Twenty-eight before twenty-nine

January 7, 2013

In lieu of new year’s resolutions, I make a yearly life list every year on my birthday — a list of items equal in number to my years, composed of things to accomplish before my next birthday. (See also: 27, 26, 25, 24, and 23.) I could tell you a lot of things that are amazing and powerful and beautiful about this practice. But what’s most incredible is the way that a list of things of your own choosing becomes all kinds of things you could never expect.

Here’s to being 28. Here’s to living in anticipation of the unexpected.

  1. re-read 10 of my favorite books*
  2. take one half-day digital sabbath each month
  3. make an advent calendar
  4. get back to swimming 500 yards in under 7 minutes and a mile under 30 minutes
  5. complete my ebook
  6. memorize one chapter of a Pauline letter and/or one psalm
  7. be/seek/practice light, my theme word for 2012. Be light to others. Pursue light in daily life. Live a lighter, more open, less burdened life. And document it through the One Little Word workshop.
  8. write at least one letter or card of encouragement every month to someone I don’t encourage regularly
  9. invite three people for dinner who have never been in our home before
  10. leave the continental US
  11. design and implement three more responsive websites
  12. try 26 new recipes, including no fewer than 12 new desserts*
  13. create a prayer discipline
  14. go to a movie in the park
  15. start taking guitar lessons**
  16. watch all the movies in our library that I haven’t seen
  17. eat a vegetable and/or fruit I’ve never had before*
  18. love in deed and in truth
  19. complete and launch the new website project that I started in August of last year
  20. visit 10 new Portland restaurants and shops*
  21. do a cleanse
  22. create something that is tangible and beautiful
  23. start at least one conversation a day with a story of gratitude or a story about what God’s doing in my life
  24. go on a beer tasting tour, brew cycle, etc.
  25. do something musical (ideas include: singing Christmas tree, local theatre, worship night, Christmas caroling)
  26. make a more serious attempt to learn calligraphy
  27. give generously, of both time and money*
  28. take at least one four-day weekend every month**

* = these items appear on my list, in some form, every year
** = these items were carried over from or inspired by items from last year because, well, they didn’t get done

Is empathy a weakness?

October 9, 2012

In July, Wired published an article about “training people to be compassionate” rather than empathetic. In quoting Tania Singer, an expert from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, the author writes:

In order for [the emotion] to be empathy a person would have to see that another was in pain and share that pain, while knowing that it’s not their own emotion. However, empathy isn’t intrinsically good and pro-social… Empathy is “a precursor to compassion, but too much of it can lead to antisocial behaviour”.  …Empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering. In order to avoid this, we need to transform empathy into compassion.

I shared this article with two fellow empaths, and both reacted as I did: badly. It’s because this article makes a number of troubling — and insulting — assumptions.

Assumption #1: Empathy is bad (for you) and should be avoided.

Or, in the language of the article, it has negative repercussions and produces antisocial behavior. While I agree that burnout seems more prevalent among empaths, I don’t agree that this makes empathy bad. Feeling for others can be exhausting, yes — but it can change you, and for the better. It can refine you, grant you perspective, give you wisdom, equip you for challenges that lie ahead.

Assumption #2: Empathy needs to be trained out.

At best, this article paints empathy as an annoying habit — and at worst, it’s seen as an addiction or disorder. But empathy is a gift. It’s a gift meant to be given, not made obsolete. The thought of giving of yourself to suffer aside another — that was once seen as generous. But as a society, we are (and have been for many years) shifting our focus to the individual, to how you can get ahead. Forget what you can do for others and how your empathy might change someone else’s life. Empathy doesn’t align with the goal of producing as much happiness in your own life as possible, and as such, we’re being told to train ourselves out of the habit. I think this is terrible advice.

Assumption #3: Empathy is a choice.

I believe that feelings are valid and true. It’s what you do with those feelings that matters. Your response is your responsibility, absolutely — but that doesn’t mean that the feelings behind that response are good or bad. Singer talks about shifting brain activity, but this just sounds like suppression to me. I would rather embrace my empathetic response and modify my behavior. Will that make me more prone to burnout? Potentially. But I would rather modify my schedule, building in more time for rest and rejuvenation, than program my brain to respond differently to the experiences of others.

Assumption #4: Sympathy is adequate.

The article associates sympathy with pity. When was the last time you wanted to be pitied? You want someone who has walked through what you’re facing — or someone who will walk through it with you. Empathy is exactly that. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my response to others to be adequate. I want it to be abundant. This article asks the question, what’s reasonable for me to give? But I’m not about what’s reasonable. I’m about passing on the abundant blessing of my life to others — whether it’s inconvenient and difficult or easy and natural.

What do you think?

Is empathy something that we need to unlearn? If you’re an empath in an emotionally demanding industry, how do you manage your response? If you aren’t an empath, how do you use sympathy to connect with others?

Business by the decade

October 3, 2012

Earlier this week, I met with a group of fellow business people — both business owners and employees of larger companies — and we were discussing what business looks like through the natural phases of life.

Our group leader shared something with us that his mentor shared with him many years ago. It went something like this:

In your 20s and 30s, you’re focused primarily on building and accumulating. But as you approach and enter your 40s and 50s, you find yourself wanting to simplify and clear out. You’re confronted with all this stuff, and you don’t want to be worried about it all anymore. And then, as you get into your late 50s, your 60s, and beyond, all you care about is relationships, because you realize that that’s what truly matters.

As a group composed almost exclusively of people in their 20s and 30s, we were unable to speak to the truth of this. But I think there’s a lot of wisdom here. And it hit me on several levels.

I see myself in this.

Most of the examples given for these phases had to do with physical possessions — houses, cars, art, and so forth — and when looked at solely from that angle, it may be harder to relate. But there are many things we can accumulate — both tangible and intangible. You may not care about driving a German-made automobile or having jewelry that needs its own insurance policy, but what about accumulating degrees, skills, knowledge, and resources? If you were to ask me, I would say that relationships are my first priority, with simplicity — a “small but valuable life” — not far behind. But if I look at how I use my time, does it tell a different story?

This analysis isn’t a value judgment, but it does give some perspective.

The point is not that accumulating and building are bad. The point is that relationships are of greater value, and they persist. Whether you’re accumulating property and furniture or expertise and skills, you will ultimately feel rich or poor based not on your physical or intellectual wealth but on your relational economy. It’s about connection and the impact you had on others.

By this model, we spend upwards of 40 years focused on two versions of the same thing.

Let’s assume that this model is true — your 20s and 30s are about accumulation, and your 40s and 50s are about simplifying. Here’s the thing: Both are focused on the stuff in your life rather than the people. That’s four decades of thinking that stuff is the answer — that you either need more of it or less of it. In reality, neither are true. Neither gaining it nor getting rid of it is the answer. The stuff needs to move out of the center altogether.

Where’s the fourth quadrant?

As I listened to this, a diagram started to form in my mind.

Perhaps it’s the naïveté of my 20s, but shouldn’t we be able to hold these things in tension?

Where we go astray is starting with the stuff, as the model predicts we will. When we start with people instead — how to serve them, how to connect with them, how to create abundance and value for them — it’s easier to see what really needs building and what’s truly of value and worth keeping around.

Where do you see yourself in this?

What do you think of this model? Is this our natural inclination? Where do you see yourself in it? Do you think it’s possible to hold these things in tension?