My son in law gazed at the stack of books on my table and asked me if I found any correlations that ran through the various genres of my diverse interests. How curious that he would ask me this question, for I had just been making that connection. The evidence was in the plethora of brightly colored post it notes jutting from my books with scribbled observations on most of them. There are indeed common threads that weave themselves throughout my books, podcasts and conversations. Consider this a bit like an adult version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”
I recently read Born for Love by Dr. Bruce Perry who was sounding the alarm 10 years ago for our collective empathy poverty. Dr. Perry and his co-author shared in-depth details of real life experiences from their practices and research about childhood brain development. As the case studies were presented, it was revealed just what went wrong in a young child’s brain development that impacted their capacity for empathy and lack of ability to self-regulate. As the stories unfolded, those resulting consequences led to some devastating results for the child, parents, and others to whom they caused harm — often later in life. To be honest, many of these stories were so relatable to me due to my own lived experiences, and through the experiences of family members and friends.
The correlation? All the work that Brene Brown offers on vulnerability has a direct link to empathy. Vulnerability and mindfulness work together to build empathy. When we are aware of our own feelings, when we can witness them, and process them in healthy ways, we expand our compassion for ourselves and our empathy for others. Empathy is being able to perceive what is going on for others. We have the capacity to really connect with others by a genuine relatable understanding of how it feels to experience what they are dealing with in the moment. We know how it feels in our body and how it affects our mind. We connect our own past experience and someone else’s current experience through empathy. Dr. Dan Siegel calls this Mindsight.
The connection? Learning how early childhood brain development can negatively impact emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate is a gateway to understanding why people may struggle with behavioral issues. This is a new lens through which to view complex relationship and social issues. Doing our own personal growth opens our eyes to our blind spots and how we might block our own emotions in unhealthy ways. Self-discovery frees us from personal roadblocks to our own vulnerability. Once we grow in self-compassion and personal emotional awareness, we can then strengthen our relationships with others in a much healthier and honest way.
Born for Love is one of those books that has an everlasting impact. It made me reflect on all the changes we could be making to educate young parents about brain development of their newborn, how extended families could be educated and encouraged to provide additional continuity and support for mothers and newborns — and mostly it made me think about all the young children borne in poverty and dire situations who have little chance of being given the opportunity for healthy brain development. Imagine the positive impact we could have for society as a whole if we could just give every child the best “head” start.
The next book I read was How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith. Although this reading order was quite by accident, I am grateful for the timing. My empathy was clearly amplified by my increased awareness of what I had just learned about childhood brain development, trauma and intergenerational impacts from Born For Love. This prepared me to absorb a much deeper understanding on all that I was about to discover. The sub-title of Clint’s book is “A reckoning with the history of slavery across America.”
Clint Smith is a gifted writer who weaves past and present together with a needle of truth and threads of shared humanity. I read his compelling book very slowly. I read it slowly because it is the type of book that makes you stop in your tracks, to reflect what you are learning and to process the wash of emotions that stir from his vivid stories. There is no doubt that the profound historical education I got from this book sinks deeper into my heart because of Dr. Perry’s insights on our persistent empathy poverty.
Clint Smith traveled across the country visiting landmarks and monuments — those that are honest about the past and those that are not — and offers the reader an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our collective history and memory. It was his conversation with John Cummings that drove home the power of empathy for me.
John Cummings is an aging white multi-millionaire who turned the Whitney Plantation in Louisianna into our country’s first slavery museum in 2014. Stop and think about that — a private citizen provided our country its very first slavery museum. A privileged, affluent older white man. What motivated him to dedicate himself to this mission of telling the tragic history of slavery?
John Cummings educated himself about the totality of the oppression that Black people have experienced through the records he acquired when he purchased the Whitney Plantation in the late 1990’s. He has read more than eleven hundred oral histories of slaves and he described the strange feeling that came over him as he took in their words. He told Clint that it felt as though someone was talking to him who never had a voice. He did not feel guilt — he had a feeling of “discovered ignorance.” “How could this have happened and I didn’t know about it?, he said.
The correlation? John Cummings was overcome with empathy for our shared humanity as he read these oral histories. Empathy opened his eyes and his heart to the tragedies and atrocities these fellow human beings endured from slave owners and the social acceptance of slavery. Empathy brings us clarity and a hunger to learn the whole truth. Dr. Perry has recently co-authored another book I’m reading – What Happened to You? I’ve listened to many of his lectures on this book and have been captivated by what a compelling question this is to ask someone. Rather than chastising by saying “What is wrong with you?” asking “what happened to you?” will help us bridge the great divide .
The connection? We cannot heal our country’s collective trauma if we gloss over or ignore the truth about our history. The analogy for me is simply this: Just as we have to be honest about personal intergenerational family trauma and history in order to break the chain and begin healing, we must do this same hard work as a country. We have an opportunity to re-write our collective story and free us all from a past that is holding us back from extraordinary healing and growth.
This brings me to a book I read last spring – A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. It is a spiritual manifesto for building a better way of life and building a better world. In his recently launched podcast series, Essential Teachings, Eckhart and Oprah take a deep dive into the chapters of that book. Just a few days ago, It was the chapter 3 episode that grabbed my attention. In turn, I grabbed my post it notes and wrote “labeling and resistance” on them.
Brene Brown has been very vocal about all the harm that is caused by labeling groups of people — and calling people names. It dehumanizes people and in turn it desensitizes those who brandish the labels on others. It is this very desensitization that overrides a person’s empathy and allows them to harm others without remorse. Eckhart Tolle echoed this same message in his recent podcast — labeling desensitizes us to the aliveness, the humanity of another.
