Empathy: Would it Bring World Peace?

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world-peace-logo_4qghS_65We’ve all heard the adage (or some variation thereof), “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” This is about developing empathy, which is in short supply in this world. If there is one thing that causes disconnects between people, it is a lack of empathy. Every time we criticize another person or group, we almost certainly are guilty of not being empathetic.

Being empathetic is not the same as being sympathetic, but most people seem to think it is. Empathy can lead to sympathy, but sympathy doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy. You can feel sorry for someone without entering into his world, or more specifically, his head. In fact, sympathy implies that you are maintaining some distance and looking at a person’s situation from the comfort of your own (superior) position. Empathy is harder to attain and harder to feel.

Months before I converted to Islam, I wrote a post about the Islamic item of clothing called the hijab. (Women’s Rights: The Headscarf.) At the time I had no idea that I was going to convert, let alone that I would ever wear the hijab myself. I felt sympathy for the women who wear it, because of the way they are viewed—and treated—by non-Muslims. They can’t “pass” as non-Muslims, or fade into the background when it’s uncomfortable to be identified as one. (For this reason, I view wearing the hijab as a mark of bravery as much as a symbol of one’s faith.)

But I can’t say that what I felt was empathy. I simply didn’t know enough about what it was like to wear the hijab, what courage it took to put it on every day, the strength of motivation that was required to wear it in a society that is ambivalent (at best) about Muslims.

I’ve heard of social experiments where non-Muslim women have put on the hijab for a period of time (usually a day or a week, at the most) in order to get some idea of what it’s like to be a Muslim woman, let alone a woman who wears one (often known as a “hijabi”). That’s fine as far is it goes, but it doesn’t begin to address all the issues faced by Muslims, like finding a place to pray five times a day, or fasting during Ramadan (or learning how to pray in the first place, if you’re a convert).

I no longer wear the hijab and, in fact, am in a state of flux about exactly where I stand in the matter of religion. I still subscribe to the basic theology of Islam, but I’m undecided about how “Muslim” I’m willing to be. But I will never be sorry that I converted. Because if I hadn’t I don’t think I would have the empathy it takes to understand where Muslims are coming from. I could have studied Islam for a thousand years and it wouldn’t have taught me what I really wanted to know, which is: what is it like to be a Muslim?

Obviously we can’t convert to every religion, let alone pretend to be another race, for instance, in order to develop empathy. But there is a lot we can do to approximate walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

  • We can learn another language.
  • We can travel, whether it’s to a different country or another part of town.
  • We can watch movies with subtitles.
  • We can read, anything and everything.
  • We can listen to different types of music.
  • We can try different cuisines.
  • We can attend a different kind of religious service.
  • We can sponsor a child.
  • We can invite someone to dinner.
  • We can make a friend.

Anything that exposes us to another culture can help us to develop empathy. But the most important step we must take is to stop limiting ourselves to the way of life we were born into. We have to step outside of our comfort zones. We have to open ourselves up to discoveries and be willing to learn something new, preferably every day.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more foreign something seems to you, the more important it is that you embrace it.

It’s so much easier to stick to what we’re used to, to take potshots at things we don’t understand, to hang out with people who are like us. But that’s a recipe for disaster. We can see the results in our world today. What is discrimination but an attempt to prove that the group belong to is better than the group you belong to? What is war but a refusal to admit that we all want—and have a right to—the same things: safety, security, sustenance, love, acceptance and happiness, for ourselves and those we care about?

Developing empathy is an ongoing and many-layered process. None of the suggestions above will, by themselves, help you to become deeply empathetic. But taken together, and repeated often, they will help.

 

 

Adrienne Rich: Not Just a Feminist Poet

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Adrienne Rich died last Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at the age of 82. If it is at all fair to sum up a poet’s work in one word, in her case it would be “feminist.” But of course it isn’t fair, or accurate, to do so. Rich wrote about so much more than feminism.

It is true that she became known as a feminist poet partly because her poetry gained recognition during the early days of the Women’s Liberation Movement. In fact, her third poetry collection, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, was published the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963).

Rich’s life followed a predictable course for a young woman of the ’50s: She graduated from college (Radcliffe) with a bachelor’s in English in 1951, married in 1953, when she was 24, and had three sons before she was 30. But by 1970, when she and her husband divorced, her life had taken a radical turn. She came out as a lesbian in 1976 with the publication of her poetry collection, Twenty-One Love Poems.

Along with her poetry, Rich also wrote non-fiction on a variety of topics: racism, the Vietnam War, politics, social commentary, and of course,women’s issues. She was also willing to act when something moved her.  For instance, she was so critical of the policies of the Clinton administration that she  refused the National Medal of Arts that was awarded her in 1997, citing her dismay that “amid the “increasingly brutal impact of racial and economic injustice,” the government had chosen to honor “a few token artists while the people at large are so dishonored.”

