Communication

The Need To Be Seen

I’ve written before about how narcissistic it is to communicate. I don’t really believe that anymore (to the extent I ever did), but I think it’s interesting. What’s interesting about it is that there’s a tiny sliver of truth behind it. That sliver is this: all humans have an intense need to be seen and understood by each other.

This is one of those truths that psychologists seem to know and understand deeply but which did not come naturally to me. For me, the conflicting desire to be allowed to pass by unremarked upon was always stronger. I’m sure some psychologists would love to psychoanalyze that, but for now let’s let it lie.

I’m told from respected sources that the child’s need to be seen by their parents is one of the most fundamental. This is the theory behind the classic dysfunction of the child ignored by a parent — think the classic distant father and eager son — who spends their whole life desperately trying to impress that parent.

Where the most interesting learning has occurred for me is in the fact that simply being seen can cure most of our psychological neuroses. When someone is just feeling sad or overwhelmed or angry, a person coming along and acknowledging and accepting that they are feeling those feelings is one of the quickest ways that those feelings can dissipate. There is no need to for the other person to change the situation (in fact in most cases that’s not wanted), they just need to really understand it. It can feel like such a relief to finally have someone understand and acknowledge that you feel the way you feel.

It turns out, as I’ve been slowly learning, you can do this for yourself. You can see yourself feeling your feelings, you can acknowledge that you are feeling your feelings, and your feelings can then naturally dissipate as they do when recognized by someone else. This is magical mental jujitsu that I would never have believed if I hadn’t caught glimpses of it in myself. But back on track.

Whether or not you have any desire to be able to soothe yourself by seeing, simply knowing the need and value to others of being seen and understood is a great way to become better as a communicator. You’re more empathic, patient, and easy to be around if you know how to see without jumping to change. To the action-oriented person it feels like you’ll go crazy when you just see the situation and don’t try to change it, but for most people, with most modern problems, most of the time, it is the single best thing you can offer.

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Communication

Why You Must Let People Check Out From Conversations

Sometimes in a conversation, especially a sensitive or heated one, you can tell you’ve hit a brick wall. When you recognize that, it is essential that you allow your conversational partner to check out of the conversation. If you don’t, it’s virtually guaranteed that something far worse than a lack of closure will be the outcome.

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Life

The Value of Mindfulness

I’ve been thinking about writing something on this topic ever since I left a relevant internet comment at I site I like. But it was David Brooks column on “The Limits of Empathy” that finally spurred me to do it. It spurred me by being so exactly half of the point, while completely missing the second half. The half Brooks gets essentially right, is this:

Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.

Precisely. It’s an undeniable truth that people think about doing the right thing far more than they do it. If I did the right thing even half the times that I’ve thought about it but not done so, a non-trivial number of people would hold me up as some kind of personal moral hero. It is so easy to see what the right action would be and so hard to actually carry it out.

But Brooks’s answer to this problem, “sacred codes”, is deeply flawed. I’ve never seen any set of codes that was resilient and multifaceted enough to be much use at all among all the messy problems and circumstances that so often serve as our excuse for inaction.

More so, codes have this very real problem of being unbending. You fail to follow the code a few hundred times and you’re likely to reasonably stop even aspiring to it. Codes like the Ten Commandments have been failing for thousands of years precisely because they’re so deeply codified and unadaptable. If every Jew and Christian in America took seriously the commandment that “thou shall not covet they neighbors goods”, America would be a drastically different place. But instead most of them aren’t even aware that it’s on the list.

This is fundamentally the reason that mindfulness practice, being here now, is so important. As I said in that aforementioned internet comment:

The entire work of mindfulness (meditation), to me, is to close the gap between the things we know intellectually and the things we know viscerally. Knowing the senselessness of anger, the questionable value of fear, the wisdom or compassion, the power of love, our minuscule place in the universe, etc is something most everyone thinks they do. But they constantly act in ways opposite to these things they claim to understand because they’ve not really internalized them and made them a part of their operating procedures.

Empathy is something most people do intellectually. They have the thought: it must have sucked to be a Cherokee. They did everything the white Americans asked of them, many of them became better citizens and Christians than the average white Georgian who was their neighbor. But because they wanted a national identity and were the wrong color, they were pushed hard, behind Andrew Jackson’s saber, off into Oklahoma. We can easily understand this without internalizing it. Knowing these facts, and grasping that it must have been terrible only gets you half the way to responding adequately in such a situation.

