A Dish for the Soul: Empathy

Dr. Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health, offers humanity a powerful tool for cultivating empathy.

The world feels more divisive than ever. Whether it’s how to handle COVID-19, the environment, the economy and everything in between, there’s a great deal of polarizing opinions. Yet there’s a fine but distinctive line between having an opinion and holding a grudge against someone for possessing an opposing, alternate viewpoint.

Our newly instated President Biden is palpably aware of the charged air. He asks us to put aside our differences, “uniting to fight the foes we face.” (Source: Vox).

We—a small but powerful pronoun. We are all together; humanity is interconnected in this mysterious life. We affect each other on levels great and small.

The charged air, the divisiveness and polarized opinions with metaphorical haunches raised (and sometimes literal, as we witnessed on January 6th at the Capitol), is fear-based reaction. Underneath the anger and violence is fear and pain. The lashing out is a manifestation of untended to psychological wounds.

Enter Dr. Jeremiah Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health (www.spiritualityandhealth.org) who offers “education and guidance…helping people reduce stress.” The other week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Pearcey offered a mindfulness meditation to explore the historical moments leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, cultivating a greater understanding and compassion for others and ourselves. The title of the Zoom event: “A Day of Embrace and Peace.”

The idea of embracing the historical moments leading up to King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” of finding peace in the face of tension seems like an unlikely pairing. Yet the wise Dr. Pearcey’s guided meditation is just what the world needs now.

After several cleansing breaths and a reminder to get comfortable, attendees of the conference, myself included, were guided by Dr. Pearcey’s soothing voice to journey with him. We were asked to imagine ourselves in 1619 as Africans suddenly separated from our families, not understanding the language of our captors, chained together on a boat. Our journey continued to a plantation in 1800, where any courage to leave our “owners” was often extinguished by the site of other African Americans strung up on trees—a visual reminder of the dire risk for our freedom. We were even brought to the recent past, our last breaths labored, as George Floyd’s was, letting our capture know, with the little we had left of life, “I can’t breathe.”

Dr. Pearcey’s meditative guidance offered us a powerful tool for cultivating empathy and one that we can use in our daily lives. The prefix EM literally means in and PATHY means feeling. Under Dr. Pearcey’s steady and compassionate guidance, we were able to experience empathy for our ancestors and the victims of systemic racism today.

Did anxiety surface during the meditation? Anger? Hopelessness? Yes, to it all. Yet the mediation allowed a safe space to observe without judgement, to feel without attaching ourselves to the unpleasant emotions.

It is okay to feel uncomfortable in this life. When we practice self-compassion, we are more apt to feel compassion for others. Unity is a by-product of acknowledging our differences and cultivating empathy. When one of us suffers, we are all suffering; when we acknowledge our discomfort, our anxiety, our anger, or our hurt from a place of compassion, true healing can begin—for ourselves and, by extension, the world around us.

Thank You, Langston Hughes

The talented Langston Hughes reminds us of the choice we all have in his moving story, “Thank You, Ma’am”

Our world is fraught with anxiety, filled with the uncertainty of COVID-19 as our death toll continues to mount. The almost full calendar year of pandemic life has rendered many of us depressed. Factor in the economic stress and growing political tension, it is no surprise that many of us are also quick-tempered. After all, when we are experiencing pain it’s normal to react. 

How we react to pain makes all the difference.

As an English teacher to middle school students, I bear the gift and responsibility of educating minds through literature. Students “buy in” when they can connect a text to both the world around and in them. With the escalating violence at the US Capitol, I felt a need to choose a story that could palpably demonstrate an invaluable commodity: kindness.

 It’s easy to be kind when we are in a good place, when our needs are met and we want for little or nothing; kindness becomes, for many of us, a challenge when we are in pain.

The social activist and prolific Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes offered my students (and humanity) a short but profound and palpably moving example of kindness in the face of pain with his story, “Thank You, Ma’am.”

The story involves a young teen who attempts to steal a woman’s purse on the street at night. Instead of reporting the boy to the police, the woman brings him home and gives him a warm meal. Her kindness alters the boy’s behavior, his perception and—although we can only infer—the trajectory of his life.

I want my students to know that each of them has the power to make a choice every moment; I want each of us to remember that, despite how painful life can get at times, we always have a choice to be kind. This is not a call to be a doormat. Langston Hughes’ character, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is portrayed as a strong, no nonsense woman. She is that rare mixture of confident and compassionate, perceptive yet matter of fact.

So, as you go through your morning, your day, your week, your life, regardless of wherever life may take you, channel your inner Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. A simple gesture of kindness can change someone’s life in ways you may never know—including your own.

