It’s Called ‘Empathy,’ Stupid

Like you, I’m overwhelmed by the madness of current events. This is a different time, an angrier time. A time of wrath. A time of madness. A world where people stupid themselves to death. A world where innocence and humanity wash away in the inexorable tide of cruelty. Over and over, one word echoes into the darkness, one single word missing from all of this chaos: empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. As human beings, we gravitate to those who show us empathy. We respond to those who relate to us. Sadly, we live in a time where empathy is a commodity, a sign of weakness.

In fact, when you think about modern civilization it’s clear our culture thinks that the strongest person in room is the one who cares the least.. Our culture values those who demand that everyone relate to them while relating to no one but themselves. ‘I’m the center of the universe,’ they say. ‘You revolve around *me.*’ Our culture takes its cue from that toxic mindset and says ‘okay, well since I want to be strong this is what I gotta do.’


Our culture thinks that the strongest person in room is the one who cares the least.


I can cite a hundred examples of what I mean based on the news this week, but next week you won’t remember them. We seem to be trapped on a treadmill of loathing and animus, and I’m not sure where this lunacy will end. So I’m not going to discuss in detail what is already known and lost. The world is not showing empathy, and it’s apathy seems to beget more apathy.

Nobody is perfect. Even professional facilitators recognize their own weaknesses when it comes to fostering environments of reciprocal empathy. Our disruptive age challenges cultural norms of what empathy is, and what it isn’t and it’s created confusion.

For guys in particular, there are experts who say ‘men are experiencing a clear tension point between the expectation for them to be empathetic and emotionally connected spouses and fathers, to the equally strong expectation for them to be manly providers for their families … this tension seems to be at breaking point; men just don’t seem to know who or what they are supposed to be in 2018 and beyond.’

So yes, showing empathy is hard, but it’s a vital part of humanity. Horrible things happen when we let greed and apathy run the world. When Charlie Chaplin talked about the ‘passing of greed’ in The Great Dictator, he did not know the world was staring down the barrel at the Second World War. He talked about being victims of a system that makes men torture, but we live now in that system and it’s of our own design. There’s no mistaking that our world has become vicious and repulsive.

It’s difficult to show empathy to cruel people. The only advice I can offer is ‘learn to deal with them.’ Don’t take what they say personally. Don’t try to make them understand. Distance yourself from them, and their influence. Cultivate and nurture relationships with people who deserve your trust and your compassion. Recognize that you are valuable, no matter what other people think, say, or do.

We can’t save everyone. We can’t fix everyone. A college professor once said: “You all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you, that’s why you’re here, in college. I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that person is you.” Even if the light inside of you is small, let it shine! It will help others find you in the dark.

Write on!

Love,

Jackson

 

 

Great Moments in Bad Storytelling: Man from Earth

Muggy, cloudy Memorial Day here in Eugene. I’m drilling through my Amazon Prime account and decided it was time to check out the best movie you’ve never heard of: Man From Earth. I got about three-fourths of the way through and realized it was time for another great moment in bad storytelling.

I really wanted to like Man from Earth (MfE), I really did. This story comes to us with pedigree. It was written by Jerome Bixby, famous for writing the short story ‘It’s a Good Life,’ later becoming the famous Twilight Zone episode. He wrote episodes of Star Trek and co-wrote Fantasic Voyage.  MfE was filmed on the movie-famous ‘Agua Dulce Movie Ranch‘ and you can see many familiar rock formations in the background.

But for all its pluses, the minuses are too big to ignore. No disrespect intended, and I know I’m not in the best person to judge. Yes, it’s an indie movie with indie movie budget and production values and yes, the soundtrack is distracting. Those are forgivable sins – indie movies get a pass for that. What makes MfE ‘the little movie that could’ should have been the story and that’s where our discussion takes place.

