Sunday, November 17, 2019

Compassion Over Empathy: A Look at Nature, Health, and Education

Mike Natter is a physician and someone with T1D whom I follow on Twitter. He's also a great artist (check out his works available on ArtSugar!) and this tweet and accompanying image struck a chord with me.

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman responded to this question on the balancing act that physicians face on a daily basis. I’m going to quote and paraphrase her excellent tweetorial on the subject of empathy and compassion:

Sympathy:  "a pity-based response to a distressing situation that is characterized by a lack of relational understanding and the self-preservation of the observer." The observer is not invested in the pain.

Empathy: "An effective response to understand an individual’s suffering through emotional resonance." This response is based on a more genuine connection and is preferred by those in need, but higher levels of empathy lead to a greater likelihood of higher inflammation and burnout scores in a study of nurses.

Emotional empathy: We feel the other’s pain. It can be overwhelming, so instead of doing what you can, you may shut down and run away (AKA burnout and compassion fatigue).

Cognitive empathy: We know the other is in pain but remotely. 

Compassion: "A virtuous response that seeks to address the suffering and needs of a person through relational understanding and action." It’s closer to cognitive empathy, which is based on reason and leans toward action to correct the other's concerns. As @stefanfersetz said to Dr. Poorman, it’s “engagement with boundaries”. The observer is not THE solution but CAN play a role, they know what it is, and they  DO it.

Burnout and compassion fatigue: if we feel the emotional distress of someone, we are more likely to burnout or become exhausted by it so much that we can’t even respond to it.

To me, sympathy is sort of positive and I’d rather have it than indifference, but it’s not very helpful. 

The results are too chancy because the connection is weak; if someone feels sympathy, they may very well never do anything. However, it can be a gateway to the better response of empathy, and the even better one of compassion.

Dr. Natter’s illustration depicts empathy on one side. I believe Dr. Poorman is suggesting that side should actually be compassion. I see his other side “professional distance” as “cognitive empathy”.

In the teaching world, I believe working from compassion is the basis for response techniques like “I see that you are…” and “When you are able to, I can...” when a student is in crisis. 

Rather than taking in the child’s anger, fear, sadness, etc, the adult is positioning themselves as willing to do eventually something, but not partake directly in the pain. Students may love our hearts and tears, and we may want to give them, but they need genuine fixes. And if teachers are constantly dealing with their inner cores being exposed due to empathy, the attacks by other adults on school finances, regulations, performance evals, data streams, and safety become death blows.

As someone with a chronic medical condition, I have experienced every single one of these terms over the years. 

From a nurse practitioner who saved my opinion on healthcare providers with her compassionate observations and achievable challenges to me, to the exhausted physician who testily told me to just stop eating after 6PM, each has cultivated a different response in me. In my best mindset, I can feel compassion for the burnt-out physician, but it set my own health backward because I became angry and felt abandoned. I probably was erroneously looking for empathy- I can clearly see the lure of it.

I work as a naturalist and wonder: what does environmental compassion look like? 

It should not be pity-based sympathy for a mouse facing an owl. It should not be tearful empathy for a frog facing a drying pond. Or at least not just these things. We talk about developing our students’ connections with and understandings of their natural environment. With those two things, they can see tools they can use, choices they can make, and laws they can formulate to create the most opportunities for the most species, including their own. That's powerful stuff.

Perhaps the major strength and motivator to operate with compassion is that it avoids the extreme ends of human emotional response on both sides of the equation (person in crisis and responder). At least during that moment of crisis for I know fully well there's intense gratitude possible after the fact from those relieved of their suffering.

As Dr. Natter’s image depicts, it’s not easy. 

Nor, is success guaranteed. Even if one is extremely good at operating within the realm of compassion, we can easily fall back on other coping strategies. Why? Because we're not perfect! Dr. Poorman says she must practice every day and it will be a lifelong process. Why? Because none of us have all the abilities to change all things to "good". It’s tough to offer something, but not THE thing that fixes it all.

I think that’s when we need to practice a bit of Buddhism: we must remind ourselves that there will always be suffering. 

We can help alleviate it, but it’ll never go away. And in my best mindset, I can find comfort in that. It means we’re reminded to enjoy the goodness. To share with each other. To revel, dance, and love when we can. In my book about living with type 1 diabetes, Dear Warriors, I wrote that it’s taught me many things, or at least shown me many things, including these concepts.