The Validation Dish

There’s something I notice lately, something women tend to do more than men. Something girls tend to do more than boys. I’ve seen manifestations of this affliction most of my life: the apology without real cause, the explanation that is typically unnecessary, the quick laughter to mask the hurt. But it wasn’t until recently that I noticed a visual/auditory pattern as well: parenthetical statements.

Huh?

Hear me out. The other night, I was out with a group of women, and I noticed a regular pattern, subtle but distinct, to the banter of us. Statements like:

“I haven’t felt the same since I got COVID, well, I think I haven’t felt the same.”

“I just want a man who is, you know, kind. I don’t need to care about his looks, not really, you know. I just want him to be, I don’t know, nice.”

“I told him I was still reading, so why did he turn off the light. That really pissed me off—that’s bitchy of me, probably it is, right? I don’t think he meant it to be mean, but I was reading in bed, so it’s like I don’t matter, right?”

You see what I mean?? I felt this out-of-body aha moment that night, noticing a specific kind of halting cadence to our statements, like a toddler learning to walk, but not quite ready to let go of the furniture.

I kept thinking, most men would articulate those sentences, sans those parenthesis—they would be the figurative toddler standing, teetering, falling and getting right back up without any need to grab onto a nearby chair!

Those same statements, uttered from the mouths of men might sound more like this:

“I haven’t felt the same since I got COVID.”

“I just want a woman who is kind.”

“I told her I was reading, and she turned off the light. 

#3 would be a clear conclusionary statement or likely would not be articulated in the first place because our imaginary gentleman wouldn’t need the big V: validation.

If you are a man reading this, feel free to disagree. After all, this is an opinion- piece and I am speaking in generalizations. There are women out there who possess the confidence to speak without a barrage of caveats weighing down their sentences; there are men who throw pauses into their words like a trapeze artist on a balance beam!

It’s one thing to be uncertain and articulate that uncertainty. It’s another, more subtle yet dangerous thing to crave validation or worse yet, lack faith in yourself.

Here’s what I know:

My friend’s breathing is more labored post COVID.

My friend wants to meet a kind, nice man who she is attracted to and deserves to be attracted to.

My friend was pissed that her husband turned off the light when she was reading.

When we sit with how we feel, when we accept all of our emotions, we no longer feel the deceiving call for external validation.

Whatever your gender, I challenge you to pay attention today and notice how you speak, how the sentences form on your tongue and in your mind. Embrace your inner compass, without the need to justify, apologize or gain the approval of others.

 External validation is a hunger that never satisfies. Go within for approval and you’ll never starve.

The Gift of Discomfort

            When we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.

My friend *Camile cried to me over the phone this past weekend. She suspects that her new husband is cheating on her. If her fears are correct, this would be her second marriage strained, if not destroyed, by infidelity.

Fact: Camile husband keeps an extra cell phone for his work as a doctor. 

Fact: Camile is not allowed to know the number or have access to this additional phone.

Fact: The two haven’t been intimate since COVID began…

Flash back to three years ago when Camile discovered her first husband (now an ex) sexting with his nurse. Once Camile caught him red-handed, her ex said he “wanted out anyway.” 

It’s worth noting that for month’s prior to Camile’s sexting find, she’d wanted to confront her then husband. But each time, the mere idea of broaching the topic made her queasy with discomfort.

Within months of Camile’s split from her ex, before the divorce was even finalized, she started dating the man who is now her current husband.

Tonight, as Camile broke down to me, I could hear the familiar tinkle of a glass that had accompanied our talks back in 2017.

“What are you drinking?”

It was a rhetorical question. My dear friend’s imbibing companion was always the same: Riesling.  While she isn’t much of a drinker, she does become a fan of the white grape wine whenever heartache arises.

Camile chooses wine in lieu of facing her pain. I tend to go for the chips and ice cream. Some of us choose inedible comfort food when a challenge of the heart grows imminent: gambling, smoking pot, retail therapy.

The last time I heard Camile drinking her beloved Riesling was during her divorce proceedings. Once her current husband entered the picture, I can’t recall her enjoying the beverage.

To avoid pain and suffering is human nature, but sometimes, the very thing we are trying not to experience actually prolongs if not worsens it. Camile never truly mourned the end of her marriage, never honored her feelings of anger and betrayal. Tonight, those lessons are knocking on her door again. 

What lessons are knocking on your door? What pain and heartache do you run from and subsequently continue to experience?

There is a gift in acknowledging everything from discomfort to heartache. If we don’t pause long enough to accept the gift, we run the risk of repeating pain in merely a new guise.

 While it sounds counter-intuitive, when we allow ourselves to experience pain, true healing and growth begins.

“What Memes Are You Ingesting?