It’s sad that we often don’t pay attention to a person’s life achievements until after they’re gone. I’d heard of Adrienne Rich, but didn’t really know anything about her or her writings. I plan to correct that. I’ve ordered two of her books, one verse and the other prose, and I’ll be sharing what I learn from them in future posts.

In a 1984 speech she stated that her writing and her life were about “the creation of a society without domination.” That’s why I think it’s a shame that she is categorized as a feminist poet, just because she was a woman who sometimes wrote about women. Naming an artist a feminist is one way that society silences its critics. (And naming her a lesbian is an even more effective strategy.)

That’s why I’m going to read Adrienne Rich. Not because she was a feminist, but because she was against all injustice. Hers is a voice that deserves to be heard by everyone.

 

 

Why Fight the War on Women?

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There’s been a lot in the news lately about the War on Women. What most people don’t realize is that this “war” isn’t only about abortion. It’s a series of battles over a woman’s right to live her life purposefully. This doesn’t just mean her right to birth control or abortion. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Women are still having to fight for these things and more:

  • access to education
  • jobs, promotions
  • health benefits
  • reasonable rates for life and health insurance
  • maternity leave and other accommodations for child-rearing
  • effective prosecution of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence
  • elected office and other positions of power

Many people think that the War on Women was fought in the ’60s and ’70s and that women won it. They point to female CEOs and other professionals, to the number of women obtaining higher education, to greater attention being paid to women’s health issues and  to greater protections in general under the law. But these advantages are not being given equally to all women.

As long as there is one woman who is treated wrongfully and unequally because of her gender, the war has not been won. And the fact is, there are still millions of women who need things that many of us, privileged as we are, take for granted. Not only that, but women who feel that they have never suffered gender or sexual discrimination are either unusually fortunate or delusional.

One of the most insidious ways to keep women down is socialization. It’s hard to point a finger to the culprit here when the entire society participates in the practices that keep women from fulfilling their full potential. Even women themselves cooperate in their own socialization and often seem proud of it. The woman who drops out of college to get married, the professional who stops working to have children, the mother who praises her daughter for being pretty, but not for her participation in sports—all of these women are shortsightedly dooming themselves and their children to discrimination in the future.

These women protest that they have the right to choose to work part-time or not at all (except for in the home of course), to have as many children as they want and to raise them however they see fit. I’m not saying that they don’t have the right to choose whatever they want to do with their lives. I’m just asking them to think about the long-term effects of their choices.

The War on Women can’t be fought only by the people who already have the advantages some women only dream of. It has to be fought by all women. Each woman has to think purposefully about her life and do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. She has to stop thinking about what everyone else wants her to do and start thinking about what she wants.

Some say that the feminist movement has done nothing but create a society of self-centered and selfish women who think nothing of abandoning husbands and children and who could care less about their families’ fates. There will always be those who think only of themselves (female and male), but the feminist movement didn’t cause that. And that is certainly not its goal.

All that feminism asks is that women think and act responsibly with an eye to the future, both their future and that of their children. Do they really want their daughters (and sons) to be saddled with children they didn’t want and can’t care for? Do they want their daughters to continue to have to bear the brunt of housework and child-raising? Do they want their sons to take women for granted, even to the point of abusing them?

Maybe the War on Women will never be over. Patriarchal attitudes are ingrained in nearly every society. Add to that the resistance people have to change. But humankind’s progress doesn’t depend on staying in the present or even going back to the past. Progress means to go forward. What was “usual and customary” for our ancestors has to be re-examined and reworked in order to serve our future.

 

 

A Public Service Reminder (PSA) That’s Hard to Forget

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If this is what it takes to get you to remember your breast exams, so be it. I have a feeling I’ll be watching this video over and over. Just because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the scenery.

Thanks to my husband for sending this to me! He must really love me.

“Fat” Books: Two Reviews

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I’ve been on a fat spree lately. I don’t mean that I’ve been eating fat or making fat (at least no more than usual), but that I’ve been reading about it. Specifically, I’ve been reading books by women at different stages of “fathood.”

The first book, Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight, and How Parents Can (and Can’t) Help by Abby Ellin may sound like it’s only about kids, but in reality it’s about what we do to our kids to make them obsessed about their weight. Some of the kids whose stories are in the book are genuinely obese, but many of them are not even fat, or are only a little overweight. And yet they still have the same anxieties as the children who are struggling with being grossly overweight.

The author herself was probably never more than “chubby,” but that was enough for her grandmother to refuse to allow her to visit her when Ellin failed to lose the weight her grandmother thought she should lose. Ellin went to “fat” camps several summers in a row, in latter years as a counselor. She takes those experiences and adds to them from interviews she’s had with other “fatties” to flesh out a complete picture of what it’s like to be fat and fail to lose weight in this society. It’s not a pretty picture.

Ellin doesn’t end up making recommendations for how to combat childhood obesity other than that each fat person has to do it for herself. But there’s a lot of food for thought in this book and I recommend it even if you aren’t a parent with an obese child. We all need to look in the mirror when we start looking for someone to blame for the obesity crisis we have in this country.