I took this picture late yesterday afternoon, when the sun was preparing to dive below the snowy horizon before 4:30 PM. The light was warm and magical, partially due to its transience. 

Here’s to us all seeing and feeling the light as it still shines on us. And to practicing compassion on ourselves, each other, and our world every day we see another sunrise.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Humility from Trees

I’m finally reading Peter Wohlleben’s NYT bestseller The Hidden Life of Trees. Having a job that once again revolves around ecology, I find myself sliding back into the field’s writings. I should have always kept an eye on it, but Life pulled me this way and that over the years. I must humbly accept that fact and try to understand what’s been learned in the last 25 years.

As I began reading it, I immediately saw many similarities between Mr. Wohlleben’s observations and my own in my book, Dear Warriors. Specifically: interdependence. Even his cover and the first image I put in my introduction are similar. Both depict flourishing trees in modified cross-section. Whereas his focuses on 3 trees and their roots, I drew a single tree, its roots, and the elements it’s exposed to.

Initially, I experienced an embarrassed flush of nervousness. I worried that my book’s art and ideas would be construed as a copy, even though I hadn’t read Mr. Wohlleben’s work before publishing. I could have easily slipped into a mental canyon of inadequacy, telling myself that my work was yet another example of my lack of originality and hidden it. Instead, I’m choosing to wave it as another support for the veracity of this notion that life is all about interdependence.

My whole point in pulling trees into my analysis of living with type 1 diabetes was to draw an analogy between trees and people. I felt a connection. Mr. Wohlleben’s book focuses solely on the gorgeous details of what trees go through, emphasizing specific ways they relate to both others of their own kind and entirely different species. I would suggest reading his book first, then mine. If you can learn to believe that trees aren’t independent and self-contained, then you can be open to the notion that no human is, either. You can also learn to believe that our daily activities can reflect that we’re stronger together, as I tried to state in Dear Warriors.

We’re stronger together, whether we’re talking humans or trees.

I titled this essay Humility. Humility and being humble are vital to our best lives, in my opinion. With them as our foundation, the ego can’t take over. We cannot become engrossed by the “wonder” of our own ways and thoughts and act as though other humans are enemies.

The science behind Peter Wohlleben’s work shores up his claims about trees- ideas that many might find fantastical and easily discounted if they were not being tested and corroborated by others around the globe. If we’re open to seeing deeper truths. To me, they prove one thing: we cannot believe we know everything about this world we live in. We have to be open to “if”.

We must humbly admit that we are not omniscient.

The networks that trees appear to thrive best in reminds me of other networks being uncovering and studied in recent years. For instance, take the human microbiome. has a great timeline review and specific deep-dive information on this expanding field of study. Over half the cells in and on our bodies are not human. They all can affect how we live and perhaps we can adjust our living to maximize our relationships with these other entities to improve how we feel and how well we live. Can we humbly admit that we need some of these other species and encourage them? Can we accept that they may need us and we might do best by allowing them to coexist with us?

Can we accept with humility that we need other humans and other species to survive and thrive?

It can be an uncomfortable shift in thought. But, it can also be comforting because we’re capable of seeing truths and falsehoods. We’re capable of testing to confirm. We’re capable of failing and trying again. We can move forward, even if the steps are painful.

I’m looking at trees a bit differently of late. I knew I thought of them in some sort of kinship, but Peter Wohlleben has given me some substance to firm up those feelings. If their bodies are linked to many others and if our bodies are linked to many others, then how far does this linkage idea go? It fills me with hope, wonder, and a sense of place.

Neither a tree’s life nor a human’s is idyllic. Both eventually come to an end. But I can pat a tree’s bark and consider its journey, as I can my own, with humility and kinship and smile.

We can be stronger together.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

My Thoughts on Lab Girl

This year the Waukesha Reads program is based around geobiologist Dr. Hope Jahren’s debut book, Lab Girl. I think the premise of throwing a spotlight on environmental science, and women in science specifically, is a brave and vital decision that I hope has long-lasting effects in the county.

Hope Jahren is two years my senior, so I immediately felt a near-peer connection when I picked up this book. After reading it, I think this work is a great catalyst for discussion, both in terms of its merits and its weaknesses. She doesn't shy from personal or societal merits and weaknesses and that's refreshing.

I love how she divided this book into 3 main sections that correspond to the overall structure of trees. She’s seeking to explain herself, her work, and the fact that we’re all in it together as scientists. I heartily concur with this parallel in life.

Roots and leaves are the bases. They bring in what is needed- or fail to.

