Imagine being unable to say, "I am hungry," "I am in pain," "thank you," or "I love you,” -- losing your ability to communicate, being trapped inside your body, surrounded by people yet utterly alone. For 13 long years, that was Martin Pistorius’s reality. After contracting a brain infection at the age of twelve, Pistorius lost his ability to control his movements and to speak, and eventually he failed every test for mental awareness. He had become a ghost. But then a strange thing started to ha
Listening to those around you. Even if you don’t like them very much. We have come to live in a culture where it’s taboo or unacceptable to simply check in with people emotionally and offer some empathy and understanding. I’m not saying this would magically fix all gun violence.
I’m just saying that all of these things — the lack of gun laws, the lack of health care, the inability to have basic conversations with friends and neighbors about what’s going on with them, these are all extensions of a callous and self-absorbed culture that lacks any real empathy.
There is a tribe in east Africa in which the art of true intimacy is fostered even before birth. In this tribe, the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth nor even the day of conception as in other village cultures. For this tribe the birth date comes the first time the child is a thought in its mother’s mind. Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them. After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village, so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song. After the birth all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself. It is sung in times of triumph, or in rituals and initiations. This song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.
Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart (Bantam Books, 1993), p. 334
Rats that are socially isolated during a critical period of adolescence are more vulnerable to addiction to amphetamine and alcohol. Amphetamine addiction is also harder to extinguish in the socially isolated rats. These effects, which are described this week in the journal Neuron, persist even after the rats are reintroduced into the community of other rats.
Yet there is a different interpretation of young people’s levels of empathy, one that takes into account their far greater tolerance today for lifestyles and values not their own.
Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who specializes in the effects of technology, worked on a recent study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior that measured the impact of spending time online on real-world empathy.
Dr. Rosen’s team found that being on the Internet “does not displace face-to-face time nor reduce real-world empathy” and that “virtual empathy was positively correlated with real-world empathy.”
Empathy, their study suggests, can be dispensed and felt virtually, though in-person empathy — a hug, for instance, as opposed to a Facebook “like” — has six times the impact on feelings of social support.
In the Babemba tribe of southern Africa, when someone does something harmful, they take the person to the center of the village where the whole tribe comes and surrounds them. For two days, they will say to the man all the good things that he has done. The tribe believes that each human being comes into the world as good. Each one of us only desiring safety, love, peace and happiness. But sometimes, in the pursuit of these things, people make mistakes.
The community sees those mistakes as a cry for help. They unite to lift him, to reconnect him with his true nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth of which he had been temporarily disconnected: “I am good.”
The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, Jack Kornfield
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