Archive for the ‘Personal/Family’ Category

400. # 400

Should Editor Dickerson see fit to print this, this will by my 400th Perspectives column to appear in the Albion News.  The idea of writing a column came to me back in 2004; I talked to then-editor Jean Kaup and she agreed to give me a try, saying the column would appear when space permitted.  The first one ran in October of that year.

Before beginning Perspectives I had written a lot of letters to newspapers, especially the Omaha World-Herald.  While I was growing up my father wrote letters to the World-Herald’s Voice from the Grandstand and my mother sometimes wrote features for their Sunday Magazine of the Midlands.  So writing to the World-Herald was in my DNA; they published my first letter when I was 12 years old.

Another reason I was eager to participate in the public dialog was because I came from a family of voracious readers.  My great aunt Ruby read to my brother Gregg and me on a daily basis, often for hours at a time while we played at her feet.  Our parents would then read to us before bed.

And being readers, my parents always had books, newspapers and magazines around the house.  As far back as I can remember there were copies of the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and Time or Newsweek lying around, and I was reading the World-Herald before going to school in the morning by the time I was in Jr. High.  My grandfather subscribed to National Geographic and Natural History magazines and I went through those each month, often before he did.

Reading these publications did a lot to shape my understanding of the world.  I never doubted that what I read was true – I was still too young to understand that truth is often in the eye of the believer.  But as I grew older I began to notice that a writer for the Natural History magazine had a very high opinion of himself and considered his say final.  And from there I began to notice that many publications had a “style” that favored certain ways of looking at the world.  I began to evaluate more and more of what I read – I had read enough by then to feel I had a decent understanding of things, and I began to disagree with pieces that ignored important aspects of relevant issues.

I thought all sides of issues should be examined, and so I began writing to newspapers, offering my “perspective” on things.  To me this was important – I grew up during the dark days of Communism and I understood there were millions of people in other countries who didn’t dare express their opinions.  I understood why the Founding Fathers protected freedom of speech – the suppression of dissent is a hallmark of totalitarianism – so I have always appreciated having the right to express my opinions.  And I came to believe early-on that just being free to speak wasn’t enough; I came to believe citizens with well-considered opinions have a responsibility to share them.  Our Founders bequeathed to us a free market for ideas – they understood that Democracy could only flourish if voters were allowed to consider multiple points of view.

So even though many of my views are in the minority around here, I appreciate the opportunity to share them.  I understand that writing columns doesn’t change many people’s views about issues, but I hope it does sometimes help people understand issues a little better.  And after all, what good is a free press if nobody bothers to share their own perspectives?

397. Acting And Empathy

My son Thomas loves acting.  He started in the Missoula Children’s Theatre when he was only six and is now performing in plays as often as he can in college.  Thomas loves it so much that his mother and I have worried he might pursue acting as a career – there are, after all, an awful lot of talented actors waiting tables for a living.  But Thomas has reassured us that he plans to go into psychology.  And he explained to me recently how acting and psychology fit together.

Though I had never thought about it, Thomas pointed out that to successfully act one must have a deep empathy for his character – even if it’s a character he doesn’t like.  Thomas said you have to see life through your character’s eyes, think about why he is the way he is.  Of course, you can only figure out so much, but by trying to understand what makes his stage characters tick, Thomas has learned a lot about empathy.  Not just empathy for a character in a play, but empathy for the real-world people around him.

With empathy, Thomas explained, comes compassion.  He said he’s come to understand that even the people most different from us have similar wants and needs, experience similar losses and fears.  Thomas said by looking at our shared humanity, our shared joys and sorrows, we can find at least a little common ground with just about everyone.  That doesn’t mean we have to surrender our convictions; it just means that we need to remember that people are complex beings and we should not dismiss them simply because we disagree on certain issues.

Thomas understands that there are dangers in being too empathetic, too compassionate.  There are people out there who see our compassion as a way to take advantage of us.  There are also people who are so in need of someone to care about them that they’ll disregard our personal boundaries.  But people can be empathetic without letting others walk all over them.

And empathy has never been needed more than it is today.  While it’s easy to connect with people who share our interests – one need only look at Internet forums to see how people flock to sites that reinforce their personal views – it’s harder and harder to find common ground with people who don’t share our interests or views.  Politics has become “tribal” – where people once evaluated politicians based on a number of criteria, including policy positions and character, more and more people today embrace candidates based solely on their party affiliation.  Who cares if a candidate is a terrible person – many people will vote for him anyway just because he belongs to their political party.

Tribalism thrives on an “us versus them” mentality, and leads to the stereotyping and oversimplification of both sides.  “Our” side is good while “their” side is evil.  And while there are very real – and important – differences between the political Left and the Right, there are also numerous misrepresentations that neither tribe ever seems to question – misrepresentations that keep people apart.  It’s easier to hate the other side, after all, if you don’t really know them, don’t realize how much you actually have in common with them.

Thomas wants to go into psychology because empathy for others is fundamental to that profession.  But he’s also very interested in politics; he hopes that he can do something someday to help us steer a course away from our growing tribalism and embrace our shared humanity.  And right now I can’t think of a more worthy – or more needed – goal.