Today I was nominated by my friend Moth Clark to take part in a ‘flood Facebook with beauty’ tag game. He challenged me to post seven nature photographs over the course of seven days.
Moth is one of the best unpaid nature photographers I know. His photos of birds, in particular, are stunning, so I recommend you follow him on Twitter, where he’s just begun to share his pictures publicly.
In the meantime, here’s my first photograph. It’s nice to flick back through albums and be reminded of photos I love. I’m not a particularly good photographer of the natural environment, as I don’t have special lenses or even a tripod, but I manage okay and I do love this close up of a ladybird, with its shallow depth of field.
I tend not to look back too much. Just the occasional nostalgia session with a friend when we reminisce about a holiday, a gig or party.
This afternoon I have found myself in a time warp. I’m taking part in an alumni Q&A tomorrow evening for an organisation called UNIQ. It organises summer schools for state school pupils who might find the idea of applying to Oxford daunting and / or out of their reach.
Nearly 30 years ago I was in that boat and nothing like UNIQ existed, so I’m happy to help out.
A politics teacher said I should have a go at applying for Oxford and my immediate reaction was ‘no way – definitely not bright enough, posh enough or rich enough.’
Despite feeling that way, I went for it and loved the whole process. Writing my notes today for my presentation tomorrow has reminded me of it all. What I intend to say to the 14 young men and women I’m meeting tomorrow is that I had a real fear of not fitting in. And for substantial chunks of time at Oxford I felt I didn’t – but it wasn’t a negative feeling. On the contrary I felt as if I had landed a starring role in my own movie. I was transported to a magical world that contained eccentrics, ancient buildings, fantastic minds and enriching friendships. Terms were short (just eight weeks), intense, and filled with escapades – drinking, acting, singing, debating.
The intensity brought with it anxiety (am I good enough? am I fun enough? am I anything enough?) but the good times will be with me forever and I am forever shaped by them. And it was, after all, a bit like a film, set against one of the most beautiful backdrops imaginable.
Academically, I am grateful for that part of my education. I put my mind through an intellectual pencil sharpener to emerge with a set of skills that I draw on constantly. I’m not a politician. I don’t earn a huge amount. On paper, I’m not the ‘success’ that might be expected of an Oxford student. But throughout my career I’ve used my ability to reason, argue, analyse and present time and again with huge success. The rigor of the tutorial system did that for me.
Writing my notes today I realised that I did absolutely fit in. Everyone did, that’s the point. The shy ones, the socialites, the socialists, the sporty ones, the aristocrats, the future politicians, the geeks, the true academics, the state school kids; we all had a place in the madhouse of Oxford, whether we could appreciate it at the time or not.
So, in a avalanche of nostalgia, thank you Oxford. You gave me three years I wouldn’t swap for all the money in the world!
A while back, I had a fascinating conversation with a good friend about empathy and kindness. ‘Do you have to have empathy for someone in order to be kind?’ ‘Are empathetic people more likely to be kind?’ (‘no’ and ‘yes’ are my short answers).
I have just been reminded of this conversation because I received a link to an animation from the RSA, all about empathy as an agent for social change. It’s wonderful and I highly recommend watching it. Why? Because I believe that empathy is one of the most under-rated human characteristics. It is the number one factor in helping improve personal relationships and communication. It is one of the most useful tools in professional life too – being empathetic with colleagues and ‘customers’ will give you a key to unlock potential.
So, what is empathy? My dictionary says: ‘The ability to share and understand the feelings of others’. I would add another, less concise, element – being able and willing to step outside my own perspective and prejudices (perhaps momentarily) in order to gain that understanding.
It can be an uncomfortable thing. How many of you have those really unwelcome moments of affective empathy, where you mirror someone else’s emotions? I’ve been in appraisals where I’ve had to give fairly difficult feedback and the appraisee has burst into tears. I have to work hard not to cry myself because the mere fact of seeing someone in distress makes me well up. That’s uncomfortable, particularly when that feedback needs to be given and heard in order for performance to improve. The interesting thing about the RSA animation was that it showed the difference between this ‘affective empathy’ and ‘cognitive empathy’, where you step outside your own perspective to understand others’ world view.
This isn’t easy. I’m empathetic and have a natural tendency to want to understand how someone is feeling, share that and act accordingly. But what about trying to understand and step into the world view of someone who has just voted UKIP? I’m ashamed that we have such a swell of people in this country that want to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ and retreat from the wider world. How can I feel empathy for people who believe that immigrants are spoiling our country rather than enhancing it? How can I empathise with anyone who votes for pulling out of a union that has improved our human rights and gives us around half our export trade?
I don’t think I can answer that one. It’s probably something I need to work on. When I find it easy to empathise with someone who is very different to me (for example, the homeless guy I pass in the street fairly often), I act with kindness and compassion. I chat to Tom because it must be lonely sitting on the pavement while everyone else hurries to work. Sure, I give him money and hot chocolate, but I’m pretty sure it’s the chat that matters most. But I don’t go far outside my comfort zone. I really struggle to empathise with what I see are narrow, bigoted views.
So, back to the original questions. I don’t think you have to have empathy in order to be kind. I saw a chap in the underground recently, who had his son in a buggy and was dithering at the bottom of the escalator. I simply asked if he wanted me to help carry it up. I didn’t need empathy at all. I just offered a helping hand up the stairs. He was grateful because he was young and shy and hadn’t liked to ask anyone. My empathy kicked in as we chatted, not before I was kind.
Are empathetic people more likely to be kind? Yes, I think they are. The people I know who seem to be missing the empathy gene tend to do less for others. They seem to be more selfish and more concerned with their own situation than others’. They are not bad people by any stretch but they ask fewer questions about how others are feeling and are less interested in their opinions. Often, these are people I might have fun with but don’t turn to as a true friend.
On a personal level, empathy makes people feel less lonely and more cared for. On a global scale, a lack of empathy collides with an inability to concede an element of power and perpetuates fear and misery. People starve in Syria because leaders won’t let in aid to ‘rebel-held’ areas; Palestinian families are deprived of an income because a wall divides their land; in Sudan a woman is destined to receive 100 lashes and the death penalty because she wants a Christian marriage.
These situations raise the question of whether power itself reduces empathy. I can’t answer that but I’m pretty sure it does. In order to survive in global power structures, empathy probably just ‘gets in the way’. If so, then THAT is what we have to change. I can’t claim to have a clue how we change it but we can all start by introducing more empathy into our own lives and letting it guide our actions.
We need more kindness in the world. We need more compassion. So my challenge to you this week is to increase your empathy and make a change in just one area of your life. Let me know how it goes!
Back in 2005, I took a career break and worked as a tour leader for Explore Worldwide. I was a lucky so-and-so and got posted to the Middle East, to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
It breaks my heart that a country as beguiling, packed full of treasures and with such warm people is now being torn apart, with no end in sight.
My local guide in Syria was Saad. He was my total right-hand man. To be honest, I was really his sidekick, as he did all the history bits and whenever I had an issue to sort out, it was him that talked to fellow Syrians in hotels/restaurants to solve things.
Saad lives with his family in Damascus. Since the war began more than two years ago, Saad’s life has been devastated. He has not been able to work and all his money is now gone. There is no water and only rarely electricity. He has a wife and children who he can’t support.
Explore Worldwide is trying to help him by collecting money that will go directly to him. At a time when it is hard to know how to help anyone in Syria, here is a chance to help one family for real.
If you can afford a spare couple of quid to help Saad and his family, please chip in to bank a/c: Explore Appeal Fund. a/c no: 00192082, sort code: 20-35-35 quoting reference ‘Syria’. Explore’s integrity on this is rock solid – for once, here is a way of knowing that money will really help a family in need in a war torn country.
Kate is a wonderful Australian author, whom I met on a writing holiday in Skyros in summer of 2010. She ran a ‘how to structure your novel’ and was a real inspiration to me. Three years on and I have now finished my novel.
Kate is due to come over to the UK in September to speak at Oxford University. I’ll keep you posted about the details, as I highly recommend seeing her.