Category Archives: empathy

Reflections on Possible Pandemic Harbingers

Although I received my COVID vaccination in March 2021, I have continued to shelter-in-place except for a road trip with family to California in mid-June. Optimistically, I set July 1, 2021, as the date on which I would brave the new world and get outside of this personal bubble that has been in place since March 2020.

Like many others, during my time staying at home I adapted to doing essential shopping online. However, I did not do what I consider elective shopping online. I saved that for the time I would be free to shop in person. While sheltering, I made a list of all the things that I wanted to shop for when I could finally go out and feel relatively safe.

Beginning on July 1, I set out to get myself some “retail therapy.” From furniture to kitchen utensils to hair and skin products, I indulged my desire to shop and felt absolutely wonderful that, though masked, I could comfortably go into stores to browse and buy.

I think I’ve been coping well with the isolation but, while shopping, my feelings surprised me. It seemed to me that being around other people, in the flesh, triggered dormant emotions that I can only describe as a sense of being vitally alive! For example, though I think I’m usually polite to store employees, during these excursions, I was extra polite and friendly. My behavior was akin to how one might react when seeing friends after an extended period of time. My smile, though no one could see it, never wavered at annoyances that might have caused consternation in the past. It never faded, no matter what obstacles were thrown in my path that might hinder me from reaching my shopping goals.

Sadly, my euphoria was short-lived. With recommendations to continue wearing masks even when vaccinated, the apparent strength of the new virus variants, and breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, I am, once again out of an abundance of caution, only engaging outside my home when absolutely necessary.

While feeling pandemic whiplash like others, I’m preparing to make the best of resuming my digital life and will reignite my self-reflection and self-care.

Notwithstanding my mature attitude about being isolated, again, in some of my reflective moments, I wonder if those of us who shelter in place more vigilantly are being profoundly changed. Is our hypervigilance about avoiding being infected or infecting others making us less inclined to seek out opportunities to be physically present with others even when it will be safer to do so? Is our success in adapting to the requirements of this pandemic a harbinger of the crisis to come as we become less and less social beings? Are we getting more comfort and satisfaction from being alone with ourselves than we once experienced being with friends and family? Are we reveling in the utopia of isolation?

Or, is this pause in heretofore normal social contact allowing us to awaken to the joy, appreciation, and satisfaction of being in the same physical space with one another as sentient human beings?

We will have to wait and see.

After September 11, 2001

After September 11, 2001, everyone had a story about where they were, the efforts they made to get home, and what they did to connect with loved ones upon hearing the devastating news about the attacks made on American soil by foreign terrorists. The senseless tragedy was almost beyond comprehension.

After September 11, 2001, I witnessed a NASPA staff that was shaken but not defeated. Although there were a multitude of anxieties, such as fear of being in Washington, DC, doing work on Capitol Hill, taking the Metro to and from work, flying on behalf of NASPA, and even opening mail because of anthrax, staff members adapted and redoubled their efforts in support of student affairs professionals who were needed more than ever on their campuses.

After September 11, 2001, student affairs professionals served as navigators and provided safe harbors for all members of their campus communities. Using their skills of empathy, understanding, and knowledge of crisis intervention, they were the first responders for students, faculty, and staff. They did what they were trained to do and shared strategies with colleagues across the nation on how best to respond to these unprecedented times, and the increased needs of the student and campus community amidst fear, uncertainty, and a range of reactions, including the bizarre and self-destructive.

After September 11, 2001, NASPA leaders looked beyond the tragedies of the day and sought ways, where possible, to reduce risk on campuses and, unfortunately, to prepare for the aftermath of future senseless tragedies.

After September 11, 2001, what did NOT—and never should—go unnoticed is the commitment of student affairs professionals to working with campus communities to create a climate that promotes learning and a sense of security and belonging in the face of adversity.  

Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

Clothes: Uplift and Downer

Luevinia, Altoria, and Vidella were my best friends in the sixth grade at Melrose School in Memphis.

The scene was on the playground at recess after lunch. I won’t go into the pretend marriage between a boy I liked and myself, but it was on this occasion that my three friends—who were getting me ready for the pretend wedding—decided that the clothes that I was wearing were just “too ugly” for the “wedding.”

Vidella decided to lend me her pink sweater to cover up what I was wearing. I had never had such a soft lovely piece of clothing that I could remember. I felt beautiful in the sweater. The photo that resulted showed me posing as if I were a movie star, with head thrown back to highlight the grin on my face and one hand behind my head for good measure.

Another photo that reminds me of how clothes can be an uplift or a downer was taken when I was fourteen. Although I had moved to live with my mother in Chicago two years earlier, my brother had stayed with my dad. So, on the occasion of my brother’s seventh birthday, my mother and I traveled back to Memphis. 

