Category Archives: empathy

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.  

My Magnificent Seven

‘Tis the season to be grateful, and this theme is coloring my every thought. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the benefit I get from writing thank you notes and letters. Now I’m thinking about people for whom I have no words to adequately express how grateful I am that they held me close and gave me what I needed when I needed it following the passing of my husband, Charles, in 2019.

First, I’m so very grateful for my family who held me close as we squeezed one another tightly in an effort to shield one another from the pain of our loss. Words can’t express how much I appreciate them for all they do to make it all tolerable.

Next, I’m so very grateful for all the friends and colleagues who let me know in one way or another that they had me in their thoughts, especially around special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

Neighbors Stan, Gail, and Tosh stood at the ready for the mundane and not-so-mundane needs. They epitomize what a good neighbor is like.

Without Carly, a gifted high school student, I would never have gotten the messages about Charles’ passing out to friends and family.

I gave my friend, Jackie Woods, who we lost this past July, the moniker, “my wiki,” because she helped me find my way from here to there in a new location. I didn’t have to experience everything for myself; she showed me what to look for, and what to avoid, and where to find anything that I might ever need.

I’m so grateful for Kevin Kruger, Stephanie Gordon, Olivia Jones, and Zafer Bebek, who shared their love by using their relative youth and strength to do some of the hard stuff of putting a huge dent in clearing a house and garage of many years of accumulations.

Then there are the “Magnificent Seven,” to whom I’m forever ransomed because of the lifeline they gently pushed out to me. In alpha order, these are the modern-day saints who exemplified what I can only aspire to be to a friend in need. 

Paulette Dalpes had no time—just hours to spare—and yet, she flew across the country to be with me  and to help me to jumpstart what I needed to do to begin my move from East to West. There were many errands to run, and I was not in a good place to drive. She chauffeured me hither and yon, never losing her upbeat attitude as I was no help in finding my way. Critically, she helped me take the first step by taking me to Home Depot—a place quite foreign to me—to get tape, boxes, and other packing materials. I thought I could work alongside her to make boxes until the tape gun that I was using took over and wrapped me up so I couldn’t move. She disentangled me and showed me what I could do instead of making boxes. Because of her, my personal journals were not abandoned to the trash heap like so many other papers and notebooks. She took great care in packing and labelling them so they would not be lost among all the moving boxes. It was during this period of loss that I stopped keeping my journals. Instead of writing my journals before going to bed, I talked on the phone with Paulette.

For Lin Eagan, no task was too large or too small, and no time was inconvenient when I needed her to help me prepare the house for sale. She left her house guests on a Sunday to take stock of what I saw as an emergency. Before the final inspections for the house, she insisted that I move West, as planned, and she would take responsibility for anything that needed to be done following the inspection. From touch-up paint to major issues, she took care of it all without any inclination that my house and I were a royal pain.

Shannon Ellis kept in contact with me throughout, and let me know that I could call on her any time and she would drop everything and fly across country to help me. Just knowing this gave me the strength to keep moving forward. When I needed help with business concerns that had always been taken care of by Charles, she gamely volunteered her husband to be my adviser. The gesture reminded me of how I used to volunteer Charles to do things for friends and acquaintances. She is a strong woman who assured me that I was strong, too, and would do what I needed to do to keep moving forward.

Deb Long was always at the ready to lend a hand, whether in the kitchen or at my desk. I would never have exercised so consistently if she had not been waiting for me to go to Zumba or take a long walk in the mornings. Her immediate and constant companionship were invaluable. She even shopped in her own closet for me when an emergency appearance caught me out-of-season as I waited for the movers to bring my clothes from the East Coast. At least once a week, I had a healthy meal because she would just show up at my door with food.

Jacki Moffi and her husband stood in line for hours at Verizon to return equipment for me, only to be told that the equipment wasn’t theirs and that Verizon had never heard of me. Suffice it to say that I no longer patronize that carrier. In the final moments of my life in Maryland, Jacki was the magic lady. After the movers, after the folks to whom I’d given many items, after trash handlers had gone, I discovered—on the last day before my flight West—that there were many items that had been overlooked or missed in the packing. These were not things that I could trash, such as a sentimental set of china, and yet I couldn’t leave them in the house. I called Jacki on a Sunday morning. I don’t know what I said, but she said, “Don’t worry, I’m on my way.” By the end of the day, like magic, problem solved.  

If it were not for Caryn Musil, I would have no books from the extensive library that Charles and I had stocked over the years. There would be not one file from the five file cabinets of folders that I had painstakingly made following my retirement. She worked tirelessly packing these things. Because we were partners on a consulting job during this transition time for me, she was the listener over breakfast and dinner as I coped with my loss. All of these women and my family were wonderful supporters and listeners, but Caryn was with me on the train, at our hotel, at every meal for days at a time. Because she and her husband have been married the same amount of time as Charles and me, she had a deep understanding of what I might be experiencing. Despite my stiff upper lip, my faith, and my façade of being all right, this poem that she wrote for me broke my heart:

The Fullness of Absence

Losing a husband who has been part of one’s life for nearly six decades
Is like trying to see with one eye,
Clap with one hand,
Hug with one arm.

