This is a special week

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May 29 to June 4 is Victims and Survivors of Crime Week in Canada. This year’s theme is The Power of our Voices and will include projects and events to raise awareness across the country. As a Victim Service worker at Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre (WAVAW) we were asked to take this time to reflect on what this work means to us.

At WAVAW we believe we are the women we serve. Only circumstances differentiate us from the women we support. We live in a society where violence against women is persistent and normalized, and where I could very easily find myself in the same situation as the women I serve. That makes the work so much more personal. And the personal is political. My work in victim services has led me to work with other like-minded women, to channel my frustrations into being of service to survivors of crime by supporting women and advocating to hold perpetrators accountable.

The work can be challenging at times when the stories we hear are distressing or when we work all hours of the day. But what keeps me going is the immense strength, hope and bravery I witness in the women even in times of tremendous horror and suffering. As victim service workers we help women within hours of a sexual assault taking place, helping them on their healing journey from trauma to recovery. In 2015 alone, WAVAW support workers answered nearly 4000 crisis line calls, accompanied over 100 women to Sexual Assault Services at Vancouver General Hospital, and spent nearly 200 hours in police interviews and in court with women as they testified against their assailants.

We still live in a society where victim blaming after a sexual assault is almost customary, where a victim must defend their actions in the wake of an assault even when it’s never their fault. After an assault takes place a survivor can easily feel isolated. It is easy to self-blame, self-harm and feel disempowered. An assault is just that – it takes power away from a person. So my focus is solely on supporting the woman. I am there to ensure the woman is treated with respect and compassion while she navigates the various systems. I am there to remind her that I believe in her and that she can move past victimization and start healing. It makes a difference in the life of a survivor to know they are not alone in their journey to recovery.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where this type of work is unnecessary, to live in a world free from oppression and violence? Rape culture is so prevalent in our society, and it has been made so much more noticeable to me in this line of work. It has made me more aware of the struggles and injustices in the daily lives of women all over the world, while making me blatantly aware of my own privileges. It is a privilege to be working in a field that brings validation and significance in my life. It is a privilege to use the power of my voice to join the multitude of others who work tirelessly to end all forms of violence against women.

#victimsweek

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How do you stay mad at someone after walking in their shoes? Developing empathy when you really, really don’t want to.

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I was in a routine meetings with a superior, and as usual I started out dreading the time we have to spend together. Today, the meeting was different because this person suddenly opened up like never before. My colleagues and I prefer to avoid said person unless it is absolutely necessary. Let’s just say this person had made one too many people actually cry or leave the company due to poor leadership decisions, and just plain snobby, spiteful power-tripping.

I have always applauded my coworkers for their utmost professionalism when dealing with difficult people, and this person in particular. Knowing this person’s history has made it somewhat easier to empathize with the way we are being treated and the way this person acts at times (I know what you are thinking: “Why has this person not been fired yet?”. What an excellent question! Believe me when I say we have plotted very hard for termination). Again, it takes a strong, conscious person to step back and not accept the criticisms that knocks the wind out of you.

But today was different. Today there were conversations that were full of laughter and wisdom. Conversations filled with happy reminiscing and wistful dissuasion.

For the first time, I was mesmerized by this person. For the first time, I sat up and took note of this person, and so did my colleagues.

What we had assumed all along was confirmed, the dark twisted fate this person had been handed has been debilitating. No wonder this energy was being transferred to everyone that had the misfortune to be around this person. I actually felt deep compassion and sympathy at the end of the meeting. Yikes!

In a ostensibly unrelated incident I had watched “The Cobbler“, a movie starring Adam Sandler, just the night before. I didn’t think think much of it, but gave it a rotten tomato for lack luster fight scenes and called it a night. The story is about a cobbler with the ability to literally walk in someone else’s shoes. When he puts on someone else’s shoes he transforms into whoever the shoes belonged to, complete with their accents and personality traits! How awesome would that be if we can do that for real!

Although I would have liked to see more action in the movie the point they were trying to make was pretty loud and clear. While we may not actually be able to morph into someone else it is possible to imagine what it would be like to live their human experience, to find out what influenced them to be this way at this point in time. So we come back to my original question: How DO you stay mad at someone after walking in their shoes?

Empathy is all about the ability to identify and to understand another person’s feelings, to experience the world from their point of view, to see life from their living conditions. This is generally developed through emotional intelligence, sometimes drawing from one’s own experiences projecting onto the mind of the other person.

The first step is always being aware of your own feelings. We have become so detached from our own emotions and generally find ways to numb them with drugs, work or other distractions. But knowing your own emotional volatility will help understand another person and reminding ourselves that there is no one cookie-cutter solution to dealing with problems. One person may lash out when angry, while another person may internalize it instead.

Don’t rush to judge the other person too quickly. I’m still guilty of often type-casting people based on first impressions. But it’s important to set biases aside and get to know someone better. One of my favourite pastimes if proving other people wrong about assumptions about me. And I like it when other’s do the same. We have no way of knowing what another person goes through everyday. I sometimes like to ask myself, “If I were that person how would I deal with this situation?”. That perspective alone is enough to stop my brain from stereotyping and develop respect for someone.