The birthday party was something of a reunion, in that the kids I had played with when I lived in that neighborhood were there. My living in Chicago would have been something to increase my status among the kids if it had not been for what I was wearing.

Cute shorts and tops with sandals were the expected standard for the girls. Why, then, was I wearing my one-piece green gym suit from school with the elastic waist and elastic mid-thigh? I had no cute shorts and tops. The gym suit was my only option to keep cool in the heat of August in Memphis. Needless to say, I tried to stay out of sight as much as possible.

During the time when I was applying to colleges, my mother was losing jobs. She told me that there was no money to pay for my senior pictures. Understanding the situation, I told her that I would take the pictures and, if there was money when it was time to pay for the pictures, we would buy them.

The instructions for the photos was that the girls were to wear a black sweater and white pearls. My only sweater was a drab, olive-green, nubby-like sweater that looked as if it needed a clothes shaver. It was totally wrong for the picture. I didn’t have pearls either. My mother had some gold-painted beads that I paired with the ugly sweater.

When it was time to buy the pictures, my mother had the needed money. It was later that I found out that she had pawned the treasured wedding rings that my stepfather had given her in order to have the money for my senior pictures. With new eyes, I not only felt bad that she had pawned the rings; I felt even worse than bad because I had complained about not having a black sweater and white pearls.

Clothing, Confidence, and ‘ccomplishment

Clothes don’t make the person.
It’s not what you wear it’s who you are.

My mother’s parents probably used similar words and sentiments when she asked for new clothes.

My mother and a boy named Wesley Lee were the only students in the school that the teachers thought were ready to take the exams required to graduate from the eighth grade. The exams were given at the Sunflower County Seat in Mississippi (M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-humpback-humpback-i) rather than at the school.

This trip was a very special occasion and a testament to the accomplishments of these students.   My mother’s Aunt Alma (by way of marriage to my mother’s daddy’s brother) promised to get her the white dress and shoes that girl graduates were required to wear. Instead of buying new clothes and shoes, Aunt Alma gave my mother one of her old white dresses that she often wore to church and a pair of her white, old-lady, blocky-heeled shoes. The shoes were so much larger than my mother’s feet that she had to wear them with socks instead of nylons.

My mother was so embarrassed about how she looked in Aunt Alma’s clothes that, for the first time that she could remember, she was nervous and scared. Thinking about how awful she looked caused her baking soda deodorant to stop working. She could smell her sweaty underarms and was sure everyone else could too. Although she passed the exams, the memory of the shame about how she looked and felt in those clothes lasted.

Words and sentiments thought to teach and appease get passed down through generations when parents can’t afford or won’t buy their children the clothes they need and want.

I was living with my dad; my mother was living in Chicago. When my dad didn’t buy me clothes, I would write to my mother to ask her to buy me what I wanted or needed.

When all the other kids in fourth and fifth grades were wearing penny loafers, I was still wearing the scuffed white and black Oxford shoes that had been popular in previous years. The really cool kids put a nickel or dime in the slot where the penny was supposed to go. I really wanted penny loafers! I even sent my mother a picture of the shoes in case she didn’t know what they were. I never did wear penny loafers. I didn’t feel that I belonged.

When it was time for school pictures, I wrote my mother to ask her to please send me a new coat. I told her that when I took school pictures the year before, the sleeves on my coat were too short and kids laughed at how I looked. My sleeves were even shorter in the next pictures since I was wearing the same coat. I was ashamed and felt ugly.

Clothes may or may not make the person. Clothes may or may not cause others to prejudge based on what one is wearing. Clothes may or may not have an effect on one’s behavior and level of confidence. However, from my personal experience, how I think about myself in particular clothes impacts my feelings of self-confidence and ultimately how I perform the task at hand. 

Doing the Best We Can

It’s Tuesday, December 16, and I’m not in a good mood because I had only five hours of sleep last night, missed my exercise, no time for any kind of breakfast, and my schedule is packed with back-to-back meetings and appointments.

 Driving to work on a familiar road as if on autopilot, my mind takes over and makes me anxious about all that I have to do before the holiday break:

  • Faculty evaluations have to be completed!
  • Search Committee for the Dean’s position has to wrap up!
  • Deadline for my follow-up response to the Middle States Report!
  • Reviews of journal articles due!  

After I arrive at the office, encounters with colleagues throughout the day put my previous worrisome thoughts into perspective. As I speak with colleagues, I feel as if I’m opening a series of doors, and behind each door there is a human being coping as best they can with every ounce of strength they have. These realities make my worries seem small and self-absorbed.

