Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Empathetic Perception


I was recently refered to as “one of the cool kids.” This, of course, is the current colloquialism for being part of the “in” crowd, the “popular” people and the like. Funny thing, though, I have never felt like I was in the “in” crowd, never felt like I was popular and, despite having had a few “best friends” throughout my 56 years, I have never felt as though I was someone else’s “best friend.” Granted, much of that feeling is just that, it might not be reality, but my perspective of always being on the outside looking in, sometimes longing to be in, is real. In the past 15 or so years, I have done a lot of work on myself, a lot of self-examination, some reflection and quite a bit of writing just like this and, as a result, my self-perception has changed.

Perception. It is much more than just the framework through which I see the world. It is also the framework through which you see yours, and through which you see me. And how I see you. And how everyone sees everything and everyone else. Each one is wholly unique. I guarantee that they way I view Sally is not exactly the same way anyone else views her. Not in terms of appearance, character, personality, privilege, luck and thousands of other ways we see things, each another sub-frame, or perspective. The number of ways in which we construct reality is mind-boggling. How I am receiving the world — right here, right now — is only my perception; it’s not like anyone else’s, and it never will be.

Empathy differs from compassion or sympathy in that it is not an emotion, per se; rather, empathy seeks understanding, the ability to “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” However, despite our efforts to imagine what it must be like to wear those shoes, we cannot actually put them on. Still, similar experiences can get us remarkably close — in isolation. But the perspective, that frame we are forced to looked through is not only influenced by a wide range of variables - and experiences are not only just one variety of variable; all of our disparate experiences work with and against each other, rendering each a distinct element, a new variable, in just this one area. When factored all the way out, the number of things contributing to our perception is infinite. Groupings and similarities aside, each one of our worldviews is totally unique.

That means that whether I am a “cool kid” or not depends on the perception of others. It is a tenuous place to be, teetering on the edge of coolness. There was a time when my image – that version of me that I present to the world – was constructed to create a perception that would allow me access to that which I desired. Friends, of course, but also other human connections that would validate who I was. There was a problem, however. I did not know who I was. To say that my self-perception is unaffected by what others see would be a lie, much the same as saying, “I don’t care what you think.” I do care what certain others think, and I am very much affected by how others view me. I contributes to how I see myself. But it doesn’t have to dictate who I am.

So how do others view me? I actually have a little insight on that. It took more than 50 years to get it, but I’m a little slow out of the blocks. I am one of the “cool kids.” To those who were like me earlier in my life, who saw those who looked like me and did some of the things I do, who see a veritable “free spirit,” my life looks pretty fantastic. But there are those, too, who think I am arrogant, obnoxious and, frankly, an asshole. Nothing cool about any of that, but for some I can come across that way and their perception is that I am an asshole. And it is perfectly valid, I do not discount it. For others I am a professor – some think I am a cool one, other’s think I am anything but. I am a father to three boys and although they share many similarities in their lives, each their perceptions of me as a father and as a person is also unique – they each see me as an entirely different person. Again, the variables are infinite, the result cannot be anything but unique.

And that brings me to me. Who am I? Really, who the fuck am I? I see myself in a way that has been built on my experiences, my interactions, my environment, an infinite number of variables have contributed to the way I see myself and where I fit in the world. The answer today is not the same as it was last week or last year. It will not be the same next week or next year. Are there constants, certain static aspects of what makes me, me? Maybe, or perhaps aspects that change very slowly, but there are also plenty that can change me and my viewpoint violently. Who am I today? I am me.

But I know that the way I see myself – in all my various and sundry roles, is not the same way anyone else sees me. My perspective and that of others could be so different that I would not recognize the person described as me to me. Indeed, that has happened. And the way I see others might not remotely resemble who they think they are. It’s a humbling thought that the “poor, misunderstood me” routine can and probably does apply to everyone. We are all misunderstood by a lot of other people, but we are also very closely understood by others, probably far fewer. Some perceive in a way that is very close to how we see ourselves. By keeping all that in mind, I can come closest to putting on someone else’s shoes and lacing them. They might end up hurting my feet before I get a mile, but I’ll be that many steps closer understanding. And understanding is what empathy needs to realign perception.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Life in a Bubble


Last November 13th, at about 3:00 p.m., my youngest son, Matthew, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. The motorists who turned left in front of him was wholly at fault and entirely underinsured, with just minimum liability coverage. His coverage didn’t even put a dent into the financial cost of my son’s injuries, injuries he is still very much being affected by today, months later. In two days he will endure another, hopefully final, operation to repair his left tibia, again. His other injuries, combined with extensive physical therapy ever since, are responding well to the surgeries he had right after the wreck. He has not been able to work and will not be for weeks to come, at least. At just 29 years old, this has been a serious interruption in his life.
 
The reality of this is not lost on me or him – he was lucky to survive at all. It was a violent wreck forceful enough to beak every bone in his left leg and his humerus in his right arm. The humerus break also caused some damage to his radial nerve, but even that has been slowly getting better. It is the tibia (which, like his femur, was an open fracture and now has a rod in it) that is not healing correctly or fast enough. The operation is going to, hopefully, get his leg to finally mend. He is ready to put this all behind him, and the chances that he will be able to are still good. We are optimistic.

Riding a motorcycle is dangerous even for the most experienced riders. While Matthew is a good rider and had a great deal of road awareness, his experience is limited. When he approached me about buying a motorcycle, I had some reservations – the same reservations I am sure my own parents have about me riding mine. Although it would be hypocritical not to support him in his decision, that is not why I supported him. I did so because of one simple word: freedom. And in Matt’s case, it’s freedom that he literally fought for while in a Hell-hole called Afghanistan.

Do I feel partially responsible for the situation he now finds himself in? At first, yes – a lot. But that was a knee-jerk reaction. The truth is that I could do little to stop him from riding even if I wanted to. Still, when seeing my son splayed out in a hospital bed, enduring unimaginable pain, it is difficult not to feel somewhat responsible. It was also difficult not to exact retribution from the idiot whose fault this really was, the moron who was, in fact, 100 percent responsible. There is nothing there, financially, and to take it out of his hide would be counter-productive, illegal and only briefly satisfying.

What we are left with is dealing with the unfairness of life. We are not the first nor the last who, through no fault of our own, have consequences that must be dealt with. Again, in the big picture, he is lucky – life could have been significantly more unfair. While the physical rehabilitation is work that no one else can do for him, with the help of an attorney and a pretty good social safety net through MediCal and the VA, Matt will not fall into crushing debt.

He is nowhere near a decision regarding whether he will ride again when he is able, or at some point down the road. He’s pretty sure he will at least go back to his roots – dirt and off-road riding – when he is able, but street riding is, appropriately, a big question mark. Me? I still ride, but not the same way I used to. I was averaging about 20,000 miles per year before he wrecked. I rode everywhere, all the time. My motorcycle was my primary means of transportation, it was my “daily driver.” I rarely ever commute on my bike anymore. That’s what he was doing when he wrecked – nothing out of the ordinary, he was just going home from work, like any other day. I still ride a lot of miles, but now it is primarily for recreation, not utility.

Although I have had a couple of relatively minor wrecks, this time, despite it not being my wreck, it came much too close to home. Every time I throw a leg over my bike, I think about the very real risks like I haven’t in a long time. It doesn’t make me more vigilant, I am already ├╝ber-careful, but it is always on my mind. Even with my experience, considerably more than Matt’s, I am very conscious that some idiot behind the wheel of a car can surprise me. In other words, I am not exempt, it could happen to me.

On the other side of the equation lies actually living life. Risk of all kinds exists on a continuum. Being more or less careful, limiting one’s exposure can move the level of risk one way or the other, but no matter how careful one is, there is no “zero-risk” place on the scale. How much we are willing to expose ourselves to is a personal matter and should not be limited by laws or regulations unless my risk exposure affects someone else’s. Lot’s of things in life are dangerous – life itself is a crap-shoot. By limiting how I live it based on someone else’s aversion to that risk is not living. Freedom is not easy and it is not always “safe.” But living life in a bubble is not living – it’s dying a slow death.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Divide and Conquer


Facebook’s ability to “remember” and then recall events on a particular day in years past (not all of them, even for me, a Facebook “old-timer,” it’s just a 10-year historical record) is, arguably, one of just a very few of its redeeming qualities. Of course, it wasn’t Facebook’s idea – like so much of the platform’s functionality, it was a “borrowed” idea. However, it is now an integral and useful part of the social media platform. While it only remembers what we post, and what we post varies from the extraordinary to the mundane, and not all of it is necessarily rainbows and unicorns, Facebook takes the family photo album and puts it on steroids. It can be, depending upon how extensive one has utilized Facebook, a powerful tool.

For example, 10 years ago today my youngest son graduated from high school. He was the last of my three boys to venture out into the world; the 10 years of my life since that milestone have been eventful indeed. Many of those events are also memorialized in my Facebook timeline, but not all. And some I have deleted – permanently. They are experiences I’d prefer to just forget, remembering only the “essence” of them imbedded in my psyche as one of many “lessons of life.” The others, however, even the more innocuous postings from years past, serve as more than just a reminder of where I was two, three, seven or nine years ago. They serve as virtual bookmarks. They are the dog-eared pages of my life, an index to not only what was happening in my world (and nowhere near all of it documented on Facebook), but also what was happening in the world.

After his high-school graduation, my youngest, Matthew, decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. He wasn’t ambushed by a recruiter (although they tried – another memory indexed by this one), we did discuss it. I wasn’t crazy about the idea as the odds of him being deployed to fight an ill-defined war in Afghanistan were likely. However, he made a rational decision and followed through with it. In the coming months, memories of his Basic Training and AIT will be coming alive again on Facebook. So, too, will be the pictures and other interaction I had with him while in that Afghan Hell-hole. While these are not the type of memories one looks upon and smiles fondly, they are, nonetheless, important historical landmarks in our lives.

I have wrestled with the power Facebook has. I have struggled with its monopolistic ubiquity. I don’t trust it – even as a place to secure, remember and catalogue my memories (I archive it all to my hard drive regularly). Facebook absolutely warps reality, feeds hate and cares nothing about the truth. Although they say they do now, it is only damage control. Facebook willingly takes money from anyone who wants to buy access - whether the content is true or not, whether it fosters hate or not - Facebook does not care. It fortifies and intensifies the already generally anonymous nature of the Internet and turns the safety of a keyboard bunker into a fortress. Time and time again, whether I am just fed up or, on rare occasion, actually pull the plug, I have come back. And it is largely (though, not entirely) due to the “Memories” function (formerly known as “On this Day,” stolen from the app, TimeHop) that I come back or stay.

In August, memories from my first through my fifth trips to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will begin popping up in my memories (appropriately, while I am at my sixth). In July there will be blanks in 2012, the days around my ill-advised and ill-fated marriage. Similar blanks in the memory bank will be present from February 2011 to June 2013, the two-plus year life span of that train wreck relationship. I deleted a lot of it. The lessons I learned do not need to be prodded by beautifully fake wedding pictures – I remember, thanks. However, not all of the memories from that time and even the wedding itself are bad. Friends and family gathered for it in numbers the likes of which will probably never happen again. It many respects, it was the party of the decade and, taking the actual reason for that party out of the equation, the rest of it was a good time. The pictures from that day are in a Facebook album titled, “What’s Left.” They are the pictures of the good times with friends and family, not the ceremony itself.

And then there are my grandsons. I get to see my youngest son’s boy, in person, a lot – almost every day in the summer. But my eldest son’s boys live about 450 miles away, I don’t see them often. Facebook helps, a little. But the memories of when they came into the world are special, I like seeing them pop up. Finally, my middle son and his wife are expecting a baby in early August. If Facebook doesn’t implode and if I can stomach its bullshit – because Facebook dances on the edge of my tolerance all the time – in ten years’ time I’ll be looking back at baby pictures of my newest grandson.

We used to pull out the family photos from time to time and reminisce around a table, in the den, maybe, or perhaps during a summer barbecue, talking about the memories those photos triggered. It wasn’t every day, it was never a scheduled thing; it was organic, it would just happen. But rarely ever did we do it alone. Social media, and Facebook in particular, has taken that and many other communal activities and reduced them to a one-on-one interaction, except one of those “ones” in the pair is Facebook, the medium itself. McLuhan was certainly onto something, he just never realized how big, multi-faceted and ubiquitous one single medium could become.

It is dangerous for the simple fact that even though we recognize its very real evils, we/I/you – most of us, statistically – have become accustomed to the very warm and fuzzy. The protection and care of these things that are so precious, unique and personal – the very essence of who we are – is in the hands of an entity that uses us to sell things to others. And we know it! But it is warm and fuzzy and, now, much more than convenient. It is routine. Even if we don’t regularly click “Memories” on the sidebar, Facebook will show us one of our memories on our timeline and ask if we’d like to see more. Of course we would. Warm and fuzzy. Curiosity. How much better or worse we are. It is interesting, it is solitary and, when engaged, Facebook has us, each of us, individually, all to itself. It’s the ultimate manifestation of “divide and conquer.”