Make it not-boring

I have a post brewing on shame and empathy, but a series of tight deadlines is allowing me no space to think that through. Two projects require short written articles on topics that have elsewhere taken chapters and I’m struggling to find the hook.

“everything is boring until a writer makes it not-boring”

That quote from this article: Parenting Actually Is a Boring Subject (but It’s Worth Writing About Anyway) in The Atlantic yesterday.

And I won’t say that it’s helped me write my articles, but it did spark thoughts about the ability to notice beauty, to to be present. A conscious pause before reverting to past judgements. A shared conversation on noticing difference.

Yesterday, shepherding my oldest girl (she’s two) to daycare, my wife remarked on the cornice of a brownstone that had been painted a vivid yellow. “I never noticed that before,” she said. I nodded. I hadn’t noticed it either, although I said I supposed it had probably been there awhile. I added that I rarely looked up at this particular building, instead focusing on the exterior door, with its rough-hued iron bars and blue-tinted plate glass windowpanes. That always caught my eye. Such conversation! American Gothic comes to Brooklyn.

[Days 38-41: Reflection]


Vulnerability Hangover

This morning I woke at 5am with a severe vulnerability hangover.


The early wake-up was necessary to catch a flight to Adelaide to facilitate a board strategy session. The vulnerability hangover was residue from our final teaching session for the course I teach in Foresight and Social Change. I’ve talked about the headspace required to teach this course before – how we use scenario thinking to place ourselves in different worlds, and how we might think about pathways and agency as essential components of hope.

Yesterday’s class focused on images of the future, teasing apart the differences between optimism and pessimism (Polak, 19723 [PDF]). This exercise requires people to declare how they see the future and then inhabit others’ views. In running this process, I often find it helps to articulate my perspective – the fairly persistent pessimism that prompted this study of compassion. I’ve facilitated this process a lot and it’s always emotional as the group gains a felt understanding of what it means to perceive the world differently.

We followed this with a meditation on two essential questions – “Who is my Self?” and “What is my Life’s Purpose?”. We chart the journey of Theory U / Presencing, requiring participants to lose their internal voices of judgement, cynicism and fear, and be present for each other and for the future as it emerges. Holding this space requires me to do the same.

Holding this space requires that specific type of courage to ‘let others see me as I am‘. When I left the classroom I felt raw. And still raw today.

Moving to the head space of a strategy session only delayed the recovery. Normal hangover tactics like cocooning with a nap or the triple of coffee, vegemite toast and paracetamol didn’t work. For me relief from this vulnerability hangover came through talking to a friend, taking a walk and and having a quick cry.

[Day 31-37: Reflection]

*Taken on my walk


Sharing Resources

I’ve been heartened at the feedback I’ve received in sharing this study of compassion a little more widely.

Some of that sharing has occurred through posting the links to videos, podcasts or articles I’m reading to the Year of Compassion Facebook page, as a signpost for what I’m learning about. Some of that feedback has occured becase I’ve linked directly to this blog where I’m trying to synthesise what I’m learning and reflect on things more deeply.

As I’ve started to build the material I’m considering, I felt it would be good to keep track of those resources. They link to each other in many ways – the science of the mind to mediation to practices for compassion; vulnerability to shame to ways in which we develop empathy. I’ve now added a Resources Page (available from top menu of this blog) to share the materials I’m drawing on, hoping this also provides a useful reference for you.

[Day: 30: Reflection, Research]

Note: If it’s useful, I’ve also compiled the list of books I’m referring to on Goodreads.

A Model of Scepticism

Empathy requires us to take the time to understand the world from another’s perspective. Yet as someone who is troubled by our inability to respond to the potential impacts of climate change, how might I effectively engage with someone who denies it is a problem – the cynic, the troll*, the climate change sceptic?

This was a topic for discussion as part of the Science Online 2013 Adelaide Watch Party I attended in early February. One of the sessions we viewed was “Persuading the unpersuadable: Communicating science to deniers, cynics, and trolls”. Among the tips was using the “foot-in-the-door” strategy. This works to persuade someone to an idea they find difficult by first getting them agree to something small. So if agreeing to climate change is a step too far, perhaps we can both agree that the cost of living is rising, and then both agree that reducing energy use is a helpful strategy.

One of the ideas floated in the session was that cynics and scientists do share something in common – their scepticism. This interested me as we’re picking apart forms of scepticism in another project.

There are in effect two broad types of scepticism. The first is scientific scepticism, based on holding evidence open to allow for more evidence, or a better explanation. The second is the scepticism of cynics and deniers – based on criticising the evidence as insufficient or incorrect.

So while it sounds like a reasonable strategy, to start a discussion on the shared focus of questioning evidence, being sceptical, I don’t see much commonality apart from the language. These types of scepticism do not stem from the same drivers.

Perhaps there is a better way to consider two types of scepticism. One type of scepticism is based on open-mindedness. It’s the futurists’ mantra of “strong opinions, weakly held”. The barrier to ideas is porous, and information that confirms or denies the existing idea is sought. It also means that when we stand in this space, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Scepticism - Open-Mindedness

The other is based on fear. Information is sought that confirms the existing idea as a way of strengthening a position, fortifying a defence and protecting the idea. When we stand in this space, being right, and being seen as right is important.

Scepticism - Fear

As an aside while it might be true to say that scientific scepticism is based on open-mindedness, it does not necessarily follow that scientists’ scepticism is the same. The number of scientists at Science Online who felt safe to speak openly online because they had tenure was startling. Fear of limiting career opportunities can close down the porous boundary. Fear of looking stupid errs to the defence of ideas rather than exploration.