MfE’s plot focuses on “John Oldman”, a departing university professor, who claims to be a Cro-Magnon (or Magdalenian caveman) who has secretly survived for more than 14,000 years. The entire film is set in and around Oldman’s house during his farewell party and is composed almost entirely of dialogue. The plot advances through intellectual arguments between Oldman and his fellow faculty members.

At first glance, the story seems like the perfect blend of minimal scifi sorely lacking in the mainstream. Sadly, it’s greatest flaw is that MfE doesn’t blend at all. It’s structurally correct, but has the organic feel of a Brutalist apartment block. Dialogue only seems to exist to give the protagonist something to react to, and when he does his delivery doesn’t have the depth-less impact you’d expect from a timeless character.

So I’m a little bummed. I had high hopes for MfE just like I do for any indie scifi project. As I said at the outset, I’m not necessarily qualified to judge. Bixby finished the story on his deathbed and if you can go out with your boots on well then, my hat is off to you. I think it’s important to understand what I can learn from Man from Earth so that I can improve the craft of my storytelling.

Writers: Stop What You’re Doing and Read This Right Now

Someone tipped me off to this brilliant essay by Charlie Jane Anders, a chapter in a larger book about being a writer. There are so many good points in here that I knew immediately I should talk about it. If you’re interested in being a writer, there’s a good reason to stop what you’re doing and read this chapter right now:

Nobody is ever going to come along with a magic wand and say “You’re a real writer now.” There are a million different definitions of writing success out there, and almost everyone feels like a failure sometimes. (Constantly, in my case.)

And we’re not really competing with other writers. The first thing people do when they finish reading a book they enjoyed is search for more books like that one. Your biggest competition is always the dreaded “reading slump,” when people just fall out of the habit of reading because they haven’t found the right book for them lately. Anything, or anyone, who gets people reading more is good for all of us.

Nevertheless, imposter syndrome is everywhere, and everyone has their own supposedly ironclad rules for writing—and if you let this stuff get you down, you’ll find it harder to write. And you definitely won’t be able to use writing to find liberation, or to see a better future, if you’re worrying about whether you’re “allowed” to do this, or whether your work matters.

Her chapter is filled with tons of glorious emotional validation. If you’re sitting at a keyboard, wondering if you have what it takes, this chapter is for you.

Imposter Syndrome Is Just Part of Being a Writer

Hypernormalisation – How We Got to Here

Following my previous posts on the History of Hacking, you should check out this documentary on the genesis and evolution of cyberspace. Since cyberspace and hacking go hand in hand, this is an important adjunct to the overall story of our time.

Hypernormalisation was released in 2016. It gives a context for why and how cyberspace began, and how it’s impacted the rest of world ever since. It’s detailed, but informative. Definite watch.

Lose Before You Get Started

Lose Before You Get Started Quick Housekeeping Note: this blog post will either make you or break you. If that’s not something you’re up for, feel free to pass this one by. One of the big ideas I talk about in Mesh are harsh truths, and here’s one of them: Sometimes, you will lose at life before you even get started.

I know Forrest Gump says life is like a box of chocolates, but that’s nonsense. Sometimes life is like playing a game you know you’re going to lose. Suiting up for a game that starts out 1000 – 0. Boarding a plane you know is going to crash. For many people, including kids, life is the torture of seeing a finish line they’ll never reach, but trying for it anyway.

These are some harsh truths to talk about, but the kids who enjoy Mesh will get what I’m saying. Too often, adults sugar-coat the truth because they don’t know what else to do. Bad circumstances, bad childhood, bad role models … any number of things can wreck your shot at life. No fault of your own, nothing you could have done differently. Life can and will break your wings before you get a chance to fly.

Lose Before You Get Started

“That’s not true,” people will sputter. They’ll cite example after example of people who solved their problems, overcame their obstacles. They fail to acknowledge is that life is complex. What works for one person may not work for another. All those little differences can add up to what engineers call a ‘cascade effect.’ Sometimes all the weak points of your life align at the wrong time, becoming a catastrophic failure.