You are not, but you feel as if you walk with a limp.

You begin to talk aloud to yourself expecting him to chime in,
Pose a question anticipating he will answer,
Need a flight scheduled but your AA is on vacation, and you
Long to be able to bicker about a small irritant that always caused sparks.

You smile as if in a mirror that has no reflection, 
You move ever so slightly to the side of the bed where you used to find added warmth.
His soap remains in its appointed place in the shower, a revered totem to mark a loss.

His. Presence is everywhere, all the time, because of his absence.
The emptiness is felt because fullness was experienced,
Indulgently, lavishly, with abandon, decade after decade.

Your heart hurts in its brokenness, but it defiantly continues to pump.
Oxygen courses through your blood vessels reminding you he once made your heart race.
The pulsing rhythm calls you to move on, live on, because of the fullness 
His absence commemorates.

Jane Spalding carried out her role as a friend as if it were a job for which she was being paid. She had a long drive to my house and, despite the rush-hour traffic, she always arrived by 8:00 every morning during the week we pushed to clear the house. She was there until evening, sorting, packing, telling me what to do next, and being my advocate with the contractors, the movers, and anyone else with whom I had to deal with. She was like the Secret Service protecting me from any source of danger. When I had to be away for appointments, she stayed at the house continuing to work and to respond to anything that might arise. She had good resources and always knew how to make a way out of no way. She epitomized the Guardian Angel that we all wish we had at one time or another.

These cryptic notes convey just a few of the gifts that these women who make up my “Magnificent Seven” gave me when I didn’t know what I needed until they gave it to me.

I’m filled with gratitude for all those who have filled my life with their generosity of spirit.

Gratitude

“You would have more time to get other things done if you didn’t write so many thank you notes and letters,” said Joan, my wise administrative assistant in the 1980s.

While reviewing notebooks and journals I’ve kept over the years, I am amazed at the number of times I noted that I was writing a thank you to someone for something or other. For example, shortly after my retirement as NASPA executive director in 2012, I took a trip as part of the association’s exploration of offering professional development to those who provided student services in some of the universities in China.

I was in Shanghai at the Renaissance Hotel after having travelled to several other cities in China when I reviewed my meeting notes and made a list of the people with whom I had met during this visit. My list included 27 names and pertinent information to help me recall who the people were and the occasion of our coming together. These were the people to whom I would be sending thank you letters upon my return to the United States.

When I wrote the letters, the ones that made me smile the most were the ones I wrote to “unofficial” people, such as the exuberant young women students who met me at some station or harbor in pouring rain carrying a bouquet of flowers that were the worse for wear after being drenched by the rain.

As I look back on what was a time-consuming and, to me, necessary chore of writing so many notes of gratitude over the course of my life, I realize that I likely benefitted more from writing these missives of appreciation than the recipients who might have given my message a cursory review at best.

In order to write the message, I had to recall the location, the interaction, and the result of the meeting. I could relive the pleasantness of the moments. Often, there are so many distractions and emotions present during encounters—whether with people we’ve just met, day-to-day colleagues, or long-time friends and family—that keep us from appreciating what is happening in real time. Recalling the experience in quiet contemplation, we can tease out the wonder of the gift of having made this unique human contact. I’m grateful for these memories and writing to express my gratitude on so many occasions has been well worth the “costs” in time and effort.

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.  

The Mask

emoji with smiley face on mask and frowning emoji with no maskLike you, I have lamented the fact that, in 2020, wearing masks out of caution and necessity robs us of the sheer joy of seeing smiles on peoples’ faces.

I saw a lot of smiles recently as I spent weeks looking at the scores of boxes and albums of photos our family has collected over the years. There were photos of family members, friends, colleagues, and some people I don’t even remember.

I smiled or laughed out loud when I recalled the circumstances or occasions around which some of the photos were taken. Nostalgia is one of my favorite pastimes—whether through photos, videos, journals, or conversations.

While I was steeped in the process of looking at hundreds of photos, I began to wonder about what might really be going on with some of the people who were smiling for the camera. Were the smiles on these faces a reflection of our reality at that moment in time or not?

When I looked at some of the faces, I imagined that the smile displayed was prompted by the entreaties of those taking the photos asking the person to say “cheese,” or “money,” or the photographer saying something funny that would make the person smile. Given the festive and happy occasions, however, I’m sure the majority of the smiles came without prompting.

Optimistically, all of these people with smiling faces were having a good time and were happy at the moment the picture was captured. Likely the smiles were articulating their true feelings. Yet, I wondered if some of the smiles captured may not always have told the story as it truly was. The smile itself may have been a mask behind which the person was masquerading as someone who was happy and having a good time.

I wonder if our new normal of wearing a physical mask actually makes this kind of masquerade harder. Perhaps covering the smile that used to serve as a mask will make us take more notice of the eyes to discern the true state of a person. They say the “eyes have it.” Can the eyes—like a smile—be warm, convey love, enjoy humor, express sheer joy? Or will our eyes unmask us and reveal more than we want to share?