  • Door number one: Not getting along with spouse, fear that the holidays may be the time when things come to a head regarding their union.
  • Door number two: Seeing psychologist after loss of a beloved dog.
  • Door number three: Finding it too difficult to work and continue with doctoral program; will have to discontinue program.
  • Door number four: Hates the holidays; depression is an issue.
  • Door number five: Husband had an accident and may lose an eye.
  • Door number six: Husband shot in the hand, victim of a robbery.
  • Door number seven: Favorite cousin died; will be hard on the family during the holidays.
  • Door number eight: Sister will have cancer surgery after the holidays.

As I listen to each person, I become increasingly aware of our connection and the flow of feelings between us as I physically sense my colleagues’ deep distress. I feel as if we are joined together in these moments by a salve of empathy and a balm of solace.

On my drive home, I reflect on what I heard from colleagues during the day. 

Realizing the emotional burdens that each is carrying makes me wonder how they could have the spiritual strength to show up and keep moving forward.

And then I know how they—and all of us—keep moving forward:

Because we cannot allow random tricks of chance to crush our spirit.

Because sometimes our only option is to live through it.

Because, with faith, we can find the determination and resilience we need.

Because we all have to play the hand we’ve been dealt.

Because we’re all doing the best that we can with what we have.

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Oprah Winfrey: She is Woman

Oprah Winfrey. Photo: Vera Anderson/Wireimage
Oprah Winfrey

In celebration of Women’s History Month for 2021, I raise up Oprah Winfrey as a true icon. Given the overuse of the words “icon” and “iconic” in describing people, when I use the term, it is to describe someone who crosses cultural boundaries and performs as if they have special powers, such as “a god, a hero, or an idol,” as the word “icon” is defined. 

Bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, Oprah has made an indelible mark in the entertainment industry. She has penetrated the psyche of people all over the world by persuading us to focus on what she thinks is interesting at a particular point in time. Her interests become our obsessions. Some will say that Internet stars and the Kardashians do the same thing, but none of these influencers can hold a candle to Oprah because she came from so far behind and her reach extends far beyond entertainment and commercial endeavors.

Coming from an impoverished childhood in an obscure town in Mississippi, enduring hardships no child should experience, and competing for a place in an industry that is both racist and sexist, Oprah Winfrey is the iconic self-made woman of our time. And what’s more, having reached the pinnacle of success, she sustains her prowess.

Sure, she works hard, is dedicated to her craft, takes risks, practices gratitude, and is one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. Others have approached life in this manner, as well, so what makes Oprah different? In regard to her success as a talk show host, it’s said that, “She makes people care because she cares. That is Winfrey’s genius, and will be her legacy, as the changes she has wrought in the talk show continue to permeate our culture and shape our lives” (“Oprah Winfrey: The TV Host,” TIME Magazine, June 8, 1998).

Oprah’s empathy and penetrating questions may be the secret sauce that makes her the world’s most admired talk show host, but she is so much more than a TV host.

We have witnessed how she has endured intense scrutiny and criticism. Sometimes it has seemed that the world is waiting for her to fail. And still she rises.

To achieve the kind of fame and fortune that Oprah has garnered is nothing less than miraculous. Her success against all odds makes one ponder life’s mysteries.

But when all is said and done, Oprah is the iconic woman of the 20th and 21st centuries whose life and legacy reveals the possibilities for all of us, especially women and girls.

Journaling: The Cure for Selective Memory?

Why is it easier to remember the hurt someone caused you than it is to remember something that they did that was generous and kind? Why is it easier to remember the good things you did for others than it is to remember the hurt you might have caused them?

There are some people I have encountered during my lifetime that bring negative feelings along with any memories I have of them. These people are prominent in my memories when I recall the times that I smiled or showed no emotion while gritting my teeth at the same time. It was at these times that I experienced shame and pride all balled up together in my chest. Shame because I didn’t respond in kind, and proud that I remained poised and focused on my purpose.

I recall the tears I shed in private as a result of the cruelty shown by these individuals. Yet, I don’t want to hold grudges. I never want to be the person who says, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.” I truly want to forgive and forget the ugly situations and intense encounters. I never want to think of them again. Since I’m not able to completely avoid the memories of these people, perhaps I could have at least one good memory that might decrease the intensity of the lingering negative emotions.

What I’m discovering as I read journals I’ve kept over the years is that there is more to the stories of those I only recall in the dark places in my mind and heart. Although these people may be the topic of my journal writing mostly because of the negative things they did, every now and then I have found a lovely flower of kindness that they planted among the weeds that they cultivated in my garden.

The villains in my story were not awful all the time. Similarly, as I read these many journals, I learn that, contrary to what I want to believe about myself, I have sown some weeds in other people’s gardens, as well.

People ask me why I have written and kept journals. In the past, I believed that I wrote them to stand in for a best friend who could be trusted with my innermost feelings and my deepest desires. Today, I think I kept the journals for this time in my life when I can review them and relive all the good times and recall all the kindness that I’ve received from my encounters with both my villains and my heroes. 

I highly recommend keeping a journal during some period of one’s life.