The second book I read was by a woman who has come to terms with the fact that she’s fat. In fact, she celebrates it. In Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting, and Live Large, Kim Brittingham shares her philosophies about how people get fat, why they stay fat and why it shouldn’t matter. I loved her description of what it’s like to have a full belly:

When my belly is that full, it feels like I’m being hugged—from the inside … like someone or something else is “with” me … And being that full makes me feel anchored and substantial … Every occasion of overstuffing myself has been a subconscious tug-of-war between wanting to feel that full and dreading it.

What I like about Brittingham’s book is that it is not a book with the happy ending we’re expecting. The author doesn’t lose weight in the end. And yet it is still a success story. I don’t know if I could ever feel as comfortable about being fat as Brittingham does, but she makes a good case for accepting yourself at any weight and body-type.

I have several more “fat memoirs” on hold at the library, plus books about Overeater’s Anonymous, how French people don’t get fat and the Mayo Clinic Weight Loss Diet. Obviously I’m a little obsessed right now (can you be a “little” obsessed?). So I’m going to start a series of posts on the “fat” problem, including my own (look for the next post). Please comment from your own experiences, either as a person who also has a “fat” problem, or as someone who cares about those who do.

Book Review: Girls Like Us

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Sometimes a book is singled out not just for its writing, but for its topic. Girls Like Us is such a book. The author, Rachel Lloyd, has turned what could have been another “terrible childhood” memoir into both a social commentary and a call to action. Her own story of commercial sexual exploitation and how she made her way out of it is interesting enough in its own right, but Lloyd makes it into so much more by weaving the stories of “girls like her” throughout her narrative.

Lloyd’s main message is a strong one: she contends that teen prostitutes are not criminals or bad girls, but victims of commercial sexual exploitation. She even goes so far as to say that children and young women are being trafficked in this country. She makes her case so well, I came away from the reading of this book with an entirely different view of prostitution.

I took a course on “Sex Work” in college a few years ago where we debated whether or not prostitution was a victimless crime, or even a crime at all. Were prostitutes and other sex workers exploited or empowered by what they did for a living? Some feminists insist that all sex work is a form of exploitation, even a rape of sorts. Others feel that we have put down sex workers far too long and that we should accord them agency to dictate their own lives.

Lloyd has come up with a different perspective and once you’ve read the book you wonder why you didn’t see it for yourself. When a person is tricked, cajoled, and even terrorized into “the life” (of prostitution) the victim is the prostitute herself. And when we’re talking about children, who have not reached the age of majority by a long shot, it’s clear that something is wrong with this picture. All too often these children are victimized not only by their pimps and their johns, but also by the system that should be protecting them: the social workers, police, lawyers and judges who see them as criminals who must be punished for their transgressions.

This book makes it clear, without heavy arguments or specialized jargon, that these girls have much more in common with the rest of us than we would like to believe.  They have hopes and dreams and interests like any other children, but they’ve been deceived into thinking that “the life” is going to give them the security, both financial and emotional, that they are so desperately seeking.

When I told an acquaintance about this book, her reaction was that she just didn’t believe that police and the legal system would see these under-age prostitutes as seasoned criminals. I told her that she should read the book. She still insisted that I had to be wrong (meaning that the author had to be wrong).

Her reaction may not be unique. People are so uncomfortable with the underside of life, they would rather assume that those who inhabit it have chosen to live that way. They refuse to believe that fear and violence and self-loathing are powerful determinants. Especially for children.

Twenty years ago I read Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol which was about the horrible conditions in our country’s poorest schools. Almost overnight I became painfully aware of something I would rather have not known about. There was no answer for why we would allow poor children to go wanting for even the basics of a decent life. When I read Girls Like Us, I had the same reaction. How can we look the other way when children are being destroyed daily? How can we allow such a total loss of innocence and potential?

The best part of this book is that the author offers hope, not just to the reader, but also to the young girls themselves. Because this is not just an exposé or expanded article from a socially conscious magazine. This is also a chronicle of one woman who was able to climb out of “the life” and go on to make something of herself. The really amazing thing is that she didn’t stop there. She founded an organization when she was only 23 designed to reach out to young women and children who are caught up in sexual exploitation and to help them, too, to extricate themselves from their (sometimes literal) prisons.

Lloyd doesn’t sugarcoat the process. This is no sunshiny, pie-in-the-sky approach to human redemption. Lloyd’s been there herself and has done this work long enough that she knows exactly how hard it can be. But she refuses to give up. Today she serves as the executive director of her organization, Girls Educational &Mentoring Services, otherwise known as GEMS, and devotes her time to spreading the word about its important work and the work of so many other organizations and individuals who share the same concerns and vision.

I urge you to read Girls Like Us and to visit GEMS’ website. You owe it to yourself as a concerned citizen and a human being. These young women are not “throwaways.” They deserve the chance to remake themselves and achieve their potential. But they need our awareness and our support. Reading this book is an important first step.