Tag Archives: empathy

A Child’s Death | Universal Bereavement & Opportunity to Care

Losing a child, how must it feel?

How it must affect the totality of life and existence!

I wonder, though: What role does the loss of a child play in fomenting global conflicts and instabilities?

Parents are gifted to love their children from conception through dirty diapers and croup, from crawling to pulling up to faltering steps then to running, potty training, the “terrible twos,” the teenage identity-in-formation and hormone raging years, then transitioning into adulthood with all its attending responsibilities and complexities.

South African friends inexplicably and suddenly lost their eldest child one week ago, a beautiful, bright young woman. Twenty-three years young—yet still their baby. My daughter posted pictures on Facebook—four girlfriends lying on a bed together laughing—reflecting a much earlier time when women were girls, and girls were wannabe women.

For sure, parents losing children is not uncommon or infrequent. Such incidents and stories were part of my childhood:

A little girl struck by a bus as she too excitedly stepped out to welcome home for the weekend her elder siblings from boarding school; a child jumping on the bed with no sense of the imminent danger of a nearby pair of scissors; another child oblivious to the fact that her dress caught in the door of a departing bus; and yet another, having fun white water rafting with Dad and his friend on the Zambezi River, when fun turned to tragedy as their boat flipped over, and after both adults reached shore, turning to see the teenager grabbed in knee-deep water and dragged under water by a large Nile crocodile.

As a middle-ager now, incidences of parent loss haven’t lessened, and is unlikely to as long as death continues to be the great social equalizer.

Loss of a child among one’s concentric circles of relationships occurs frequently, although irregularly. And although I can’t peg dates to days for many friends’ and acquaintances’ tragic losses (like we do with a September 11, 2001, aka 9/11 type incident) nevertheless, those many moments of shock upon hearing of the death of someone loved are indelibly seared into my consciousness.

For instance, a first memory of my family’s relocation to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, was attending the funeral of the eldest child, a son, of a prominent Indian family, who died from gunshot wounds after a botched hijacking. Or of a former colleague, whose son died of a seizure as he raced late one night to a not-near-enough hospital for emergency care, or of an extended family member’s son—a friend to my children—who likewise died in transit to critical care treatment—only this time, not in a speeding car late at night, but in a small medevac airplane flying from Kenya to South Africa.

All these shared incidences of loss are tragic, indeed, yet with the exception of the young Indian man shot to death, they were “natural,” in that they were either the result of an unknown at the time, and invisible to the outward eye bodily ailment or condition, or “natural” in their sheer freakish and accidental occurrence.

But what about the millions of parents worldwide, who have suffered the loss of babies, young children, teenagers and aspiring-to-be young adults due to the indiscriminate, flesh and bone-piercing shrapnel of munitions or flesh-eating toxic gas/chemicals often times traced back to our own “developed” nations, or even to hunger and disease resulting from inequitable economic systems and institutions, that privilege those that have with more, and those with little-to-none with even less?

How many hundreds of thousands of those we label in the West “rebel,” “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer,” were first parents, and whose political sympathies and activism were ignited the day they held either their own or a neighbor’s limp child’s bloodied body across their outstretched arms?

It is difficult enough to fathom holding the lifeless body of my own children, (such as the following story of a young child’s loss) and unimaginably painful to contemplate holding one of their bloodied, disfigured and lifeless bodies as we daily see via media coverage from war-torn areas such as Syria, southern Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine.

The following is my doctoral mentor’s recollection of day and occasion when he lost his fourth child, a boy:

“On Boxing Day the family decided to go for a picnic along a nearby river. The children were playing together. I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea. We called the children for the meal. David was not with them. The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’ David was nowhere to be found. I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken. Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site. As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead. Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered. High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated. The future ceased to be. . . .”

Demented . . . state of disarray . . . what was no longer mattered . . . evaporation of hope, expectation and promise . . . the cessation of all future . . .

Such is one person’s feeling about life and living in the days and weeks following the death of a beloved five-year-old.

It’s to be expected and probably healthy to immediately feel outrage against and demand retribution toward any person or persons, who violently takes or contributes in taking the life of another person.

Society, for instance, should naturally feel outrage against the alleged three men who yesterday murdered Officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a 30-year Chicago veteran with four sons, and we should similarly be incensed against Vester Lee Flanagan, who one week ago shot to death on live TV both anchor woman and cameraman, or the individual who stood over and shot 15 bullets into a Houston officer at a gas station.