“We all have thoughts that were given to us by our families, our society, our culture. These given thoughts are so pervasive and so ingrained that they seem like part of our very being, but that’s exactly why we need to dig in and examine them if we want a life worth living.”-Wayne Dyer

Memes are those humorous images or brief videos that spread like wildfire on the Internet. But memes aren’t always so innocuous or merely copied and pasted into our web browser.

According to Merriam-Webster, a meme is “an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Much like COVID-19 possesses the potential to spread from person to person through respiratory droplets, a meme is spread between people either in person or digitally. 

While memes range in emotional variance from belly-laugh-inducing to call-to-action-inspiring, there are dormant ones that, received unaware, can be downright dangerous. They’re words or actions that we ingest without giving ourselves time to chew. We swallow these memes without even taking a breath to consider them. 

These dormant memes can manifest in our personal or professional lives. Their danger lies in our inability to discern them; digesting them unconsciously wreaks havoc on our spirit and psychological wellbeing. 

Here are some virus memes I’ve heard in the past two weeks:

“I’m so stupid.”

“I’m depressed.”

“I’m disorganized.”

“I’m lazy.”

“I’m fat.”

Notice they start with the pronoun I. These statements are nothing more than memes. Someone at some point told them they were stupid, depressed, disorganized, lazy and fat. And they accepted the meme without question until it became part of their belief, their psyche.

Much like a malignant growth that needs to be removed, it is important to consider the statements you find yourself thinking or saying often. If it’s something negative about yourself, there’s a good chance you are allowing a virus meme to dwell in your psyche. If the words or behavior hurt you, I encourage you to work on its extraction from your life. Consider replacing it with an inspiring meme.

I leave you with an inspiring quote from Wayne Dyer regarding memes: “We all have thoughts that were given to us by our families, our society, our culture. These given thoughts are so pervasive and so ingrained that they seem like part of our very being, but that’s exactly why we need to dig in and examine them if we want a life worth living.”

Dig in and know your hunger!

“Who’s Watching What You Dish?”

Poem Inspired by Our Humanity

I like to think of us as a bunch of Russian dolls scurrying around our planet Earth: We have our many different versions of us. As a colleague recently noted in response to a compliment I gave her LinkedIn profile, “Everyone looks great on LinkedIn. No one sees what goes on when you go off the LinkedIn grid.”

Many of us who are fortunate enough to still have employment during COVID-19 have grown quite comfortable emerging the pajama-clad Russian doll. And when we have ventured out into our new world, we can often be observed sporting a facemask, our eyes now doing a great deal of talking for us. Draping our face with a mask is, according to both the CDC and WHO, recommended to reduce the spread of COVID-19. So the mask wearing is displaying our Russian doll of respecting others and ourselves.

Our world is filled with our respective Russian dolls. After all, the way we might talk to our best friend is not necessarily the way we would speak to our doctor or bank teller. But there’s one group of people that are watching all of the Russian dolls each of us inhabit in a day: children. 

Each new generation comes into our world as a spiritual clean slate. They digest the messages we serve—whether directly or indirectly. Our planet is clearly on the cusp of significant transformation. Now, more than ever, it is up to each of us to consider what we are dishing out to the world around us—especially children. They are watching us in all of our Russian doll manifestations, ingesting the words we might throw down without a second thought like a frozen pizza. 

Remember when you had to look up to see the kitchen counter, an adult’s seemingly huge arm reaching up effortlessly for a plate on the top shelf? The world was fresh, exciting and memorable then. Just as we were listening to understand that world and drawing conclusions based on what we heard from the “grown ups,” so too are the children today. Only now, social media and technology make information arrive at lightning speed, causing a potential tsunami of indigestion if we don’t take the time to both process and consider what Russian doll of ourselves is showing up in the world to our young people.

There’s an African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Here’s the truth: at the center of each of those Russian dolls, we are all children. When we remember this, we work together—the best dish for the planet.

Coronavirus Scents

Fragrant Jasmine in Our Neighborhood

I snapped a picture of these blooming jasmines on my mental health walk this week. The strong scent captured my attention before the sight of them. I reside in Texas where spring means waves upon waves of perfumed air provided by this tropical plant associated with love.

I’m a big believer in signs; the Universe is always speaking to us—it’s up to us to listen (or in this case, smell;-)

There are some sidewalks in my neighborhood festooned with fences of this heady-scented flower. And when I walk by them, I can’t help but feel connected to some benevolent force. It’s no wonder that jasmine in Persian is “yasmin”which literally means, gift from God.

