Monthly Archives: March 2017

Asking for Help

I was on my own a lot as a child, and I had to learn to figure things out because there wasn’t anyone around to ask for help if I needed it. I didn’t mind, though. I’ve always been a tinkerer and a fiddler. As a teen, I rewired my old Walkman to my car speakers so I could have a tape deck in my 73 Super Beetle. When my kids were small, I once replaced a heating element in my dishwasher because I didn’t want to have a repairman tromping around during their nap time.

It took me years of insanity, being a full time working mom, before I finally broke down and hired a house cleaner. It was the best money I ever spent, even though I felt guilty for a while because I couldn’t do it all.  But the truth was – I really couldn’t do it all. And I love a clean house. I’d come home exhausted from work and cry tears of joy that my house was spotless, my laundry done, my toilets clean. It was a tremendous gift to myself. I could have a big job AND a clean house, if I just asked for help. It seems silly now that I waited, and suffered, for so long.

But still, I think many of us have trouble admitting we need help. It always felt like a defeat. I should be smart enough to figure things out, I thought, and admitting I need help is a sign of weakness. My mind knows that it’s just an artifact from childhood, this Sicilian notion of pride and honor, weakness and strength.

I’m happy to report that I’m getting better at asking for help, and accepting it.

When I started writing this book, I struggled for a full year alone before I found help. The thought of going cold-calling on writing groups sounded like pure misery to me. I wasn’t ready to share my writing with a group of strangers. I didn’t want to wander, looking for my people. So, I found a writing coach. I found her online. She helps intuitive empathic types like me – a classic Meyer’s Briggs INFJ – get their books written.

She is my gentle reader. She sees the things I don’t see, she offers me her feelings as a reader and her insights as a writer. We speak the same mystical language. Paying her to read my stuff is another tremendous gift to myself. I’ve made great progress. My book has a heartbeat, and I’m gaining confidence as a writer.

And sometimes, the help you need shows up without asking. There is that old saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”. There is synchronicity at work, magic, even. This happened to me recently, and it’s been a great kick in the pants.

Sometimes the Universe knows better than you if you need help, and people show up, like little love notes, to help you along your path.

Do not refuse their help. There is always something to learn by saying yes. There is a certain grace that comes when you accept the help you need. It means that you’re serious. It means that you think you’re worthy. It means you’re willing to invest in yourself.

While I was struggling, I had to ask myself what I would rather have at the end of my days: My stubborn pride, or having written a great book.

I chose my book. I asked for help.

Radical Empathy, Defined

The term “Radical Empathy” occurred to me way back in 2010, when I was supervising a large department of the Library. We were in the middle of a major remodel, and I’d just had a baby. We were also in the middle of the recession, dealing with staff layoffs, and our patrons were faring even worse.

My staff was stressed, our patrons were stressed, and I was stressed.

It became my mission to reduce everyone’s stress, including my own. Let’s not be so black and white on everything, I told my staff. Let’s help each person as an individual. Let’s have radical empathy for what they are dealing with, and do the right thing for them if we can.

In the library, it often involved bending rules and making judgment calls. But, staff were uncomfortable with this, even with my full permission and confidence. They like consistency. What is the point of having rules if we don’t enforce them? They don’t like the gray zone.

For me, though, the gray zone became my sanctuary – it’s the sweet spot where I found the joy in serving people.  This didn’t mean randomly bestowing special privileges on a certain few. It just means that if someone presents themselves to me in a state of stress, I will do whatever I can do to help that person.

To me, it’s a matter of personal integrity. My interests are in serving humanity first. Not the rule book.

In 2012, Cheryl Strayed published a book called Wild. I eyeballed it, a little jealous, and thought – meh, so what. She wrote a book about an epic adventure.  That book sat on one of our best-seller displays winking at me for two years before I finally broke down and read it, and when it did, it cracked me wide open in ways I hadn’t expected. I sought out her other writings. She does an advice column and a radio show as Dear Sugar, and the writing there was like nothing I’d ever encountered. It staggered me with the truth, with her humanity. The term she was using?

Radical Empathy.

I don’t know who thought of it first, and it doesn’t matter. It’s just one of those concepts that seems born in multiple places at the right time, out of thin air.

I Googled around looking for a definition of Radical Empathy and there were a lot of results with people using empathy exercises in large groups to bring about world peace. That’s great and all, no doubt. Maybe it means different things to different people.

But in my definition, it starts with the individual. It starts with individual action. Feelings + Action = Radical Empathy.

It starts with your humanity caring about the fate of another struggling human and acting upon it honorably.

Practicing radical empathy requires a certain generosity of spirit and a willingness to do whatever it takes in a given situation to help someone. It requires brutal honesty, kindness, and patience.

It absolutely requires an open heart and an open mind. There are mysteries at work here, even a little magic. The struggling people I help everyday often have profound lessons for me. Truly, I am the one receiving the greater gift. This isn’t my motivation, though. It’s a side benefit.

Radical empathy. It’s hard to define because it is not a concrete thing. You only recognize it by feeling it. You only feel it, by doing it.

The Dream

I have been writing a book for three years now, and it may take a few more to get it finished and published. It’s a memoir, and I think it’s a good story. At first, I thought I was just writing a fun and breezy rock-n-roll adventure, but then it turned into something much more important. I lived the story and the history, and I’m honoring it by taking the time I need to tell it.

It’s taking me longer than I ever thought. I’ve blown through every deadline I set for myself, which made me feel bad at first. And then I had a big health scare this past year that has taken up a lot of my time. Life happens, you know?

So I stopped setting deadlines for this project. I’m at an age where I know some things can’t be rushed. It’s going to be born in its due time. Deadlines are great for some things, but perhaps not for this. I don’t want to create in a state of anxiousness or guilt. It’s emotional work already; it takes time.

Since the big health scare, I’ve written 50k words. I’m making progress, regardless.

I say it over and over again to myself: This book will get done. This book will be published. I am a writer. That is my dream.

Instead of deadlines, I think in seasons: by the end of summer, I’d like to have this draft ready for a good, hard edit. This past season of my life has been difficult, and I have empathy for what I’ve been through, as a human being.

I’m not letting myself off the hook, but I am giving myself the space and time I need right now. Sometimes, you have to know when to push, and when to yield.  Artists feel empathy for the world, but are often too hard on themselves. Brilliant work is created in that tension, no doubt. But I don’t think that’s the kind of artist I am.

I am giving myself permission to take as long as I need to write this particular book. I need to be kind to myself. Meanwhile, I’ll write other things, too. Outline future projects. Work on ways that I can connect with people and be of service.

I’ve always been an empath and a student of energy. I learned the metaphysics, the astrology, the mystics, the old masters. I only started to understand it at a cellular level when I began working as a public librarian 15 years ago, and I could actually use and see these principles in action. The law of attraction. The power of intention. Energy dynamics.

I’ve had to put myself out there, and also protect myself from the psychic baggage. Working with the public is a full contact sport, and can take its toll if you let it. So much heartbreak, poverty, and mental illness. And yet – so much hope, so many new beginnings and bright futures. I developed a deep empathy for the people I served as a librarian. I often see what they do not see in themselves.

Inspired many years ago, I wrote about the concept of “radical empathy” in a library setting, about going beyond basic public service and embracing the magic of it. I came to view the transaction between me and my patrons as a sacred thing. Radical empathy meant that I would do whatever I could do in that moment to help the person in front of me. I would bend rules, make exceptions, and leave it all on the field for them.  It doesn’t mean I didn’t say “no” to people, or hold them accountable. It means that I looked for ways to say “yes”, as often as possible. I tried to “pay it forward” every day.  Small acts of kindness can go a long way towards healing the world, I believe, and it starts with each of us.

So what does radical empathy mean for myself, as a writer?  I think it means talking nice to myself and having faith that the journey is just as important as the outcome. My health scare this past year has me on a lot of down time, away from people, learning, writing, healing and thinking. It’s become clear to me: the work I do comforts people, and that is where I find my joy – in their comfort.  I’m a healer, and I am a writer. The nurturing, the holding and comforting and guiding people towards their truths – that feels natural to me.

But the writing is hard. Much harder. It doesn’t come natural. The feelings I feel are often difficult to put into words. But, I am compelled to write, even obligated. Maybe that is where radical empathy starts: finally acknowledging what I already know to be true and holding myself accountable. I am a healer of souls and a writer of truths, and my higher purpose is to serve people through those efforts. To deny it any longer would be the greatest failure of my life.

Aside from digging my teeth into this one book I’m writing, I’ve denied myself being a writer for years. The last thing I had published was in the 8th grade.  I fear judgment, I think. I was brought up to be a worker, not an artist or creator, and overcoming that mindset is a constant battle.

But, the impulse to write keeps escaping, – through journals, through letters, through writing projects dreamed and then abandoned. I can write 50-page academic papers in my sleep, but my own stories never seemed worthy.  I struggle with focus. Too many ideas. Not enough action.  I struggle with believing that anyone would want to read what I have to say. Am I even doing it right?

And then it seems that I need a platform, I need a blog, I need an agent, I need a message.

It all feels overwhelming.

My friend Sam tells me that I should just start. Don’t over-think all that.  Document everything and share what you know. The message will appear as you keep going, he says. The important thing is to start sharing.

I know enough about metaphysics to know that he speaks the truth.  He’s actually done it, published and connected with people in the spirit of service, and he is sharing what he knows with me. As a librarian, sharing what I know is the whole point.  Sharing is action, action is forward motion. Sharing is where the magic is.

So, I’ll share with you what I know about embarking on a creative life and writing a memoir, while I’m actually writing the memoir. I’ll share my process and progress in hopes that you, too, will find your truth. Maybe it’s writing, maybe it’s not. But whatever it is, you can create it.

Pay it forward. Radical empathy. Kindness. Magic. Those are my principles.

This book will get done. This book will be published. I am a writer. 

That is my dream.