Look for similarities, not differences. This is a very humbling practice. It’s easy to pretend we are special snow flakes. But we really aren’t. I have had the privilege of living in different parts of the world and surviving harsh living conditions, and no matter where I was everyone sought out love and happiness. It’s easy to develop compassion for someone when you remind yourself that this person too wants the same in life as you.

It’s easy to get caught up in gossip or slander someone we really despise. But leaders need to develop a deeper understanding of the human condition and learn to rise above those instincts. A leader needs to set a better example. It’s not too difficult to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes, to develop empathy for humanity. But it will take practice, patience and punching bags in the process.

I wish you the best of luck!

Passion is so overrated; but how to do what you love, and love what you do

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This post was inspired by something that I noticed in my professional life as an academic adviser in a school for designers. We see students who start their careers in design thinking they are following their passion, only to have their zest sizzle out by the middle or even just weeks before the end of their chosen program. When asked why they chose a career in design it is usually followed by a saying like “Follow your dreams or you will spend the rest of your life working for someone who did”, or “Do what you love”, or even simply saying “Art is my passion”. And the reason for ending their education half way through is often due to a “loss of passion” in the field, or finding a different “passion”. I see the same effect on people around me, who dabble in so many different projects because they were so passionate about all of them when they started, but do not have enough motivation to keep going to the finish line.

So we are left asking ourselves why are they so miserable after they started following their passion. Should it not be exciting enough to keep them going?

I think Cal Newport, the author of So Good they Can’t Ignore you, described this phenomena the best when he explained that there is no such thing as a pre-existing passion that you identify and follow. In actuality, it is the systematic build-up towards something which would be considered a passion. In other words, the more you work towards something and the better you get, the more skills you develop, the more interest you accumulate to keep going. This snowballing effect is what would be considered as having found your passion.

In fact, this is what study after study had discovered about people who are so passionate about what they do. They do not have a pre-existing talent or a special calling. Rather, something along the way caught their interest, like a really great teacher or a group of like-minded peers, causing them to practice more – which boosted their confidence – and motivated them to continue their project. As they got more skilled their passion grew as well. This is how people ended up loving what they do.

When you make a commitment to something, like a new project or a relationship, promise yourself to endure it to the very end. Some would suggest even being willing to suffer for it, because the benefits of completing is so fulfilling and worth it. This is also where goal setting comes in handy. Instead of being dismissive of that initial desire ask yourself if this is worth pursuing over a long period of time. Does this help you achieve your goals in the end? Or is it just a passing fancy?

When I am not an academic adviser by day I follow my passion in women empowerment by volunteering my time for a cause that I strongly believe in, giving a voice to women who have been assaulted. In the past decade there have been major cuts in funding for women’s services in Canada. And in all honestly, with the ridiculous cost of living in Vancouver it would be easy to just give up as I am not being compensated for my time and the efforts seem overwhelming at times. Rather than getting worn out I find that it has the opposite effect on me. The more I learn, my interests and skills are enhanced. I am also fueled by other women who help me as well as my own anger about social injustice. Even with massive strides in feminism and human rights women are still asked to do free labor. So here we are. In solidarity. Following our passion of ending all types of violence against women.

Christmas, Angels and … Feminism? Reflections on body image

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It’s that time of the year again. I’m not talking about Christmas, I’m talking about the time for the annual Victoria Secret fashion show. Since I do not celebrate Christmas, watching the show and making new year’s resolutions to work out harder has been my ritual for the past few years. This video seems to capture it all Weird Things Girls Do After Watching Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. I watched the show this year with so much apprehension. I am fresh out of a radical, feminist, anti-oppression support worker training, so at times it’s hard not to see oppression everywhere I look. I need to remind myself to shut it off before I go bat-shit cray cray. So one half of me saw these women who were being objectified and actually felt sick to my stomach. And the other half was totally cheering them as they strut those amazing works of art in front of the world with such power and grace. I never realized how much power a mere pair of underwear had until I started watching the show. I always liked how they show behind-the-scenes footage of how much work goes into creating these angels – the army of experts backed by a multi-billion dollar industry. It’s really a shame they don’t show how the costumes were conceptualized and created.  Last year when I watched the show I felt like a fat cow even when I was in kick-ass shape myself. This year I was still in pretty good shape, but still swore off cupcakes because I wanted to strive to look like the angels. Anyone who has actually seen the show you can testify how sexually charged the show is. The feminist in me would say go for it, women are the masters of their own experiences.Cupcake in hand, I started browsing for tips on how I can look like a VS angel. I was so happy when I found this post online with the before and after pictures of the VS angels (Click here to see the images.). It made me so happy to see the fresh, un-made faces of these women. Although I actually thought they looked worse than the normal women I always see on the streets, I still found them to be beautiful without the make up. And it also reminded me that any woman could easily enhance their own beauty and look that gorgeous with the proper make-up and techniques… and a team of special effects people.  I know how lingerie brands are being glamorized as empowering women and they are so good at making women feel as if they are in charge of their sexuality. But this only perpetuates the idea that men still define women as objects. With women flaunting their bodies and “inspiring” other women to do the same hoping men will see their worth through these outfits, It’s not a wonder why sex trafficking and prostitution has increased. The entire brand is based around an archetype of a women according to patriarchal sensibilities. Even though women are still aware of the pitfalls of embracing sexist ideals of female beauty we are still not creating alternatives to eliminate those dangers. Will the girls who are watching the show know how to love our bodies as ourselves? Poor body image generally starts from childhood, and that doesn’t stem from the way you look but by the way other people make you feel about your body and your self. The first time I became aware of this was when I was 8 years old, and someone commented on my body shape, telling me I need to stop eating so many sweets or I would get fatter. I was neither skinny nor was I planning to be, and I thought of myself as just perfect up until that point. But from that moment on I was very self conscious about what I wore and what I ate in front of other people. Calling someone “fat” does not always refer to a person’s physical appearance either. The word itself can be used as a weapon, because to the listener it can mean anything from “ugly”, “stupid”, “slow”, “lazy” or “unloved”. And it is a form of oppression that it is used to dehumanize certain groups of people. When was the first time you felt bad about yourself or your body?