She explains her Norwegian roots. I was shocked at how well my own Swedish ones matched with her observations about familial aloofness and an ingrained desire for efficiency and self-sufficiency. Her observations on mother/daughter relationships also rang very true, as were those about being or behaving like a “boy” or “girl” and the related frustrations that come with those labels. It was nice to hear that someone else hasn’t had the stereotypical connections with roles and motherhood one is told are “natural”. At many points throughout the book, I found myself thinking, "I relate to that.".

And yet, I felt hers was a privileged childhood and I became frustrated with Dr. Jahren because of jealousy. She was born into academia with both parents being deep thinkers. Her matter-of-fact tales of wandering her father’s lab would have been a dream-come-true to me. She’s lived her entire life with access to laboratories: first her father’s, and then her own. She describes college sexism, which is one place I didn’t experience it, and extreme budget concerns that exist to this day, which I did. What I have faced beyond the labs firmly supports all her assertations in one way or another, and that angers me the most. Women, especially women of color, are still not considered (or paid) equal to men.

In Chapter 1, Dr. Jahren describes her childhood winters as almost endless, stating "I grew up in a place where there was snow on the ground for nine months out of each year". Given her location, I question the validity of that statement. Small instances of exaggeration such as this pop up regularly through the book and that bothered me because I wanted to rely on her words as being extremely accurate. I know she might be attempting to use winter as a symbol for her cold and suppressed rearing, but she is a scientist.

Over the course of this section, Dr. Jahren describes many people who have touched her as she’s slogged through her professional life. They seem to be archetypes that we all have met along the way. Sometimes the stories feel lengthy, but these connections are important to consider. We learn and grow from those we experience. I know I’ve been molded by those I’ve met (and not met) just as I’ve gone down life paths and not down others for the same reasons. My jealousy of Dr. Jahren lessened as I admitted that to myself. I dreamed as an unknowing teen of being "A Scientist". She had a framework for that idea from birth that I didn't. I can see now that mine has been a different journey than hers, neither better or worse. In this book, she clearly describes some of her own worse times and that is helpful for us all to learn by.

Wood and knots are formed by growth and the obstacles we face over time.

The choppiness of Dr. Jahren’s writing style isn’t explained upfront. For chapters, I was confused at the dramatic changes in sentence complexity and style, where sections would wax poetically and then flip to terse observations. Her childhood recollections initially made me picture her as one or two decades older than myself- they seemed very old-fashioned. The juxtaposition of so many elements was off-putting because it felt like the work was poorly edited. In the middle of Section 2, the fact that Dr. Jahren deals with mania and has bipolar disorder is finally explicitly revealed. Finally! An answer! Yes, leaving the piece as-is is a way to express Dr. Jahren’s reality- how she thinks and processes. Perhaps my confusion is a good jumping-off point for discussion of mental health. I don’t consider myself a grammatical snob but perhaps I am. To me, there’s so much going on in this book in terms of content, a common structure would have helped me focus on the main message. Or perhaps a note in a short prologue would have helped prepare the reader for the switchbacks, detailed descriptions, and occasional ramblings.

My opinion on how Dr. Jahren presents Bill flip-flopped between "awesome" and "awful". I have struggled during my professional life with thinking others were making incorrect assumptions about my relationships. This is a reality that I’m glad we’re talking about. It’s maddening that this occurs to this day: anyone should be able to work with anyone else. Period. Maybe now I’m the one overlaying something that doesn’t exist in Dr. Jahren’s writing. As I read, I kept thinking she was hinting at something with Bill. Her tales of their adventures sound wildly true, raw, and real but "something" popped up chapter after chapter that made me think there would be a big reveal. Then 200+ pages in, she’s marrying and having a baby with someone else. Work relationships can be deep and intense- that’s a good thing. But if you’re going to write “Bill and I lay side by side on the bed, staring up at the waterstained ceiling”, “We lay side by side, fully clothed, and laughed and laughed with our boots on”, “then we both lay back down, side by side, and continued to stare at the ceiling”, “But you do know that you can never be friends with the people that you work with”, and “And so we did [go to sleep], on opposite sides of the big bed, with our clothes and boots on.”, it either indicates a hidden message like a screenplay for a cheesy romantic drama or the need for better editing of a story to better show the awesomely complex relationships that actually do exist. Kudos to her for showing both their helpful and hurtful sides in different parts of the story. Bill and Hope are a team proving once again that we’re stronger together.

The subsistence life that Bill leads for most of the book infuriates me. The professor I worked for had to finagle funds to buy things. He’s the one that taught me “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” as he scurried across the commons to the university administration building one day to calm a frantic accountant after he did something unconventional to continue his zebra mussel experiments. I’m all for people having to “pay their dues” as college students and there should be good reason applied to purchases and expenses. But science is valuable. Professors and scientists should be able to study things. How some greedily and (at times) proudly bilk systems for personal gain while others scramble their entire lives makes me livid. Dr. Jahren does a great job depicting this reality of the struggle to answer the scientific questions curious minds have.

I absolutely love it when Dr. Jahren outlines specific cases of tree science based on those curious questions and minds. These sections shine with truths that are relatable and incite a sense of wonder. Her description of the Sitka willow experiment shows everyday people a different way to consider trees and communication, a truth that those in science have struggled to accept for decades before now. I find connections with Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. That whole “Wood and Knots” concept is evident. There is struggle and then growth to greater truth. Science can be used to prove or disprove a belief or explain an observation. It takes time, opportunity, and effort. What else could we do if we invest more in science and scientists?

Flowers and fruit are about harvesting and what may come because of our lifelong activities.

I found Chapter 13 of the last section of Lab Girl to be especially poignant and a great way for me to finish my review. Dr. Jahren states,

“Often when dealing with plants, it is difficult to tell the end from the beginning.” 

We had to take down a huge ash tree last year that was succumbing to emerald ash borers. The roots are still alive and this year the sawn stump sprouted new branches. While we animals can’t do something so visually stunning, we also get damaged and try for as long as we can to adapt and survive. Plant and animal: we all get damaged. This book is a testament to that fact. We humans can (and perhaps other species can, too) also perceive, question, test, and revise our thoughts and actions if we're not spending all our time and energy trying to simply survive. We can all be scientists. 

With that in mind, I again ask: what else could we do if we invest more in science and scientists?

Today is another opportunity to begin answering that. Together.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Thoughts on Calling Myself an Idiot

The other day, I finished a solitary hike on a sweltering summer afternoon and came upon a couple of coworkers. As I was peeling off my gear, I felt compelled to comment that I had worn my work nametag to give me “an excuse for looking like such an idiot”. I motioned to my big hat, worn clothes, hand lens, and binoculars. My sweat-soaked pack was still on my back.

I was met with looks of confusion. One’s reply was to assure me that I did not at all look like an idiot.

Their reactions gave me pause. Why did I say that? What point was I making about myself? Later, I looked up the word and its synonyms to try to understand:

Idiot. Fool. Clown. Loon.

Nerd was on the list, too. I’ve said before that I’m proud to be a nerd. But it was the above chain of words that spoke to me in a coldly true way. When I said it, I was wearing functional clothes and carrying field tools at a 400+ acre nature park. Why was I so “foolish” from my perspective?

After looking at that list of words, it hit me. All of these words paint a picture of someone who “everybody else” is staring at as being excessively silly- or worse. Why would I feel that? For decades, I’ve been like what Shakespeare wrote of in Macbeth: a poor player upon a stage, fretting. Alone. That’s the big key. 

I have walked through this life very much on the edges. Pretending I’m fine.

I grew up fairly isolated. My pastimes were solitary: reading, drawing, thinking. I made friends, but just a few. I tried to blend into the background and please the adults. If I felt a streak of rebellion upon occasion, I recall fits of frustration and anger and a public display or two, but for the most part, I kept it all hidden and on the inside.

Sometimes I wonder if I absorbed that grade school mantra “you can be anything you want to be...if you try” in a really unhealthy way. Real growth is achieved by networks of people supporting and challenging you in productive ways. You've defeated yourself before you've even tried if you think you have to do something perfectly or not at all...and if you have few people around showing you that there’s always a process, that everyone makes mistakes, and perhaps there are ingenious tricks to achieve one’s goals. They give you hope to go on trying.

I did receive one bit of advice before college that I reaped huge benefits from. Someone told me to introduce myself to the professors in my chosen major as soon as classes started and ask them for a job. Get your face in front of them, they said. Ridiculously enough, I don’t recall who gave me that advice. I wish I did because I would thank them for that seed that grew and grew over the intervening years.

"Get your face in front of them." The best and hardest advice.