Wearing a tangible mask, then, may also be a test of how sophisticated we are at expressing the range of our emotions in what may be more authentic interactions than when we could flash a spontaneous smile. How will we fare over time when the reflexive smile will not be as accessible in our arsenal of communication tools?

Ideal qualities of humanity on display

Being forced to stay put these days reminds me of the East Coast Blizzard of 1996, when Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia were declared disaster areas after more than two feet of snow was dumped over one weekend. After being snowbound a couple of days and optimistically believing our local weather forecasters that the storm was over, a lot of us ventured out to work with walls of snow surrounding us.

The bad news is that we were all sorry we had left the haven of our snowbound houses because many of us had to struggle mightily to get back home. The good news is that what I witnessed during my commute warmed my heart and gave me hope about us as a people. I was so moved by what I saw happening that I journaled the experience.

My commute required a metro subway and a train. On the first leg of my trip home to the Maryland suburbs after a fool’s errand to get to work in DC, a woman near me on the metro was squeezed in so tightly that she was almost sitting on a man’s lap while holding on to a stabilizing pole. When she apologized, he responded that he understood that she could not help it. (It was not possible for him to get up and give her the seat.) After about a minute, the woman who was hanging on just above the gentleman’s lap turned, smiled, and introduced herself to the gentleman and the woman sitting next to him. They smiled back, introduced themselves, and began to make small talk. They chatted easily as if they were at a social event. They were of different races and, judging from the manner in which they were dressed, probably did not live in similar neighborhoods.

Although we were patient as we invaded one another’s personal space, we were aware that the metro was taking much too long to move ahead from the station. After a while, there was an announcement regarding mechanical problems, which seemed to serve as a signal for people to settle in and begin conversations with one another. Chatting seemed to help because the crowding was paralyzingly tight. No one could move. As can be the case when there is a captive audience, some joker began shouting off-color jokes, and one brave passenger yelled that we didn’t want to hear what he had to say and that he should pipe down. As the joker quieted, the conversations resumed.

To our great disappointment, there was another announcement after some time that the train was out of service. With a collective groan we prepared to offboard. While we had been inside the disabled metro, more people had come to the platform and it was jam-packed when we squeezed off the metro. There was no room to push back behind the caution line, and many of us were dangerously close to the edge of the platform. Incoming trains were as packed as the one from which we had disembarked. Needless to say, none of us on the platform were getting on any of the approaching trains.

Did I mention how cold it was? It was freezing.

As I stood squeezed so tightly that I could not turn, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere behind me yell out the question, “Does anyone know how far we are from Union Station?” Several people yelled back that it was the next stop just four or five blocks. The woman who asked the question said, “It might be better to walk if we have to count on getting a train here.” Several people, as if they knew her, said that it was much too cold to walk the distance. Not facing the woman, I yelled out that I’d be glad to share a taxi if I could get back to the exit. She said, “Sure, let’s do it!”

My fellow commuters twisted and turned in their heavy coats, shifted their brief cases and bags, and helped me push through the crowd to the escalator where my anonymous taxi partner waited. We gamely took the escalator up out of the station, feeling proud of ourselves for our initiative.

When we emerged from underground, we were in a deserted Judiciary Square. We looked at one another and commented on how quiet it was. It was eerily like being in a ghost town – there were no cars nor people, but there was a whole lot of snow. It didn’t take long for us to realize that there would not be a taxi on these unplowed streets.

As we trudged through the deep snow, we realized that we didn’t know what direction to walk to get to Union Station. She was from Virginia and I was from Maryland, and we’d only taken trains to our destinations in DC. We hadn’t walked too far before a lone man passed us, and we asked directions to Union Station. We were so relieved when he pointed us in the right direction.

We walked single file, encouraging and helping one another as we slipped and fell a number of times on the way. We finally arrived at Union Station and embraced warmly, wishing one another safe travel home before parting for the second portion of our journeys on our respective trains.

Finally getting on a train, I didn’t mind the newest delay as a result of ice on the tracks. Just as before, I witnessed people spending the time in community. Two women sitting opposite one another struck up a conversation and realized that they both worked for the same large communications corporation. They talked about their career paths. A man I thought to be in the military said to the woman next to him, “You see that hat that woman up front is wearing? My daughter has one just like it.” He went on to tell this stranger a funny story about his daughter, who he described as an archaeologist who was beautiful and a really fine human being, just like her mother.

I listened to these conversations and was heartened because these people did not take their frustration out on one another. I was amazed at the amount of camaraderie among a diverse group of strangers. Although it was not a wise decision for any of us to have attempted the commute during this record-breaking blizzard, this experience was a break from being snowbound and isolated, and it was an opportunity to actually look at one another directly and engage one another in a basic human-to-human exchange. If I had to sum up the collective attitude, it seemed to be that all were of one mindset: “We’re all in this together, and there is no one to blame. Everybody is doing the best they can.”

The history that I want to recall is that disasters – regardless of the degree or kind – often pull people together in a manner that displays our ideal qualities of humanity. Like no other experience, disasters can promote a feeling of community and common identity in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.