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.

 

 

Does a Woman Need a Room of Her Own?

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Virginia Woolf wrote* that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write [fiction].” She was writing about writers, but what she said applies to being a woman, period. If a woman is to be her own person, she must have autonomy, which in this world means enough money to live on and the ability to make your own destiny. What does that have to do with a room of one’s own, though? And what does that mean anyway?

I noticed a couple of years ago that HGTV (Home and Gardening TV Network) began referring to “man caves.” These are set-apart rooms for the man of the house where he can pursue what he’s interested in and be himself. The implication is that a man can’t truly relax anywhere else in the house, as if all the other square footage belongs to his wife (and children, if there are any).

The other implication is that women don’t need “woman caves” because they have the whole house in which to pursue their interests and be themselves. The belief that the house is primarily the sphere of women probably dates back to the days when everyone lived in caves. The women stayed home and took care of the children, prepared the meals and fashioned utensils (and later, practiced agriculture) while the men went out and “earned a living.” The larger world was not for the female sex, but by the same token, men didn’t feel entirely welcome in the smaller world of home and hearth.

Even in this day when men and women both work outside of the home, women are seen as the primary housekeepers and men the householders (the ones who own the home). It’s a usually unspoken agreement between the sexes that women can do what they want with the inside of the house and men make the “bigger” decisions that have to do with the world outside the home.

I have a friend from high school who recently posted pictures on Facebook of the interior of his house. Some of the comments referred to his taste as well as his wife’s and suggested that they should both take up house staging (which is arranging the furnishings in a home so that it is more appealing to potential buyers). Apparently my friend had as much to say about how the interior of his home looks as his wife did.

I don’t think this is unusual. More men are taking an interest in home decorating (without automatically being thought of as gay). As a result, women are feeling pushed out of the house a little (until it comes to cleaning it—although that is changing somewhat, too).

The husband is no longer relegated to a workshop in the basement or garage. Now he is more likely to have a study, home office or man cave. But what about the wife? Where is her special place, where she can conduct her own affairs in private? I’m sorry, but the kitchen and laundry room just don’t qualify.

But the assumption persists that taking care of the home completes a woman in ways that would never be enough for a man. It is thought that all women have a nesting instinct and that they just tolerate their husbands’ presence, let alone his interference.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your home and feeling completed by taking care of it. The problem is that too many people, male and female, believe that that’s all a woman should want out of life. Even women talk themselves into believing that their priorities are skewed if they want to do anything but keep a house and raise children.

A room of one’s own doesn’t have to be a physical one; but it does need to exist. Autonomy requires the presence of privacy and the absence of interference. If you find that you can’t retreat into your own “space” where you can create who you are, then your personal growth will be stunted. You will only be a reflection of what other people want from you.

*Source: A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf, 1928.

Obesity and Mental Illness: Are They Linked?

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Depressed Overweight WomanWhen the upcoming 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) was being put together, a proposal was received that obesity and overeating be included as mental illnesses. Although this proposal was rejected, it does raise some interesting questions about the mental health of obese individuals.

Weight loss is a complicated process. People who have never had problems with obesity tend to think that losing weight is merely a matter of eating less and moving more. When obese people have trouble losing weight, others think they’re just not trying hard enough. This is the main reason for the hostility that is directed at obese people in our society: they are seen as lazy whiners who cost the health care system billions of dollars a year because of health problems that “they bring on themselves.”

The fact is, it’s not that easy to lose weight. There are myriad factors that play into weight gain. Some people inherit the tendency to gain weight. Others become heavy from poor eating habits, often instilled in childhood. Still others gain weight because of medications they’re on. Certainly lack of exercise plays a role as well. But the main reason obese people have trouble losing weight is that their obesity is all mixed up with mental health issues.

That’s not to say that obese people are mentally ill. But they are often depressed, have low self-esteem and lack confidence because of the way society judges them. If you were constantly being beaten down by “normal” weight individuals who see you as inferior, you’d have trouble mustering the courage and motivation to embark on a weight loss program, too.