Really understanding someone, being empathetic, does not stop at finding a common language, it requires understanding the deeper motivations.

Persuading deniers and cynics to the evidence for climate change is not going to be successful because you’ve explained the scientific method (a shared language of scepticism) – but it may come about if you can acknowledge their fears.

[Days 25-28: Reflection]

*I’m not sure the trolls can be saved. My empathy circle clearly needs widening.

The Trolley Problem

I’ve been thinking more about the railway track ethical dilemma presented in the RadioLab podcast on morality. Although I was familiar with the exercise, further research (Wikipedia) reveals this to be the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment in ethics first proposed by Philippa Foot in 1967.

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem

In brief (and my own words), the problem can be posed like this:

Suppose you are standing beside a rail line that is under repairs. On one track there are five men working, and as you look the other way you can see an unmanned trolley on the line, heading straight for the men. If you do nothing, five men will be killed. But there is a lever which would redirect the trolley to a side track. On this track, there is one man working. Do you pull the lever, killing one man but saving five? Or do you do nothing?

And with a further twist…

Suppose now the situation is the same, but you are standing above on a railway bridge. On the track there are five men working, and as you look the other way you can see an unmanned trolley on the line, heading straight for the men. If you are able to push something heavy onto the trolley you will be able to stop it. Next to you on the bridge is a fat man. Do you push the fat man onto the trolley, killing him, but saving five? Or do you do nothing?

A quick poll in my house resulted in the following:

  • Two of us would pull the lever (you save five lives!) but one would do nothing (rather not act than kill someone)
  • One of us would push the fat man (you save five lives!) but two of us would do nothing (how could I kill someone?)

Interesting to note that pushing the fat man required some justification. And also interesting to note our different responses and compare how they reflected the way we are in the world.

[Day 20: Reflection]

Scenario Thinking

I have just come out of teaching the first two intensive days of a Foresight and Social Change course as part of a Graduate Certificate with the University of Adelaide. Teaching this course is a challenge and a revelation; it requires me to be fully aware of my own biases and perspectives. Feedback from students is that the course also changes the way they perceive the world. (And the way they are in the world – several have reported relationship break-ups! No pressure.)

So given my head has been in this foresight space, I have also been reflecting how the idea of compassion fits into an effective futures practice.

This article crossed my social media stream as I was writing this post. Artists Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman use the GPS meta data in Twitter posts to track the location of tweets. They then revisit those locations and take photographs that evoke the emotional content of the original tweet, including by Geolocation and hashtag eg #HowtoKeepaRelationshipWithMe. The photographs are a visual effort to see the world from that different perspective, both locational, and emotional.

welcome home

@kristinalford: @nicholastavery welcome home*

Part of the Foresight and Social Change course examines scenario thinking – how to put yourself into worlds created by different drivers of change. How do you then go about creating a business, a life when things change? At first it’s hard to make sense of the world, then it’s hard not to overemphasise the negatives – the things that are worse. But with practice, a good scenario thinker can transplant themselves into any created world and imagine what it is like to live there. Without judgement.

These photographs bu Larson and Shindelman provide a window on empathy – a way for us to perceive the world through someone else’s brief perspective. Can we move ourselves outside our own perspective, and into worlds inhabited by others, so that we truly see their perspectives without judgement, yet with understanding?

[Day 8, 9, 10: Reflection, Sense-making]

* my last Twitter update, photographed in same location later.

Radical Genorosity

What does it mean to be human?

“I believe it means practicing a radical generosity  and empathy, especially when it’s a struggle”.

– Emily Rapp, “Someone to Hold Me“,, 12th July 2012.

My mind is a jumble tonight. Yesterday I travelled, safely to my destination, but tense around the edges. No space to think. Except both yesterday and today, with the news of a friend-of-friends death, I’ve been thinking about eulogies and grief. And more specifically, how might I adequately and wholly express grief at the loss of friend or family in a way that didn’t just reflect my loss, but honoured the grief and need of those around me. Partly a reflection on taking that call, and partly wondering about solace.

“I pulled at the skin of my chest as if my heart and palm were magnets and I could force the one out with the other. I wanted somebody – anybody – to hold me, break me, annihilate me as if this might prove that I still existed…”

Emily Rapp’s essay on “Someone to hold me” makes it clear what it’s like, and what might be needed to help someone in pain. Touch, warmth, proof of existence  Acknowledgement. May I be brave enough when someone (anyone) needs to be held.

[Day 6,7: Reflection]

On talking that call

“We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion.”

– Quinn Norton, My Aaron Swartz, whom I loved, Quinn Says, 12th January 2013.

Read Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig on the suicide of Aaron Swatrz. This bit from Doctorow’s obituary will be my reflection for today:

I don’t know for sure whether Aaron understood that any of us, any of his friends, would have taken a call from him at any hour of the day or night. I don’t know if he understood that wherever he was, there were people who cared about him, who admired him, who would get on a plane or a bus or on a video-call and talk to him.

– Cory Doctorow, RIP Aaron Swartz, Boing Boing, 12th January 2013.

I’d take that call from anyone who needed me the first time, and the second. And the third. To keep taking that call, understanding how that might affect me and put pressure on others around me, well that becomes a question of compassion. My thoughts are with everyone who has taken, made or missed that call.