For when you are overwhelmed and life feels insurmountable…

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“Bend, not break. Be like water and flow.” – Bruce Lee

Water takes the shape of the of the object it is placed into, adapting to the needs of the environment. Even when you plan for everything life often has other plans for you, and things may not always go the way you want.

Did you know that anxiety tends to accumulate in your shoulders, making us feel like we are literally carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders? I started noticing this when I worry about certain things or get anxious about an upcoming presentation. I worry that I may mess things up somehow or make things worse. And the more I worry, the more the knot tightens, and that leads to panic, forgetfulness, insomnia or stress eating. Phew. [Eats cupcake].

I found this really great tip from Olivia Fox-Cabane’s book The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism. This visualization exercise works better in a quite space where you are able to concentrate for a few minutes without being interrupted. The first step of healing is always acknowledging the pain. With your eyes closed, begin by picturing the thing you are worrying about as a heavy box or object that is sitting on your shoulders. Feel the heaviness of this box and all the expectations that weigh you down, causing this mental and physical strain in you.

The next step is to visualize a divine element such as a God/Goddess, The Universe, a Genie, whatever entity you have faith in, and imagine yourself lifting the heavy box off of your shoulders and placing it on the shoulders of the entity. Feel the lightness of your shoulders. You can rotate your neck, stretch, whatever feels right at that moment. This releases the control you have over the outcome of your performance and allows you to relax, knowing that things will fall perfectly into place.

The more I do this exercise the better I have become at dealing with stressful situations. I can let go of my anxieties about the outcome and focus on being present and adaptable to any type of situation.

Do you have any strategies on coping with anxiety? Let me know in the comments below.

Meditations on Life

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My very first post… So what do I pick to write about first?

Death, naturally.

I want to begin by looking at the end.

Today was a sad day for me. This morning I attended the funeral of my beloved neighbour, and truly one of the greatest men I have had the priviledge to meet in my life.

Our community remembers him as a generous man who always helped other people and had a child like enthusiasm about life. The funeral home was packed with people who came to pay their last tributes to this remarkable man. Even the preacher broke down in tears when he mentioned that this was the hardest funeral he had ever conducted. He had impacted so many lives around him. He was a simple man and there was nothing extraordinary about him. He wasn’t famous or ridiculously wealthy. But he made the effort to connect with everyone he met, and help them when needed.

There was something very profound in the sermon this morning. The preacher reminded us that funerals we organize are not for the dead. They have no use for it anymore. Funerals are for the living, to remind ourselves of what is important. When there is a death of a loved one we forget all our material concerns. We forget to worry about the car we drive, the house we live in, the latest trends in the world and our petty issues. Instead, we get a moment to reflect on our own deaths. Our own lives.

We start to wonder, ‘what will my legacy be?’ What will be said at my eulogy?

When you start thinking about the end perspectives change as well. At least that is what happened to me today.

I have attended many funerals, but this was the first one I had been to where everyone actually mourned the loss of the departed. He was truly a quiet hero. Unassuming, unpretentious, and always looking out for everyone. You could sense a massive loss in the community today.

Steve Jobs famously said that death is the only end result, everthing else is a mile post. There is also an ancient Buddhist practice where they meditate with a corpse for four days to reflect on mortality and to remind themselves not to get too attached to fleeting materialistic things. The Masons follow the same idea when meditating with a skull to remind themselves to achive more with the life they were given.

Of course we don’t need to go to those extremes  to start reminding ourselves to live a life with purpose. It starts with creating a vision for yourself with the kind of life you want to lead. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about what’s important in our lives. We forget to connect with the people that matter to us or spend time on doing things that makes our hearts sing.

So, what will be on you epitaph?