That’s why it’s extremely important to have a mental health assessment if you find that you’re constantly trying and failing to lose weight. Clinical or bi-polar depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, even ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) can cause overeating. Sometimes medication and/or therapy can bring you up to a healthy level of functioning which in turn can be critical to your success.

This can be a two-edged sword, however. Most psychotropic medications cause weight gain, making it that much harder to accomplish your weight loss goal. Your doctor or therapist needs to be sensitive to the mental anguish this can cause. And you need to be aware that this is not your fault.

Even talk therapy can bring up issues that upset you and make you want to turn to food for comfort or to alleviate anxiety, further complicating your efforts to lose weight. It’s important to not get caught in a cycle of self-recrimination when you have these setbacks. It’s all part of the learning process.

In at least one study, obesity was associated with a 25-50% increased risk of lifetime psychiatric disorders (depression, mania, panic attacks, social phobia, agoraphobia), any lifetime mood or anxiety disorder, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. These issues must be dealt with or the obese person will find it nearly impossible to lose weight and maintain that weight loss, let alone be a fully functioning individual.

For more information about the DSM-5 and eating disorders, see this report by the American Psychiatric Association.

See also this article by Dr. Arya Sharma, “Obesity is Not a Mental Illness.”

 

 

 

 

 

What Femagination is All About

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A comment left on this blog two days ago* got me thinking about the views I hold as a feminist. Although I’m well aware of the fact that feminism is not a universally loved ideology, I still tend to think that most women (and many men) hold at least some of the views that a feminist does.

What woman, for instance, thinks it’s okay for a man to make more for doing the same job that she does? Or that women shouldn’t have the same opportunities for education, employment or promotion? Or that it’s all right to objectify and abuse women sexually?

Often, when I try to tell people who agree that all these things are wrong that they hold feminist views, they still resist the label. This attitude keeps them away as readers as well. That’s why I recently changed my blog’s tag line to “the feminine imagination blog” from “the feminist imagination blog.” I haven’t stopped being a feminist, but I am tired of people assuming the worst just because I call myself one.

I’m also tired of people refusing to see that a feminist slant merely means that this blog is about women and the issues that affect them directly. It’s not about destroying the institutions of marriage and the family. It’s not about hating men or blaming them for everything that’s wrong in society. Nor is it about women being masculine or non-maternal.

What this blog is about is how to be the person you want to be, unhampered by rules and traditions that prevent you from reaching your potential. Whatever your goals are in life, this blog is here to help you achieve them.

For example, I’ve written several posts about obesity and I plan to write more in the future. I’ve written about everything from abortion to the workplace. (See the drop-down menu to the right for all the topics I’ve covered in the 600+ posts included here.) Sometimes I view these topics from a feminist stance but more often I just view them as a human.

I’m not trying to convert anyone to feminism. If you’re already a feminist, you’ll find plenty here for you. If you’re wondering what feminism is all about, you’ll find that, too. But if you dislike, even despise, the notion of feminism, you should still give this blog a try. You might be surprised by what you find here.

* See the comment on “Why More Mothers Aren’t Feminists.”

What Losing 160 Pounds in a Year Looks Like

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When Julia Kozerski decided in 2009 to lose weight she started taking cell phone photos of herself trying on clothes in dressing rooms. After losing 160 pounds in a year, she published her photo series. You can see it here. (The first photo is to the right.)

This is an amazing feat, all the more so because she was a newlywed, a first-time homeowner, a full-time college student and a caretaker for her ill parents during the same period.

How did she lose the weight? She stopped eating junk food, started walking and biking daily, counted calories, and weighed and measured her food portions. (You can see a BodyBugg armband in many of the photos.)

It’s interesting to me that this article about her describes her motivation as wanting to “drastically change her lifestyle.” It was not specifically to lose weight, although I’m sure she was hoping that would be one of the results.

This is an important distinction. Losing any significant amount of weight requires a complete lifestyle change; anything less will not produce lasting results. The main reason that people regain weight after a weight loss is because they didn’t change their behaviors or they only changed them temporarily. Often the entire time they’re dieting, they’re dreaming of the day when they can go back to their “normal” way of eating. What they don’t realize is that they have to create a new normal.

