, “God, you’re tenacious.” Hmm. If he only knew. I read that “Invictus” inspired Nelson Mandela every day of his 27 year imprisonment. I understand why. The words light a fire of conviction in my heart. Keep going.

Not so long ago, I was rifling through some old journals and came upon an essay I wrote about one of the most unconquerable souls I know: my mother. I know that if she had known this poem she would have repeated these lines to herself:

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul…

One evening, as she sank into the warmth of her favorite chair, she nibbled on a piece of sweet potato pie. I watched and listened as she smacked her lips with deliberate and stubborn enjoyment. I shivered inside at how much I feared her. Who else could eat pie with such authority?

We’d just had a discussion—or was it an argument?—in which she, once again, silenced me with her eyes. Never mind the documented facts of what we were discussing. Only one fact mattered: she was the mother; I was the child (even though I was well into my 50s).

“So stubborn,” I thought to myself. She smacked her lips in satisfaction.

“Mom. Have you always been this way? So stubborn?”

This was my pitiful attempt at regaining some kind of self-dignity.

“Yes!”

She smacked with impenetrable–I dare say unconquerable–glee. Her life hadn’t seen much glee. But once she found it, she would not let her glee be suppressed. Our roles are complete. Mother. Daughter. This is the way things are and always will be, even after we are both long gone from the planet. This is who I learned from. I’ve inherited this great stubbornness, this unconquerability. This certain kind of fearlessness. This trait has served me well.

It’s nearing the end of January; we have a new president. This past weekend over a million women  and their supporters marched in protest of the new administration and its proposed policies. My friend Sherri said, “Democracy in action! Warriors strengthen yourselves; prepare yourself for battle. This is Medieval.”

Unconquerable.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

I’ll not be conquered by fear.

Oh, about that chicken… I could’ve shaved nails with the breast of that bird. But I’ll keep working at it.

Philosophical Rant: Pity

I’ve been reflecting on the differences between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion for a long, long time. Today, I’m stepping aside from my kitchen and baked salmon to explore the murky waters of that soul sucking scoundrel: Pity.

This is what I know for sure: Pity comes with judgment. Pity ignores the right of a person to make the best choices for herself and presumes that a person is not able to do so. Pity is tainted with the poison of dehumanization. Some folks pity non-white groups or people with physical disabilities.

My mother just turned 94, and  speaks the language of those without memory. Alzheimer’s. I respond to everything with a cheerful “Yes,” and a familiar sadness washes over me. Empathy, not pity, is what’s called for here. In all of the years I’ve known my mother, I have felt  that behind her rigidity and unfriendliness is loneliness.

God, we must lose the pity.

Recently, a person I know—someone who has called me almost daily for more than a year and someone who I now understand offered contact from a place of pity—asked me to do a small writing project, a resume–for pay.  Now, there are reasons that I declined the offer.  One, was a sense that, for this person, “money equals power.” In accepting payment, I’d lose my right to establish boundaries around what I would or would not do. If I did the work for free, my skills would be devalued. And, finally, unlike a typical contract, the expectations were uncomfortably dodgy. I declined.

It’s been a difficult lesson to learn. I sensed that this person, rather than being a real friend, saw me as “needy,” a person in dire need of charity. And, perhaps in the beginning, when I was so blindsided by my condition, I was needy. Yet life offers myriad opportunities to learn from swimming in the muddy waters of pity—both self-pity and that which comes from others.

If you ask or comment, as others have, about how I’m recovering so well, the answer is always the same: I have allowed myself very, very little time for self-pity.

Now, what about sympathy?

Sympathy allows us to truly see pain, but we can remain distant. We may or may not take action, but generally when we do, the action is one that allows us to keep our distance and lets others maintain their dignity. Donating to a non-profit that serves the poor or disenfranchised, working for or in organizations that help others, these are examples of contributing to the greater good in a non–personal way. But, careful.  Sympathy can be a slippery slope to pity.

Then there’s empathy. Ahh, sweet empathy. I learned empathy from my father. Empathy is the ability to feel or identify with another’s pain.  Daddy would always say: “Before you judge another person, walk a mile in his shoes.” He didn’t mean for us to literally walk in another’s sorrow. He meant for us to understand that, as Phil Ochs sang, “there, but for fortune, go you or I.”

That walking puts us on the road to compassion.

Compassion is taking that empathetic feeling, that ability to feel another’s pain, and turning it into true, non-judgmental, loving action. Action coming from love is compassion. Compassion uplifts and heals. Compassion never dehumanizes. Ever.

What a day. I’ve had my rant. It’s time to enjoy some salmon.

Soup and Empathy

New Food 001

It’s official.

Summer’s over. The reds, peaches, and blues of summer fruit are making way for the greens, burnt oranges, and purples of winter’s warming vegetables. Beautiful, isn’t it? Soup. Yum.

In my healing process, I’ve become more committed than ever to eating according to season. The soup pictured above was so easy to make, filled with the brilliance of the changing season. Sitting in my flannel nightgown and looking out at the nature trail, I feel secure.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a term for people and communities without access to affordable, nutritious food. food insecurity. Let that sink in for a moment. Food. Insecurity. The USDA attributes this to lack of money. Really, it’s more than that.

Five years ago I was visiting relatives in Delaware. We stopped at a large chain grocery for supplies and, as we were leaving, I saw an employee tossing bags of unsold bagels into a trash bin. I was, to say the least, interested.

“Are you giving that to a homeless shelter? A women’s halfway house? An orphanage?”

“It’s against the law. Liability.”

What? Someone might choke on a free bagel?

In some of our poorest communities, liquor stores—with a high-priced fare of wilted greens, squishy tomatoes, old, brown meats and yellowed chickens—are often the only access to food. In those same communities, some grocery chains have refused to open businesses claiming unprofitability. Now, I find that, in some places, giving unsold food to the hungry is against the law. Liability they say.

My father taught me empathy. We were a large family with limited income, and my parents were no strangers to nights sucked into the black hole of insecurity. But we were lucky. There was always food on the table thanks to relatives who farmed and owned produce stores. My father had a garden in the back yard. For us, the bear of hunger was never a guest at our table.

A deeply religious man who had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and suffered emotionally because of that experience, Daddy knew the meaning of empathy. In spite of his personal demons and contradictions, he cared for others and passed along the wisdom that has stayed with me all these years.

“Never judge another man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

I learned, at the table, that the rigorous road to freedom is paved with empathy and compassion. It is impossible to think of my father without those words whipping around in my mind like a line full of laundry in an autumn wind.

One sunny, summer afternoon in Berkeley, California, I was exiting the subway. A man, woman, and child were sitting in the entrance. The man asked for money. I told him that all I had was the lunch I was carrying. It was simple fare: a sandwich I’d made, some fruit, maybe some chips and a soda.  I don’t remember it all.  I asked if he would like it.

Yes, he said. I will never forget his eyes. His wife cried as he accepted the bag. I am moved to tears whenever I think of the incident. Since that experience, I have been generous with my lunch bags.

Every major spiritual path invites us to live empathetic lives and to take empathy to the next level: compassionate action. We’re invited to change things, to make things better. The palette of life offers a rainbow of opportunities for compassionate action: serving at a soup kitchen, making and delivering meals, passing a lunch along to someone, creating and sustaining community vegetable gardens, mentoring young people to become urban farmers, or teaching children what it means to select good food and eat well. From the White House to celebrity chefs, it’s happening.

I’ve said what I have to say this morning. Now, let’s eat. And share a meal with someone.