We cannot allow ourselves, however, to be naïve, simplistic and detached-from-reality in terms of perception and interpretation of causation of violence or calamity. We can’t allow ourselves to feel unmitigated hatred against individuals who act out violence, without feeling equal or greater indignation against systems, institutions or “cultures” (e.g., “gun culture,” “socioeconomic privilege culture”) that in one way or another are complicit in the social ills poignantly evident in moments of national grief and outrage.

At least two of the above incidences were committed by mentally ill persons, who, in turn, had easy and legal ownership to firearms. There’s something insanely idiotic and skewed when records indicate that more people have died by firearms in the U.S. since 1968 than by all our wars combined, yet as a nation we do little-to-nothing about gun and mental health reform.

Black South African university students were asked a Zen Buddhist riddle (a koan) by their white professor. They were shown a picture of an unbroken bottle with a goose inside, and then asked, “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without killing the goose or breaking the bottle?”

The students perceived this mostly white oriented, Western philosophical question to be superfluous, contemptuous, and insensitive to their daily life reality under apartheid. The real question, they said, should be—“Who would put a goose into a bottle and why?” Their solution? Obliterate, smash the bottle (i.e., the structure, system, institution of racial discrimination and oppression)!

Oxfam predicts that unless inequity is drastically reversed, within a year or two one-percent of the world’s people will own more than the combined wealth of the other ninety-nine percent.

Given the predominance of worldwide conflicts and inequity it’s imperative that we begin seeing each other as gift, family, and co-sojourner.

Even the United Nations is currently experimenting with virtual reality with a purpose to enable/facilitate those who live in relative seclusion and isolation from the “real” world the rich and powerful to be able to identify with and experience empathy with the poor and suffering people of the world.

Perhaps Desmond Tutu’s wise and elderly words are a fitting close to this thought piece. In God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, he states,

“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. . . Can you imagine what would happen in this world if we accepted that fact about ourselves—that whether we like it or not we are members of one family?

Only when we care about each other’s dead can we truly learn to live in the same world together without our irrational prejudices and hatreds. Perhaps this will be possible when we eventually realize that God has no enemies, only family.”

To my South African friends who lost a most precious child this week please know how broken we feel with you; how loved you are as family; how much our lives benefited by knowing your daughter, yet how impoverished by her passing.

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Filed under Africa, Death and Dying, Family, Inequity, Life, Loss, Memories, Perspective, Relationships, Violence

Infamous Dates | A Personal Reflection on 9/11

*I invite you to share your remembrances of any infamous date under “Leave a Reply.”

Mind numbing transformations of life and ways of living occur in the briefest and most unexpected of moments. . . .

– The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that prompted President Franklin D Roosevelt’s December 8th “Day of Infamy” speech.

– The December 26, 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, that took the lives of more than 250,000 people.

Between these two dates and events too many unconscionable natural and human-on-human atrocities including, of course, September 11, 2001, when at least and especially for North Americans, the world suddenly seemed too bleak and too frightening a place to galavant (roaming and playing) about in after 19 terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda commandeered four planes.

Two months prior, July, 2001, I was studying and traveling about in Switzerland and Germany as part of my PhD studies in history of religions. Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically given the ensuing Islamophobia that developed in the United States post-9/11, one of the seminars I attended that July at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey was on reconciliation.

Like many, I remember where and what I was doing the morning of 9/11.

A new academic year had begun just one week prior, and because my doctoral mentor was undergoing leukemia treatment, he had traveled to Houston’s renowned “cancer hospital,” MD Anderson. I taught his 08:00 – 09:20 Introduction to World Religions class, and we were half-way through the 80-minutes when a student, who I had marked as absent, suddenly opened one of the two rear classroom doors.

Distraught and crying she told us of the planes, the Towers, the unknown number dead, and that she had a sister who worked in one of the towers, but who she discovered was safe. I immediately dismissed class without comprehending the magnitude or severity of events, nor with any sense of the implications of the day’s events on the next day, or the many tomorrows that extended into months, years, and now into a second decade.

All over campus students, staff and faculty gravitated toward each other and to TV’s. I still remember the density of people congregating around two large screen TV’s in Baylor University’s SUB (Student Union Building). There was an uncharacteristic hush throughout the SUB, except for the voices of the news anchors, analysts and political pundits.

Equally, if not more unsettling to me, was September 12th, because for the first time in (my) living memory not a single aircraft was heard or seen in the sky. Even birds in flight seemed an anomaly.

I’m ashamed to say, but it was only after sitting down to draft this blog, and with my mind unconsciously racing here, there and everywhere in its search for associated memories, that I became mindful, re-minded of other equally or greater calamitous events to 9/11, in terms of loss of life – genocides like the Holocaust, Cambodia and Rwanda; the World Wars – hell, most wars; colonization of countries and their people; civil wars like Syria; et cetera. My shame demonstrates how myopic, how forgetful, how self-absorbed, and how provincial our lives can become, and why memorials are so important.

911memotial

I’m not suggesting one calamitous event is worse or less worse than another, for they surely are equally tragic for those who lost and lose loved ones and friends.

For those personally untouched (no friend or family member affected) with each colossal tragedy – apart from the added life inconveniences “suffered” as a result of an event – perhaps it’s a reminder, a wake-up call that we should live lives more daily attuned to our fellow humanity. Truly, no person or nation is an island.

This morning I heard a woman talking on her cell phone to a friend, explaining with a degree of frustration why her upcoming weekend plans were changed – stating, “it’s because of some kind of Jewish holiday.” Obviously she was referring to Yom Kippur, only the holiest of Jewish days in which repentance and atonement accompanies a full-day of fasting, yet which this lady had no knowledge of, or interest in, because she likely had no Jewish friends or acquaintances.

Our own life is difficult enough, I realize. But, perhaps, if we took small, daily measures like being willing and disciplined enough to wean ourselves from total co-dependency on our smart devices like Charlene deGuzman accidentally did one 24-hour period in I Forgot My Phone – a humorous YouTube clip that has garnered more than 22-million hits.

Maybe then we might discover enough time, energy and empathy to give thoughtful pause, prayer (if you’re a person of faith) or praxis (thoughtful action) toward the lives and suffering of so many of the world’s people – individuals with a history and a family, just like the more than 3,000, who lost their lives in New York City on 9/11. Perhaps, too, such moments of reflection would help orient our lives and living in a direction that encompasses and embraces the world and not merely my own private world.

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My (white) Response to Trayvon & Family’s Experienced Indignities | An Appeal for Primal Empathy

Conflict resolution specialist, Donna Hicks, argues in Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, that it’s easier to name experiences and feelings of dignity and indignity, than it is to define the word itself. This, in part, because we are “feeling beings,” who live and experience life through our five senses.

Assuming she’s right . . . What about you?

Can you remember occasions when you felt your dignity was violated?

Can you recall occasions when you violated someone else’s dignity?

In response to the Trayvon Martin jury verdict and the nationwide emotional outcries it has and continues to provoke, President Obama shared two personal examples of his own dignity being violated. He recounted being followed on suspicion of theft (or anticipated theft) while shopping, and hearing car doors being locked in fear as he simply crossed the street in the direction of parked motorists.

If we define dignity, as Hicks does, as a birthright, accompanied by feelings of inherent value and worth. And, if we define indignity as feelings of insignificance and worthlessness, then we might agree that shaming is one of the most common, unthoughtful, and insensitive acts against our fellow humanity, and the taking of an innocent life as the most abhorrent, tragic and emotionally wrenching.

A personal experience of indignity . . .

When I was in the 4th grade I attended a government school in Kisumu, Kenya. I was one of only two white expat kids, in an otherwise all black and brown (Asian Indian) school. Of the two whites, I was the outgoing, athletic type, and my counterpart might today be pegged as a member of the Geek Squad, yet who has the last laugh because he owns a Fortune 5000 company.

Despite my father obtaining a Master’s in math, little of his genes or self-confidence in math were passed down to me. Math has always been associated with shame inducing memories, only one of which I share.

A shame-inducing experience that resulted in me leaving the Kisumu school came about because I was cheating. I don’t remember who I cheated from, but I do recall trading many dime-a-dozen, Paper Mate medium tip blue ballpoint disposable pens for homework help. One day my Kenya teacher found me out, not for cheating, but simply for having no competency in following his instructions for an in-class assignment.

Whether he was exercising his then sanctioned authority as teacher to administer corporal punishment, or more likely in my opinion, using this opportune moment to “get back at” a perceived white colonizer’s son (Kenya obtained its independence only 7 years prior), I’ll never know.

I only remember that he grabbed my left ear, violently wrenching/twisting and lifting me out of my seat by it, then slapped my face with his large, open-palm, turning my cheek a bright ruddy complexion, and then roughly escorted me – dragged is more like it – down to the front of the class, where he scolded me before my classmates, then leaned me over his desk and gave my young white derriere a number of heavy whacks with a ready-at-hand and seasoned non-willow-like stick.

Years later . . .

My freshman year at Baylor University, I participated in violating someone’s dignity simply because I didn’t have the courage to act on what I knew was the right and decent thing to do.

Although all on-campus cafeterias are co-ed, I usually ate at Penland Hall’s cafeteria, a guy’s dorm. Several of the cafeteria staff were mentally challenged, and on this particular occasion a young white woman was pushing a cart loaded down with dirty dishes. Suddenly, there was a deafening din of falling and breaking dishes just 10 feet from where I sat. My head shot up. Actually all heads shot up.

The prior loudness of student voices and laughter contrasted with the punctuated stillness of stares in the direction of this young and challenged woman, who immediately turned beet red and dropped to her knees in an attempt to gather up and salvage the many broken and scattered dishes and food remnants.  The silence lasted only for a moment before students began to snicker and laugh and whisper unkind and insensitive remarks.

I remember feeling emotionally torn. I didn’t have the self-worth and confidence to identify myself with the mess or the mentally challenged girl’s predicament, nor did I disparage her by unkind words or laughter either.

I simply disregarded her humanity through my inaction, saying and doing nothing. I sat there and watched as one Baylor student got down on his hands and knees beside this embarrassed and shamed young woman, and helped her clean the mess up, impervious to what anyone might think or say of his actions.

You see, my evolutionary and innate self-protective instincts were in full operation that noon meal. Fearing ridicule by association I fought the impulse to demonstrate kindness, and instead chose to isolate myself versus connect with this young woman.

Hicks observes that “We might have entered the world with strong self-protective instincts, but we did not enter the world with an awareness of how much we hurt one another in the course of our own defense. Awareness requires self-understanding and acceptance. It requires work. . . .

Holding up the mirror and taking an honest look at what we have done requires more than instincts. We have to tap into the part of us that has the capacity to self-reflect. We already have inherent dignity. We just need to learn how to act like it.”

Desmond Tutu wrote something to the effect that “Only when we begin to care about each other’s dead and dying will we begin to act like and experience being a (global) family.”

Hicks similarly observes . . .

If we are to achieve greater worldwide peace and become in some shape or form a conciliatory community, nation, even global family, then it will require a “developmental shift in understanding”; from an egocentric to ‘other’ point of view; from a mere cognitive understanding to a “primal empathy” (aka, emotional identification), “a feeling of what happens to them.”

Charles M. Blow, in Barack and Trayvon, states, “Only when the burden of bias is shared —  only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.”

In Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith observe that –

“The social categories we develop are more than convenient groupings of individuals that simplify the actual diversities among the people we observe and encounter.  They are also categories that can bias the way we process information, organize and store it in memory, and make judgments about members of those social categories. . . . The manner of, the language used, and the persistency of our customary portrayal of people results in a corresponding thought, speech and action toward the ‘Different Other.’

As a WASPM (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male), I do not write to disparage my/our own sense of “white identity,” yet appeal to millions of us – women, included – to risk a momentary vulnerability and feeling of self-loss, in order to connect emotionally with the millions, whose life histories and stories were by no choice or fault of their own unprivileged to be on history’s victor side of socio-economic and political power.

Resist allowing your innate reaction to perceived social threat to be a self-protective one of “fight,” “flee,” or isolate and alienate yourself from the kaleidoscope of racial, economic, religious and linguistic diversity in our country.

Rather, risk a moment to listen to and hear the other’s life stories. Story – such as one person’s introduction to her own story below – has the transformative capacity to disarm anger and resentment, and to engender empathy, understanding, and ultimately resolution of conflicts.

I want to tell you about me in a way that you can hear, so my story will pique your curiosity, if not your compassion, about me and what my life is like. I want you to see me as a human being with the same dignity that’s in you.

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Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Diversity, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith