Archive for the ‘Personal/Family’ Category

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.

395. The Message In The Mounds

It’s a surprisingly nice morning so I should be out working on an archaeological project, a project that involves identifying, clearing, delineating and mapping a complex of prehistoric Native American mounds.

These mounds have eroded over time so determining their exact edges is challenging.  Once the edges are identified, though, my family and I mark them with spray paint, measure them and photograph them with a small drone.  Since this is a slow process the grass tends to grow back before we get much accomplished – instead of writing this, I should be out there mowing.

As this work progresses a fascinating picture is emerging.  Whoever built these mounds knew a lot about geometry, surveying and planning a large project. These mound builders also knew how to motivate people to carry basket after basket of dirt in order to construct these mounds.  It must have been hard work so there had to have been a compelling reason to do it.

The more I learn about the mounds the more I suspect they had to do with fertility and renewal – a fundamental feature of Native religions.  And their gentle feminine curves recall how important motherhood – the ultimate symbol of the source of life – was in those religions.  Descent was reckoned through the mother’s line, and only women were allowed to work in the fields.  The hills of corn, beans and squash symbolized Mother Earth’s breasts, and the domed earth lodges the people lived in symbolized her womb, complete with a long narrow passageway that faced the rising sun and represented the birth canal – the Native Americans were symbolically reborn from the Mother every morning.

One large mound features two oval mounds on top of it with a sort of figure 8 path around them.  It’s hard not to see these ovals as symbolizing two worlds, presumably the worlds of the living and the dead. The never-ending path around them seems a reminder that while life inevitably leads to death, death leads to new life.

But I’m not out there mowing because 6 hours away my 96-year-old mother-in-law Doris is lying in a hospital, symbolically approaching that point where the two oval mounds meet, where life transitions to death.  While the rest of the family is in Kansas City at Doris’ side, with the week-long Missoula Children’s Theatre looming, I stayed home to deal with last-minute preparations. But while I’m not there physically, I am in spirit, and mowing the mounds will have to wait.

Doris has had a rough year – she’s been in and out of the hospital several times.  But she’s a fighter and the last time I saw her she told me what she’s fighting for.  Doris lives with her daughter Sheila and even though Sheila is a capable, responsible adult, Doris worries what Sheila will do when she’s no longer here to look after her.

Doris’ tenacity is an incredible testament to her devotion to her family, a devotion to motherhood I’ve witnessed for over three decades now. And maybe she’ll pull through this crisis, too.  But sooner or later we all pass on to that next world, travelers on a path that leads into the unknown.  It helps to remember that in the beliefs of those who lived here before us (as in the beliefs of many other religions) that path forms a continuous loop, leading always to new life to come.  A deep appreciation for the generative principle inspired people long ago to build these mounds, and the belief in birth and rebirth the mounds embody still has relevance today.