One thing that surprised me about these photos was how good she looked even before she lost all the weight, especially when she wore the right clothes. The lesson I learned from that was that there is no such thing as “before” and “after,” with nothing good in between. We have a tendency to think that we won’t look good until we’ve reached our final goal.

We need to celebrate ourselves at any weight and not think of ourselves as incomplete or unfinished just because we still have weight to lose.

We also need to remember that losing the weight isn’t the ultimate goal. Changing our lives should be our primary motivation.

 

The Obesity Epidemic – How This Fat Person is Losing Weight

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I am one of the statistics of the obesity epidemic. When I was younger I weighed around 125 and I’m only 5’3″, so I was never skinny. But as of last May 26th, my weight had topped out at 204.

Since then I’ve lost thirteen pounds.  I’m not following a specific diet and I rarely exercise (in fact my lifestyle is basically sedentary). But still I’ve been able to lose almost a pound a week. What changed? My attitude.

First, what made me fat in the first place? 1) I stopped working; 2) I started taking medications that can cause weight gain; and 3) I went through menopause. A triple whammy. But I had also been overweight as a child and my mother struggled with obesity all her life, so I had a predisposition to gain weight. I just never expected to gain so much.

I used to have nightmares that I became so fat I couldn’t hold my arms down to my sides. Even after I slimmed down in the 6th grade, I thought of myself as fat, especially once my body started to develop. (I have a “womanly” body, which means I have more curves than angles.)

Still, when I really started to gain weight, I barely noticed at first. My first inkling that something was up (my weight) was when I tried on my winter coat and it felt tight. I thought it had shrunk. I know it’s hard for thin people to believe, but weight can sneak up on you, especially if you haven’t been weighing yourself. It wasn’t until I went to the doctor’s that I was hit with the awful truth: I had gained a total of forty pounds. But at that point I wasn’t even as fat as I would eventually become.

A few months later, when I started taking courses at the local university and started doing a lot of walking, I lost thirty pounds. But after I graduated, my weight started inching up again, literally. Especially in my waist, which got as wide as 44 inches. (Yes, I have the infamous “apple” shape.)

It’s funny how once you start thinking of yourself as really fat, it almost doesn’t matter how fat you get. Fat is fat, you figure. What’s ten more pounds? I kept thinking that way until I hit 204 and my 40DD bras started getting too tight.

Around the same time, I started going to counseling about my eating problems. (I have a tendency toward bulemia.) And during the course of that therapy, I realized that I had the means to do something about my weight. In fact, I was the only one who could do it. My therapist helped me to see that I was putting the blame for all my faults everywhere but on myself.

This tied into my religious beliefs which emphasize personal responsibility. (I converted to Islam three years ago.) If God holds us accountable, then we, too, have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to face who we really are and assess our strengths and weaknesses. But that doesn’t mean putting ourselves down, which is what I’d been doing.

I had settled into the “fat person” mindset: No matter what I was when  I was younger, I’m a fat person now and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m old, my meds make me gain weight, and I’m post-menopausal. What’s the use of trying to change?

One day I was writing in my journal about how my parents’ deaths had affected me. It seemed as though once I made it through the grief experience, I wasn’t the same person anymore. It was as if I had died with them and been born again as a new person.

I realized then that I could use that process to reinvent myself. I could die to the self who was keeping me from attaining my goals. All I had to do was pinpoint the most negative things that person was doing, and resolve to turn them around.

And because my preoccupation with my weight and over-eating was the worst culprit, I decided to start killing off those attitudes and behaviors first.

I sat down and wrote a list of things I do that contribute to my eating and weight problems.

  1. I hated going hungry.
  2. I ate all day long (also known as “grazing.”)
  3. My portion sizes were out of control.
  4. I judged myself by what I weighed each day.

Then I made up some rules that would counteract those behaviors and attitudes.

  1. Practice mini-fasting.
  2. Only eat at set meal and snack times.
  3. Cut down on portion sizes.
  4. Weigh-ins once a week only.

I made up my mind that I would stick to those rules no matter what.

See my next post on “Fasting as a Weight Loss Technique.”