Some of the many potential gifts of jasmine include its ability to:

  • promote relaxation (garnered from its buds for everything from tea to aromatherapy)
  • treat skin disease
  • reduce the risk of breast cancer
  • be used as an aphrodisiac (according to legend, a Tuscan gardener proposed to his bride-to-be with a branch of jasmine and she said yes—so taken was she with the heady scent:-)

A worldwide pandemic in the midst of an abundant spring flower that is known for its restorative powers…something to consider in your own neighborhood. I encourage you to take time to smell the literal or metaphorical flowers waiting for you to stop and “sense” them;-)

Sources: http://www.diethics.com, http://www.home-remedies-for-you.com, http://www.livealittlelonger.com, http://www.medicinenet.com, http://www.sciencedaily.com, http://www.healthline.com, http://www.organicfacts.net, http://www.drhealthbenefits.com, http://www.globalfoodbook.com, http://www.healthbenefitstimes.com

Feeding Your Inner Child

Me at about 4 years old. Gotta love the Donny Osmond cut;-)

Most of us are familiar with Throw Back Thursday (TBT) pictures that populate our Facebook and Instagram feeds. For a spell in cyberspace, we share a piece of our physical selves before moving on to emoji-respond or perhaps comment on someone else’s photo from the past.

But do we consider the person in that picture? Do we contemplate the perceptions and notions of the person residing in that young body?

The little girl in the photo here is me at four years old. It’s summer in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It’s before I knew about things like stereotypes, “traditional” roles and the expectations of others. It was before I knew fear and each day was a glorious discovery.  

Although that little girl didn’t have the words to use then, I can distinctly recall feeling empowered holding that heavy bat in my hands. An anticipatory eagerness dwelled inside of me each time a ball was sent my way. I didn’t want to stop playing.

Shortly after this picture was taken, I heard phrases from adults and kids just a hair older than me (though back then, the age difference felt monumental) that altered my perception of that little girl and her bat:

“You throw like a girl.”

“You can’t play that.”

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“You’re too delicate.”

“Baseball isn’t for you—it’s a boys’ sport.”

It was the 70’s and gender roles were still fairly traditional and inflexible. 

I invite you to pour a cup of tea and “interview” you from the past, before the world filled you with memes and ideas that no longer serve you. There is a power that comes from returning to the past with fresh eyes: a shift in our perceptions. This shift has the potential to nourish our soul.

COVID-19 is a horrific virus that plagues all of us; it does, however, offer us the gift of time to reflect and question what is feeding us and what we might prefer to be ingesting. 

Food for Parents and Kids of All Ages

During this pandemic, while doing our part to stay home and flatten the curve, I stumbled upon this poem my son had written at nine years of age. The genius of this assignment is its simplicity, it’s ability to extract one’s perceptions and personality preferences through present tense verbs: I see, I cry, I dream.

While many of us are still homebound, I encourage you to nourish yourself and your family members with this poetry “workout” of sorts.  We have all seen the GIF pictures flooding social media now of people going into their respective fridges every ten minutes, irrationally hoping to find something new to eat. 

But more often than not, we are hungry for connection and understanding—particularly during this unchartered world of COVID-19. Why not try to feed yourself and your loved ones by fostering that connection and understanding via poetry?

Here’s what I’ve created:

I am apart but never alone.

I wonder if our new normal will ever feel normal.

I hear the news in the background like a garbage compactor that never shuts down.

I see hope in the angels on the frontlines fighting to save humanity every day.

I want the pandemic to unite, not divide us

I pretend I can go to my mailbox without fear

I feel for the planet

I worry about what comes next

I cry for humankind

I understand my parents more each decade

I dream about sitting in a restaurant with family and friends

But the most important thing I do is see each day as a new opportunity

                       My Son’s Poem in 3rd Grade

Memorable Mad Libs

My son is on the cusp of 13, close to that age where young adulthood is a few blinks away. Up until last year, he LOVED Mad Libs—that simple pencil-to-paper game that works both your comedic creativity and parts of speech knowledge.

With social distancing still encouraged during COVID-19, I found my wandering imagination waxing nostalgic for our giggling days spent over many a goofy Mad Lib. Aha, I thought (I regularly talk to myself), presents are often forgotten but a personalized Mad Lib—now that’s a memory he can take to college someday🙂

So here’s what I created for the soon-to-be teenager. My maternal gut tells me I’ll be witnessing a smile that money can’t buy, perhaps a belly laugh or two (depending on his answers;-)

Here’s what I believe most of us in this life are hungry for: to matter, to be noticed, to feel heard. Each of us has the power to help feed another’s soul. Toni Morrison once said something I will never forget (this was way back on the Oprah Show in the 90’s—where has time gone??):

“When a kid walks in the room—your child or anybody else’s child—does your face light up? That’s what they’re looking for.”

A personalized Mad Libs is a great way to show a loved one they matter. You are giving that child (or adult:-)a verbal “light up” from you to them.

Feel free to use the Mad Libs I created for my son. I encourage you to get creative and feed your own soul in the process:-)