You must, if you truly want to act in an empathetic way, internalize the struggle of the Cherokee story. You must, yourself, feel what that must have been like. To have your treaties torn to shreds and your people treated like mere obstacles to other men’s goals. And then you must keep that story with you well enough that you never forget what it feels like to be on that side of a confrontation. So that you can act with the understanding of what it was like to be a Cherokee when you turn your mind to the question of, to take an example, Palestine.

This is not an easy thing. And it’s harder still when you’re actually confronted with an angry Israeli complaining about the explosives that get hurled over the wall and disturb her family’s peace. But no set of rules will make it any easier to do the right thing. Especially when you’re constantly distracted by the thought of dinner, that beautiful girl you saw the other day, how much your finances have suffered for this trip, and your childrens’ questionable life-choices.

What’s needed is for you to sit there with the woman’s anger, the parallels between the Palestinian story and that Cherokee one you feel so well, and your understanding that at base all people want the same things and to frankly and empathetically bring her into full contact with the entire reality of the situation. Only be being completely present with all those realities can you lead others to that place of full comprehension and carry out a wise response.

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politics, world

How I Forgot Iraq

soldiersmediacenterSunset in Iraq

There’s been a lot of talk recently–especially among America’s chattering left–about how dire it is that Americans have forgotten about Iraq. Today being the five year anniversary of the invasion, what better day is there tackle the issue? I, one who listens quite often to the chattering left, have forgotten about Iraq. I’m wondering how anyone can not have forgotten Iraq.

To be clear, I’ve not forgotten about the country. I’ve not forgotten about what an debacle the after-invasion rebuilding effort was. I’ve not forgotten how incorrect the majority of commentators were about the necessity of going to war there. But I have stopped thinking about it.

The news of another bombing and of more American casualities no longer strikes as a tragedy or even unusual. It sounds like the same old news. And whether 4 or 40 or 400 died today if will surely fail to register with any of the needed depth.

I have come to accept the death of four of five Americans a week–and at least ten times as many Iraqis–as par for the course. This is not to say that I think the president was right or is right; he’s foolish if he really thinks that serving in Iraq is exhilarating more than it is terrifying.

But as galling as that recent statement was, as galling as a death of any single person is, there’s only so much worry or anger I can contain. Josef Stalin’s often credited with the phrase “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.” Similarly, during the Great Depression Harry Hopkins noted that “You can pity six men, but you can’t keep stirred up over six million.”

It’s a sad but true fact that my suffering causes me great pain and heartache. And at times where the suffering of others is made most plain to me, I can sometimes feel the same about their suffering. But the suffering those soldiers and civilians, injured, dead, or mourning, is not something I spend a great deal of time worrying about. Nor do I manage to worry enough about the mental welfare of troop constantly redeployed at heretofore unheard of frequency. The constant and apparently mild scale of tragedy is more than the average citizen can (or wants to) regularly worry about.

I have no doubt that hundreds if not thousands of people suffer anew every week that the simmering conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. I have no doubt that many of those suffering are Americans like me. It’s a tragedy that they have to suffer for the war there.

And though Iraqis and Afghans clearly suffered under the tyrannical regimes in their recent past, that doesn’t do much to diminish the suffering they’re now experiencing during the turbulent struggle for their countries. It’s a tragedy that this conflict, however terrible it’s predecessor, hasn’t been resolved by now.

But it’s not the kind of tragedy that has made me–until I sat down to write this–pay attention. It’s that miss-able kind that I don’t see and don’t hear and don’t remember. And so I, like much of the population, forget and ignore the terrible cost to this country and its citizens of this war. I, like much of the population, don’t worry nearly enough about the cost to civilians on the ground of this war. Of any war.

It’s an ugly truth that within days of publishing this with a heavy heart about the suffering I’ve so frequently ignored, I will again have pushed the suffering in Iraq, and engendered by the events in Iraq, out of my mind. I’ve certainly done it before. Though I agree that it’s a tragedy, I simply don’t have the power or will to constantly remember and despair at the ugly cost of war. That’s ugly, but it’s true.

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OPW

OPW: The Great Gatsby

I mentioned recently that The Great Gatsby has the best first and last lines of any book I know. So on today’s Other People’s Words, those lines.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this wold haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved was and understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me…

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I though of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green lights at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And then one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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