Plus, in this low-empathy / boring dystopia world, your life isn’t just a struggle; it becomes work just to have you around. Kids exploring humor and empathy will make cruel jokes. People have to be willing to show compassion to make room for you and your circumstances. Hard times bring out the best in good people, and the worst in bad people. Not everyone is up for that kind of choice every day so they check out; even those who promised to be there no matter what. That’s a soul-crushing reality to accept.

Lose Before You Get Started

I know there’s a common myth that any problem can be overcome with a sufficient amount of willpower and determination, but for many people including kids, that isn’t true. Some are born into life hampered by circumstances they can’t change, imprisoned by walls they cannot climb.

For those experiencing a loss at life, you should know that you aren’t alone. The bitterness that comes after realizing your best isn’t good enough? The anger and sadness from living a life dealt a raw hand? That’s something I talk about a lot in Mesh.

That anger, that sadness, that bitterness doesn’t have to be the end of the story. After all, if you relate to anything I just said, you might be asking yourself a reasonable question: If I’m going to lose, why try at all? What’s the point of playing, if there’s no possibility of winning?

I’ll tell you why. Buckle up, buttercup.

We try for one simple reason: we don’t know everything. We might be wrong about our chances, we might be wrong that our circumstances won’t change. We might be wrong that people won’t care, we might be wrong that things will never get better.

‘Losing at life’ is what happens when your narrow definition of success is unattainable. ‘Losing at life’ is what happens when you think there’s only one way to be happy. ‘Losing at life’ is what happens when you think only superheroes can be brave.

We might be wrong about all of those things and sometimes we have to lose at life, be screwed before we get started, before we can start to see all the ways we can win.

I’m not going to lie – my life, my actual life, is pretty messy. That’s one of the primary reasons I write: writing helps me keep my frustration, my anger, my depression under control. I describe all my negative stuff with this example.

Lose Before You Get StartedLouis L’Amour talks about something called ‘creep’ in his novel about the Nevada Silver Rush Comstock Lode. Clay mud, compressed between plates of rock for millions of years, were suddenly freed. There was nothing the miners could do to stop the clay from coming, billions of tons of pressure forced the clay out like gray toothpaste. Instead, the miners had to work to keep the creep cut back every day – otherwise the clay would fill the tunnel.

I admit it: this is a complicated, obscure metaphor. If you can think of a better one, please feel free to share it. Until then, this is best way I can rationalize why I write and why writing and publishing are important to me. When I don’t write, when I don’t create, that dark stuff starts crowding in quick. Daily work to create, or build the Inkican platform, is what keeps it cut back.

One of the biggest challenges of these truths is to realize you don’t have all of them. I have no idea what the true answer is to all of this for me, or anyone else. All I know is that this is keeping me from giving up, and I talk about that in Mesh because there are many kids out there struggling on that journey with no idea how to take the first step. It’s important to me, then, for Mesh to help show Roman taking those first steps and getting the help he needs.

So the end of this blog post is really the beginning of a conversation. Mesh is a deeply personal project, as I’ve said. Now you know a little bit more about why it’s personal. I’m hoping that Roman, Zeke, and the rest of the Snow Foxes become friends for the other kids just like them. We’re all working to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives, now that life as we know it has come to an end.

 

 

Always Do Your Homework

 

Had an exchange today that reminds me of this simple adage – Always do your homework – when deciding whether to engage with a new publishing opportunity. In this case, I’m starting to get emails from unknown places with offers of new writing opportunities. My first reaction may be like yours – “OMG, someone emailed me. Cray!” – but then I decided to put my thinking cap on.

“Jackson,” says I, “you need to do some digging. Figure out if this is a legitimate publishing opportunity.” Thirty seconds with Google and I had all the information I needed: SCAM.

Here’s the bad news, kiddies: there are a million snake oil publishing scams out there, preying on naive writers/authors. We’re so starved for attention or validation, that sometimes we can look before we leap when ANYONE expresses interest in our work. Scammers prey on this, period. Be very, very cautious and DO YOUR HOMEWORK before signing with anyone.

Here’s the good news – there are a ton of resources out there (including querytracker.net and publishers marketplace) that give you feedback on who the publisher / agent is and what their past business track record may be. Bad guys slip through the cracks sometime, but if they have a name, they’re on Google and if someone’s had a bad experience, they’ll tell you about it. Conversely, if an agent or publisher has NO information available, this is also a bad sign. It may mean they have a terrible reputation, but under their old name. Caveat emptor.

So, thanks to a little homework I avoided a big headache. I’m passing this along as a lesson for everyone else – always do your homework before signing with an agent, publisher, or anyone else associated with your work.

And if you’re a younger reader / aspiring author – always do *your* homework, too! Shelter-in-place is no excuse to neglect your studies. 🙂

Microfiction: Atticus Finch and Fred Flintstone Walk Into a Bar

Happy Monday – here are a couple of Microfiction posts to get your week started. First up, the VR technician who gets trapped in virtual worlds: “You are a VR maintenance worker, tasked to jump from realm to realm, making sure everything runs smoothly. You find a world that’s a little corrupted, and go in without calling for backup. Suddenly, you learn this isn’t a simulation.”

Read The VR Tech

Next up! I read this prompt and the words started pouring out: “When a fictional world stops receiving new content, (sequels, new issues, episodes, games, etc.) the world slowly breaks down. You provide a refuge for the now homeless fictional characters.” I treated it as an opportunity to take a bunch of famous characters and bounce them off each other. Hope you enjoy it!

Read ‘The Refuge’

 

Three Principles for Author Social Media

Three Principles for Author Social MediaAfter many years, I’m content to walk away from exchanges that I think are going to be negative, but it took me many years to get there. Here are some quick notes on what I’ve learned about being an author and social media. Let me tell you how we got to here.

I found myself exhausted after a late-evening sesh with Twitter the other night. Many people have strong opinions on the publishing biz, and sometimes those conversations find their way to Twitter where simple opinions become exhaustive examination. Seeing the approaching storm, I closed the laptop for the night and turned my attention to video games.

So what are the takeaways from a wild ride across social media? Here are three big strategies that it took me a long time to figure out. Pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and take these in. Remember, these are strategies so give them some time to sink in.

Don’t Say Anything Unless You’re Sure You Can Say the Right Thing

In a world of hot-takes, quick reactions, and viral social media, it’s tempting to open your mouth to say something. Kim Kardashian gets away with it, right? Uh, yeah, but no. You have to remember: anything you say online can literally become ammunition to be used against you at a later date. Kim’s got a million-dollar PR team ready to smooth over any social media faux pas, do you?

The simple way around this nightmare scenario is to remember those old-fashioned adages: “Keep your words soft and sweet, you never know which ones you’ll have to eat.” You’ll never have to apologize for something you didn’t say.

But this is the 21st Century, right? We’re social media people, right? We have to say SOMETHING, don’t we? Of course. And therein lies the strategy I mentioned above: Don’t say anything unless you’re sure you can say the right thing. Respond, don’t react. See your words as a sword, swing only when you are sure of a hit. If someone should stick the proverbial microphone in your face, there’s nothing wrong with saying: “I’m not sure I know enough to give a complete response.”

No one will remember when you said nothing, but EVERYONE will remember when you said the wrong thing.

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Sci-Friday #62 – Virtual Disneyland

Can’t visit Disneyland because of the Coronavirus? Not to worry, we can do virtual Disneyland right here. Let’s start with the new Rise of the Resistance:

Then we’ll ride the TRON Lightcycle Power Run at Shanghai Disneyland

And finally, we’ll ride on Pirates of the Caribbean because, it’s Pirates of the Caribbean.

Have a great weekend!