Friday, February 08, 2008

Communicating Compassion

from Jacqueline

I was away last week – skiing in Park City. Before envy strikes you at the core, this was my first real break in ages – usually my travel is book related, whether for tour purposes or for “research.” Now, I haven’t skied in years, though I was once an avid skier. Last fall I began moaning that I really missed skiing, so my husband - who does not ski - told me to, “Just Do It!” So I did. I noodled away online for a while, found myself a cozy little B&B in Park City’s old town, booked the equipment rental in advance (significant discount) and even organized a couple of lessons, just in case I’d forgotten how to ski. And everything went completely to plan. I hit the slopes on Day 1 and within about five minutes had rediscovered my ski legs. There they were, having waited for some powder at a 35 degree angle for years. And I had a blast! Mind you, my agent was worried, the PR people at my publisher were worried, and my husband told me to try not to break anything - with a book tour starting soon and my track record for accidents, it was a reasonable concern. Sorry - no pics for you - t’s hard to take photos and ski at the same time. But here’s a sense of it all ....

Deb, the owner of the B&B is a real Utah powder hound – and quite a book collector and reader when she’s not leading groups into the backcountry on ski safaris. We had an interesting conversation one morning that I thought I would share with our readers here, to see what you think. Deb asked me about my writing, and after telling her a bit about my books, I mentioned the Naked Authors blog. That’s when Deb said that blogs are all very well, but there needs to be some censorship. OK, so at first my writerly antennae shot up and I said that, especially as a writer, I felt it important to protect freedom of speech. That’s when Deb went into greater detail and explained what she meant, adding that maybe “censorship” wasn’t the right word. And having listened to her story I thought ... hmmm, she’s got a point. She explained that last year an eleven-year old local boy was skiing on the mountain (I think with some friends) when he was caught in an avalanche and died. His parents were obviously distraught, inconsolable, as you can imagine. However, on some blog (I don’t know which one) there was a lot of commentary about the accident, and people from outside the area, with no knowledge of the region, added salt to the wound with vitriol regarding the parents, laying blame at their feet. Where were they when the boy died? Why weren’t they with him? What was he doing on a mountain with his friends anyway, at that age? As Deb said, “They don’t understand our life here – the kids are skiing as soon as they can walk, they know the mountains as well as any adult and they know the rules – this is their life.” Deb explained that the story went around various blogs and the comments escalated – and just about destroyed the parents.

And that had me thinking. The enhanced communication offered by the internet – the fact that we can all make our opinions known, can share thoughts, feelings, ideas – should bring us closer together. It was supposed to be the great tool of understanding, so that here, sitting at the dining room table while tapping away at my computer in an ordinary house in California, I could be anywhere with a window to the world. But Deb’s story demonstrated that, in many cases, it has encouraged us to become entrenched in our own worlds, able to criticize that which we do not understand because we hold it up against our own way of life and find it wanting. I can understand why those local people felt slighted by a lack of understanding of the way things are in their part of the world. I’ve had a similar experience when I happen to say that I worked on farms as a child – and I mean from the age of about six, throughout the school breaks. It’s as if I’ve described some Dickensian age, however, that’s just how it was where I was raised – kids worked on the farms. And farms, despite the impression of a bucolic wonderland, can be dangerous places.

So, I’m going to throw this one open to see if anyone has anything to say on this matter. We’ve all seen blogs where the commentary is critical, where the weighing in gets a bit too heavy. Is that just the price we pay for freedom of speech – words that cut others to the quick? Of course, in a way we do have a censorship – frankly, if anyone on our team doesn’t care for a particularly colorful (I use the word knowing you know what I mean here) comment, we can take it out. Is that censorship, or editorial license?

The one thing that has personally bothered me for some time is the lack of kindness I’ve encountered. I’ve read comments on blogs and thought, “Oh, that must hurt.” I’ve read reviews on Amazon and thought, “How can someone be so unkind?” It’s as if this online world has made us all experts, all relevant, and we’ve forgotten that people have feelings. As authors, for example, we may be names on the screen, with perhaps a photo so you know what we look like, but somewhere, sitting in an ordinary house living an ordinary life is a human being who might be hurt by what they read about themselves. And thinking about people who are grief stricken or scared – that boy’s parents – or otherwise vulnerable in some way (just publishing a book is in that category), how do we gently cradle our freedom of speech, share our opinions and nurture our capacity for compassion?

Anyway, just a thought ....

By the time you read this, I will be having dental surgery, after which I will be languishing at home and probably out cold for much of the day, so I might not be able to respond to comments. And if I’m that out of it, you might not want me to respond – it could be a Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds moment.

Have a lovely weekend. Oh, and here’s something I read in a book years ago:

“Is it better to be right, or is it better to be kind?”

I think the question could better be, "How can we speak our truth with compassion?"

But what do I know?


  1. Along the same line, I am stupefied by the vitriol posted on newspaper web sites, as comments on articles.

    The Miami Herald attracts hordes of vicious, grammar-challenged typists (Can't call them writers). Ethnic and racial slurs seem to be attached to every crime story. The paper must screen the comments after the fact, as some are taken down.