I was super excited to purchase steel-toed boots and waders for my first environmental job after I graduated. I tried so hard. I bought tons of books. I worked countless unpaid hours at home, trying to become something: a botanist. But I had no real mentors. No one had my professional back to walk me through the challenges. At the first office Christmas party I attended, a company leader didn’t applaud my efforts. He said to my husband (we’d been married 7 months), “Now I can see why you married her!”. I was wearing a dress. I failed to process things like that in a constructive way.

What I am and what I should be. It’s been a lifetime battle.

I’m not alone in that, I know. Others have fewer resources to rely on and way more critical eyes. Now I see that. Being and becoming: it’s part of the trip. That’s a tough thing to sell to someone who deeply believed they had to be “good” and to whom the social definitions of “good” didn’t make much sense.

I’ve written quite a bit on how I have felt myself evolving out of that illusion. But clearly, I still need a lot to practice if I’m still calling myself names. In the last 15 years, I’ve met some amazing mentors who have helped me see today more clearly, look back with different eyes and look ahead with better lenses. Old and learned habits die hard, though. New wounds lead to setbacks. I still have to keep pushing myself to participate in the bigger picture, away from the “safety” of the edges.

Clearly, I haven’t fully accepted that I have found a place and community of others to drop those feelings of separation and to really be the “me” I’ve dreamed of. I can do this. I can be this. With others. A whole bunch of others. I need them and they need me.

 Others need me. That’s a foreign concept to me.

From that truth, I am compelled to consider the multitudes on the edges- those feeling dangerously out on those edges because they’ve been pushed there. They exist on the fringes where they fear for their lives. I need to ask myself what can I do to help them draw closer? What can I do to help others feel safe enough to be closer? To understand that they deserve to be closer? I hope to do what I can in the coming years to begin answering these questions with actions. Writing and posting this is a start.

I firmly believe we are all stronger together. Everyone needs to feel supportive connections beyond self and to experience the benefits of being, working, and living together. Everyone.

No one should see themselves as an idiot, a fool, a clown, or a lone loon.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Slow and Quiet

 Who has time for quiet?
Who has time to slow down?

Many people have studied the dangers and pitfalls of basing one’s life and one’s decisions on fear. I agree with this idea. We need and use “fear” to keep us safe from harm. However, it can be a dangerously strong emotion and can become a serious mental disorder that needs professional support- I’m not writing in that capacity. I’m writing because I’m grappling with another idea that I think may help us to not be swayed by Fear’s allure for a quick and protective response.

Slow down and be quiet.

Without any of the term’s baggage, that’s what is at the heart of “mindfulness practice”. I’ve written many pieces over the years on rhythm and stillness. Breathing, seasons, waves on water, sunrise and sunset: there are examples all around of us of things that occur at certain natural speeds and times.

Where do patterns, fear, mindfulness, quiet, rhythm, and slowing down intersect?

Allow me to bring in yet another human concept: vacation. We take vacations to break away from our normal patterns of life. We willingly throw some chaos into our living to experience an unfamiliar rush. Even if that “rush” is to end up sitting by a pool or natural water body. It’s different from our “normal”. We crave a change, and in fact, everything is changing. It’s all in motion.

Motion. Nothing is locked in place.

 I’ve tried to draw out my thoughts. (I didn’t label the X-axis as time, because I just attempted to read Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time and my one takeaway (other than an appreciation for his lyrical style) was that time is not linear.) The red line is a hectic experience of living that can lead one to ask the two questions I posed at the beginning of this piece. What happens when we experience an unexpected, loud sound? We jump. Our hearts race, like the red line on my graph leaping wildly and picking up speed like an EKG. The same reaction happens when we feel pressured at work, when we can’t pay the bills, when we feel alienated from others, or when we feel threatened by someone we perceive as suspicious.

A little bit of chaos and fear is beneficial- it can protect us from legitimate threats, feel good, or inspire us. However, those oscillations can get so wild, we can begin feeling like flotsam on an angry sea- completely adrift and without any control. Those are perfect conditions for massive growth in experiencing fear, founded or not.

The causes of chaotic living, that red line, are many. Some are from our personal choices. Some stem from the choices of others. Others are physiological. We’ll never get rid of them all, but we can decide to try to moderate that chaos through individual and group effort. In addition, we have many green patterns both in the world around us and within us to use as metronomes.

Life’s patterns can feel boring, but they are the vital buffers everything hangs upon.

We can return to these patterns and gain comfort from them- if we so choose. The red patterns can blot the green ones from our view, but that does not mean the green ones cease to exist. And thus, I return to my initial questions:

Who has time for quiet?
Who has time to slow down?

To me, the answer is: everyone must.