I found myself reflecting on all the ways our society uses labels — not just for individuals and groups of people, but also for the hard conversations that we legitimately need to be having. We label these hard conversations, we pick a side or a political party, and we take a strong stance. The media amplifies the label in every news stream. All too often, these labels and their ensuing conflicts distract us from the legitimate issues that need to be examined.
Eckhart also pointed out that whatever we resist, persists. What we fight, we strengthen. Conflict and negativity are not tools for problem solving. He asks “do you want peace, or do you want drama?”
The correlation? How many labels have been used throughout our country’s history to dehumanize and oppress others? How many labels have been used to address chronic, systemic issues? The innumerous examples of how we label and dehumanize on social media are heartwrenching. Are we blind to the many occasions that we witness and accept labeling?. If labeling people, groups or issues desensitizes us, is it any wonder that empathy is in great decline. The us vs. them fight that permeates almost every subject matter today is only strengthening our divide. We seem to be fighting over the very things that those who came before us fought hard to gain for us. We were their future. The connection? Awareness, acceptance and empathy intersect in these books, podcasts and in life. Eckhart Tolle referenced several times about how similar our collective struggles are to our personal struggles. We have the capacity to co-exist with awareness, acceptance and empathy. We do this automatically when a natural disaster strikes, such as a hurricane or wildfire. We did it most extraordinarily immediately after 9-11. Eckhart reminds us that negativity and defensiveness do not solve problems but keep us addicted to unhappiness and drama. Rather, he suggests, make peace with the issues, accept reality. Meaningful, humanitarian and sustainable actions come from compromise, empathy and presence.
During the pandemic, I added a new element to my self care routine — podcasts. Less news, more learning, wide variety of topics. And this is when I found Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. I was over the moon delighted with my discovery and often binged on them the way my friends were binging on Netflix. His podcast is “a journey through the overlooked and misunderstood –something from the past –an event, a person, an idea and even a song — and asks whether we got it right the first time. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.”
What I love about Gladwell is his child-like curiosity and his brilliance at connecting the seemingly unrelated in extraordinary ways. I envision Malcolm using a kaleidoscope the way one would use binoculars — that’s how colorful, creative and unique his perspective is on a wide array of topics. It is just this sort of curiosity that we need more than ever. It is also just the kind of multiple perspective lens we need when looking back at history and asking the most relevant question – “what have we learned from this experience?”
I recommend listening to these two episodes to jumpstart this process for yourself: Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment (June 28, 2017) which will shed light on school segregation and black teachers’ fate after a landmark Supreme Court Case; the second one is The Foot Soldier of Birmingham (July 5, 2017) which will reveal how a single photo impacted the country in the midst of one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s most famous marches. The plot twists reveal unforeseen consequences that underscore the importance of solving the right problem — and if we are not curious enough, if we don’t ask enough questions, we just might be spending all our time solving the wrong problem. (I’ll give a nod to yet another book The Advice Trap by Michael Stanier Bungay.)
The correlation? History has a lot to teach us, but it is necessary to have the full scope, the whole truth, if we are to derive the most meaningful lessons. Asking the questions about whether we got it right the first time, and if not, how can we do it better?
The connection? Own the problem — that does not mean ignoring it or fighting about it. Accept the reality of the problem. Leave judgment at the door and get curious. Ask questions, lots of questions — and ask the people who are most affected for their experiences and their ideas. Learn from mistakes. Did you know that “rupture and repair” is the glue for most healthy relationships? Whether it is a personal relationship or a country’s relationship there will be ruptures — misunderstandings, conflicts, issues — but it is the “repair” that not only heals, it fortifies and strengthens the relationship — the kind of resilient relationships that stand the test of time.
Food for Thought:
After reading How the Word is Passed, I scrolled through the online reviews of the Whitney Plantation on their website and was disheartened to see that many visitors treated it like a tourist stop rather than the historical education that John Cummings intended. So often, we just “skim the surface” of things in our own lives as well as humanitarian issues. If we scratch the surface and dig a little deeper for more information, more understanding we will gain insight and even compassion.
Malcolm Gladwell offers that we “think with our eyes” and we “feel with our ears”. He told Stephen Colbert in an interview that books makes us think but that podcasts can make us cry. He also believes that crying is how we get in touch with our own vulnerability. If something brings you to tears, it will stick with you. It’s so true, isn’t it? We can listen to an interview for an hour and it is the 30 seconds of vulnerability, the emotional punctuation in a heart-touching story that lingers with us long after the conversation ends. These are the seeds of connection — that remind us of our shared humanity.
I was living in Fort Lauderdale when the Parkland school shooting occurred. I recall seeing a Facebook posting of David Hogg in a photo-shopped pink crocheted hat with a tag that read “The liberals have found their snowflake.” I cried. I’d see these Parkland kids and their families in the community after that horrific experience. I saw their shock, their pain, their fears. Those raw emotions were palpable in our community — for many months. There was not a parent in our neighborhood who did not express their fears about putting their kids on the school bus shortly after that tragedy. Events like this reverberate to others all across the country and can be the cause of PTSD, emotional triggers and high anxiety. The effects of labeling also reverberate in a similar fashion. Odd isn’t it that one action of dehumanization causes desensitization in the one who labels and over-sensitization in the one it was intended to hurt.
Awareness is the key to many of our individual and collective problems. “Pay attention to what you pay attention to” is a cornerstone of mindfulness. How much of our attention goes to complaining or defending…..and how much goes to understanding and problem-solving? Another cornerstone of mindfulness is “reframing” — an invaluable reminder to shift or expand perspective. Too often we have a blind spot because we just keep looking at things the same old way. “Pass that kaleidoscope, Malcolm, it’s time for some curiosity and creativity to infuse our perspective!”
On the bookshelf:
Here are the links to the 2 episodes of Revisionist History that I referenced above: These episodes are so worthy of your time.
For stimulating discussions, try some podcasts: