A humble little blog about books, information, and other things that are good to know.

Posts tagged ‘compassion’

Slacktivism: What Good Are Silly Facebook Memes?

Change your default Facebook picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal? To not see a human face on facebook until Monday the 6th of Dec. Join the fight against child abuse, and invite your friends to do the same.

That’s the latest cause on Facebook, and it’s got traction – not because people think this helps to fight child abuse, I rather suspect, but because we have such fond nostalgic memories of the cartoons we watched as kids. I chose a picture from Rainbow Brite – maybe I’m supporting abused gay children? Hard to say. But it’s been super-fun, and in some cases rather educational, to check out what TV shows others choose to represent themselves online.

My profile picture on Facebook - Rainbow Brite and Friends

Image via TV Tropes.

But are any of us really “joining the fight against child abuse”? Well, not really. I’d wager we’d all be willing to make a statement about how wrong it is – after all, child abuse isn’t one of those things people tend to stick up for. Even abusers would probably speak against it, justifying their own behaviour towards children by saying it’s “discipline” or “tough love”, not “abuse”. And like I said, most people aren’t really making a statement about child abuse. This is a fun Facebook game.

My good friend Drumrider wrote about this back in October, when the Facebook charity causes were breast cancer (through the bra colours meme or “I like it on the floor”) and supporting gay kids against bullying (where we showed our solidarity by wearing purple). In her post, she asks, “Did wearing purple make a difference?” and largely concludes that it did not. She references the Malcolm Gladwell concept of “slacktivism” – a passive kind of activism where Internet users can substitute changing a status here or a profile picture there for actual substantive work towards change. They can then say, “Well, I did my duty, I raised awareness” and go to bed with a clear conscience, even though they’ve actually made no real difference at all.

Have they?

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Making A Difference for the Developmentally Disabled

This is a story with a lot of good news in it. It’s got writing. It’s got compassion. And it’s got a group of young adults finding the inspiration to make a better world for people who are different – not to mention the people who love them.

The Wall Street Journal (Classroom Edition) ran this article about Soeren Palumbo, who is now a student at Notre Dame. But before that, he was a teenage speech-writer who, inspired by love for his mentally disabled sister Olivia, used his high school’s Writer’s Week to condemn the use of the word “retarded” in everyday speech.

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The Literacy Link: How Books Make Your World Safer

I’ve been reading through Born For Love by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz, a book about how human development creates empathy and what increases or decreases it in human beings. They have a lot of fascinating, surprising things to say, but here’s something I bet you didn’t know: some historians have observed that, as literacy spreads in a given society, murder, torture, and violence become more rare. Reading makes people less violent!

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The Drama of Reincarnation

“Conversations with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama are strange for a Westerner who does not believe in reincarnation. He points out such linkages, nodding his head with pity at how human behaviours continue to spin the web of lives, one after the other, through connections – actions, motivations, associations in past lives – that are impossible for most of us to see. For the Dalai Lama, this is a story of a connection, as he defined it, between two humans, played out over a thousand years, demonstrating a mixture of the divine and the human as manifested in corporeal lives.”

Can you imagine any story more dramatic than that? The relationship between two people playing out, not over a single lifetime, but over more than one. Past history and past emotions intervening in the dynamic of present relationships, changing the way we view one another, adding a layer of richness to our experience. I’ve been reading about that kind of relationship over multiple lifetimes in The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama, and it has inspired me to create a booklist of stories that explore past-life relationships in fiction. Thus I give you . . .

The Drama of Reincarnation

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – The story of a highly intelligent and educated dog named Enzo, who reflects on his life and his relationship with his racecar-driving human companion, Denny. As he prepares to leave this life, Enzo hopes he can become human in his next incarnation.

Audrey Rose by Frank de FelittaA bereaved father comes to believe that his little girl, killed in a horrible car accident, has been reincarnated into another child, one who seems to remember the torment and pain that ended her prior incarnation. Later adapted into a 1977 film.

Avalon High by Meg Cabot – The relationships between teenagers at a seemingly average high school come into sharp focus when Ellie begins to discover that she and her classmates are reincarnations of characters from the legend of King Arthur. YA

A Dog‘s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron – Over several lifetimes, Bailey tries to discover the reason behind his lives and loves as a dog.

Eternal by Craig Russell – A Jan Fabel detective story, in which Fabel and his team pursue a serial killer who believes he is taking revenge on those who wronged him in a past life.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson – The arrogant and cynical narrator plans to kill himself after he is disfigured in a horrible car accident . . . until a mysterious woman enters his life, claiming they were lovers in a past life in medieval Germany. Through her, the nameless narrator begins to question his understanding of reality and even to entertain the possibility of redemption.

The Hypnotist by M. J. Rose – When FBI agent Lucian Glass visits a hypnotist as part of an investigation, he learns about past incarnations in Greece and Persia, which just might be related to his current investigation and also to the unsolved case that haunts him to this day.

My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares – In their first incarnation together, Daniel loved Sophia deeply and hurt her deeply. Now, in each successive life, he searches for her and tries to make amends however he can, even when that means he must not be her lover this time around.

Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra – A seventeenth-century poet-adventurer returns as a monkey, shot by vacationing student Abhay, who strikes a bargain with the gods: he will entertain Abhay and his family with stories from his rich past-life history.

Reincarnation by Suzanne Weyn – Over the history of the human race – in ancient Egypt and Greece, witch-hunt Salem, the American Civil War, Nazi-occupied Paris, 1960s Mississippi, and modern New York – two lovers meet over and over in different incarnations. YA

The Reincarnationist by M. J. Rose – A modern photojournalist remembers a life as a pagan priest in ancient Rome after he almost dies in a terrorist attack. As these memories surface, he begins to sense that a collection of modern-day murders might be related to a relic from his ancient past.

Replay by Ken Grimwood – An award-winning work of fiction in which, after dying of heart failure in 1988, Jeff Winston returns to a point in his life decades earlier to relive the past. He learns he cannot change the time and date of his death, but he can make other changes in the course of his life.

Sengoku Nights by Kei Kusunoki & Kaoru Ohashi – Masayoshi, a Japanese teen, learns that he lived a past life as a legendary witch. As he tries to come to terms with this knowledge, he finds he must also face the restless spirits of men he murdered in his prior incarnation. MA

The Star Rover by Jack London (also published as The Jacket in the U.K.) – Imprisoned for murder, Darrell withstands his guards’ torture by learning to enter a trance in which he roams amidst the stars and discovers the stories of his previous lives.

Yes, My Darling Daughter by Margaret Leroy – Single mom Grace searches for answers when her daughter Sylvie starts acting out in bizarre ways. She manages to trace the child’s troubling behaviour to past-life memories with the help of a professor who studies the paranormal.

MA = manga & anime.
YA = written with Young Adult readers in mind.

Children’s Reading and Adventures in Compassion

Here’s a big question for you, one I’ve considered often in the past as I prepared for my future career: beyond the individual desire for a parent to have his/her child grow up to be a skilled reader, what is the good of reading with children?

I was reflecting earlier today on a book I read for an assignment in library school. The assignment was to select and present a book to the class as you’d present it to a storytime group of young children, and the book I chose was Gummytoes by Sean Cassidy. It’s the story of a tree frog who wants to be loved and admired by children, until they capture him and put him in a terrarium. There, he lives in fear of loud voices, fingers tapping on the glass, and the messy conditions in the prison that keeps him away from his beloved natural habitat.

Sean Cassidy, author of Gummytoes, showing his illustrations.

Sean Cassidy, author of Gummytoes, showcasing his illustrations at Visual Arts Brampton in December 2004.

I chose that story because it’s full of great lessons about gratitude, and when it’s better to blend in than stand out, and how being resourceful can get you out of a tough scrape. I also chose it because it’s illustrated beautifully and vividly, and because animals seem pretty fascinating to kids. Who doesn’t remember chasing frogs?

But I think the most valuable thing about the story is how easy it is to relate to Gummytoes the frog – to his desires to be noticed, his discomfort once he’s kidnapped, and his relief at returning to the wild. Even though the reader probably isn’t a frog, it isn’t hard to imagine what that would be like . . . and maybe on the next visit to the pet store or the zoo, she’ll think twice before tapping on the aquarium glass.

Imagination is the key to compassion. You can’t feel for someone else’s pain unless you can imagine what it’s like to have that pain yourself. If reading promotes imagination, it necessarily promotes compassion. Imagining yourself in some other situation – whether as an astronaut, a ballerina, a big sister, or a tree frog – leads to considering whether you’d like or dislike what’s happening to you. And that consideration leads to compassion, which at bottom is an understanding that somebody else is in a situation that would make you yourself unhappy.

Do books always need to have a lesson? I think not, and sometimes trying to force a lesson into a story where it doesn’t belong can make it a less attractive piece of literature. It’s a loss that isn’t worth the trouble. Children are always learning; as long as a story isn’t lauding bad values, a little kid doesn’t need to have good ones rammed down his throat. He’ll learn.

But the one value that a story must always have is compassion, because it’s necessary to making a story worth reading. If we don’t have compassion for the characters, if we can’t imagine and feel for their suffering, why should we care about what’s happening to them? The entire experience of reading is based on the idea of taking an interest in others’ circumstances and finding out more about them. Without compassion, the response to any possible piece of reading material is inevitably, “So what?”

The more you read, it seems to me, the more you care about other people’s situations.  For one, you learn more about how other people live their lives, and you’re exposed to situations you might never have considered. But also, you learn to put yourself in another’s shoes and hope for a good outcome, and identify with their pain if they get a bad one instead. That calls for imagination. And in a world where imagination is in short supply, compassion can’t survive. Reading with children is good for the world, society, and the future. And not just because good readers get into good schools and get good jobs.

They also get to be good people.

Image courtesy of Clipart, Etc.

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