    You remember the old saw that "the press is only free for the person who owns one." Ah, but now, we all do...for better or worse.

    Don't know what the answer is in this great marketplace of ideas.

  2. I once heard James Lee Burke say (regarding bad reviews) that most of the jeers came from the bleachers. I suppose it's easy to criticize when you have no perspective or insight, not to mention compassion or even good manners.

    Wishing you a speedy recovery, Our J. Let us know if you need chicken soup.

  3. The equation which applies to comments on internet blogs, etc., goes something like this:
    Normal person + anonymity + audience = total jackass

    Substitute "total jackass" for "normal person" in the equation, however, and you get "total jackass^100"

  4. I've been involved in online fandoms in the past and I have a bit of experience with online vitriol. I think what the internet has done, besides making critics and experts of us all, is it has brought out the bully in otherwise polite people. Online we are able to hide behind hateful comments in relative anonymity with little to no repercussions. I have lots of theories as to why people write the things they do, from insecurity, to downright hatefulness, to getting a charge out of stirring the pot. No matter the reason, it's just deplorable.

    I think that this can also be subtly linked to you previous post about personal questions. Manners in our society have been eroding for years. No question is too personal to ask, no opinion is too impolite to give. We live in a society that is characterized by the me first attitude. "Why shouldn't I know everything about you? My opinion has just as much validity as the experts'!" The ease of access to receive and give information through the internet has just magnified the problem.

    OT, my in-laws returned last week from Park Cities and had great praise for the town and the skiing. I'm jealous of all of you, I haven't been skiing in 12 years!


  5. As my dear Daddy used to say, "It could have been worse. It could have been ME who had to have oral surgery!" Hope it was less traumatic than you expected.

    Always better to be kind--no violating "in cold blood the sanctity of a human heart."

    And don't get me started on "the public's right to know."

    Tom, T.O.

  6. I believe people remember kindness more that someone being right.

    I counsel my son to just smile when someone goes off on a rant of some kind.

    I think this blog is particularly civil but it may be because most of us agree on the major issues.

    I occasionally notice a few commenters, or is commentators, are sensitive to certain subjects. Since I am in no way qualified to be more knowledgeable on most of this topics I keep my mouth shut.

    Hope you feel better.


  7. I do think that being anonymous leads people to be more rude. Both of our local newspapers have sections were you can call in comments without having your name printed with the comments. Almost always these are negative comments phrased in very hurtful language.

    I cringe at some of the commments that I read on message boards. I am hoping that most of these are made by teenagers wanting so get a reaction from others. I do believe that people who say mean things on blogs are also mean people in real life. They may just hide it better, but if you listen carefully,people cannot hide their true nature.

    As to your question at the end of the post. I feel that there are times to be right and times to be kind. We all need the insight to know which is called for.

  8. I remember once making a comment in a Jonbenet chat group that I thought pageants were tacky, etc. etc.

    I was just snarky and awful, but got such a kind and thoughtful response from a woman whose children partook of them--including her young son with Downs--that I felt sick to my stomach at my own offhanded snottiness, my having gone for a cheap laugh.

    That woman's compassion truly humbled me, and I TRY to keep it in mind whenever I'm in a group forum.

    Our J, what a sincere pleasure it was to see you at BP the other day! I hope you're on the mend very very soon, and that it doesn't hurt AT ALL to get done with the surgery.

  9. Having been in never-never land yesterday (my husband just asked me if I remember asking him to stop for a latte on the way home from the dentist - it didn't even dent the little gray memory cells), I missed this trove of comments. Seems there's a consensus here regarding the comments on online blogs and articles, and a sincere wish to see an end to such a slush pile of opinion. I take heart from the fact that the only relationship an opinion has is with the person to whom it belongs.

    Thanks, all for your thoughtful comments - and for your good wishes.

  10. Great post, Patty. 'Cept, you know: you've offered up way too much good stuff that demands comment. (Zat criticism?)

    First off, good for you for dusting off the old hoss and getting back on the slopes! It takes courage to do such a thing. I did something similar a few years ago, but with much less success. Turned out I'd forgotten what a crap skiier I was/am. And the fact that skiing involves two of my least favorite activities -- cold and potential pain. Once I'd rescued myself from the top of a double diamond run that my brother tricked me into (turned out he'd forgotten what a crap skiier I was, as well) and found the place where they kept the hot tubs and the mulled and variously spiced and spiked drinks, I was good to go. (Good to stay, rather.)

    Now censorship for blogging sounds like a silly idea, even before you begin to think about the logistics of policing such a thing. Unfair criticism was hurtful? I think maybe that's OK. We seem to expend a lot of energy in our culture trying to take the ouch out of things. And why? Disagreement -- and criticism -- are fine, even good. And as long as they're made of words, not cheese or rocks, any real harm that is done isn't in any case coming from the person doing the criticizing.