Today I feel.

If there’s one thing everyone knows, everyone understands, it’s that emotions are both powerful and changeable. In these months of mental and physical isolation, of fear and fear-mongering, and of facing a future that seems more opaque than ever before, emotion can be a crutch or an avenue of healing. We are each trying to process our emotional state on a daily basis.

I’ve found that some days I am driven by anger, others by sadness, and more and more I just feel exhausted. But on rare days when a gentle breeze pulls me into the present or a wave of clarity washes through my brain, I feel fortified and ready again to be an active agent in my own story. I won’t lie and say I feel hope, or that I even believe hope is a very useful feeling (to me, hope is more about passive wishing, while having faith – in the world, in oneself, in a higher power, whatever it is – pushes me to purpose). But I do circle back to feeling inspired or in awe every now and then, and it is those moments I try to string together into a reality driven by compassion instead of more basal emotions.

I wish I had the capacity to express my current state of mind as beautifully as writers like Sarah Orah Marks in this piece for the Paris Review.

‘I consider how much we depend on useless, arbitrary tasks to prove ourselves,” she writes. “I consider how much we depend on these tasks so we can say, at the very end, we succeeded…In fairy tales, the king is the king. If he dethrones, his bones clatter into a heap and vanish. Loosen the seams of the stepmother, and reach in. Nothing but stepmother inside. Even when the princess is cinders and ash, she is still entirely princess. If I had a machete I would use it to cut the mice, and the princess, and the king, and the stepmother, and the castle, and the wolf, and the mother, and the sons, free from their function so they could disappear into their own form.”

She so aptly captures the anxiety of working for an external goal for so long that you don’t even remember why you wanted it in the first place, and of the relief from letting that goal go so you can fall into your true self. As I continue on that journey for myself, of recognizing my own hands and learning what they really want to do, all I can offer is a stream of consciousness that logs my daily emotional journey.

Maybe you’ll relate, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll nod your head in agreement, or shake your head in horror at my internal monologue. If this is useful for you, great, and if not, may you find your own path through emotional growth. For what it’s worth, I’ve documented my emotional state over the course of several days, each day dominated either by anger, sadness, exhaustion, or resolve, as a reminder that emotions are capricious and beneath their tumultuous surface we will always have to deal with our true selves lying in the deep, still waters beneath.

Anger

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Today I am angry. I am angry at a world full of meaningless noise that clogs my ears and my mind and threatens to drive me crazy. I’m angry at the leaf blowers outside my home three times a week, and the weed whackers, water pressure hoses, and lawn mowers. I’m mad at the companies that hire the people to use these loud pieces of equipment to blow things around and chop things up ceaselessly so that there is never a moment of quiet peace. I’m angry that we care so much about cleaning streets and sidewalks and using leftover crude oil to pour them into existence over once beautiful natural land. I’m angry that trash collection begins at 6am, and that we even need trash collection at all. I’m angry at myself for producing trash, for giving into a society that normalizes the use of plastic-wrapped everything, convenience everything, mass produced everything, injecting us with the desire and need for variety and flavor and exoticness and excess and ultimately waste. I’m angry that a pandemic has made us even bigger plastic polluters. I’m angry that the only ones to ever benefit from a disaster are the rich and power hungry, and that everyone knows it but no one dares to try and change it. I’m angry that people aren’t taking to the streets every day to demand our leadership and our entire governance structure be dismantled. I’m mad at myself that I am not in the streets, that I don’t know how to be a charismatic leader for change. I’m angry that I don’t know WHAT we should be doing – should we be protesting in the streets, striking big businesses, demanding change by removing ourselves from the system? I’m angry that I still spend much of my day sitting in front of a screen typing meaningless words about topics that don’t matter if people want to be stupid and ignorant and greedy. I’m angry that so many people can so readily take advantage of their fellow humans because they know they are desperate, ill-educated, and want to believe in miracles and conspiracies because it’s so much easier to see in black in white instead of grey. I’m angry at the people who are smart but choose not to use their critical thinking because they are angry too, and their urge to proselytize overtakes their ability of self-enquiry. I’m angry at myself for taking so long to figure out what I should be doing in this life to be a positive force, not just a resource drag. I’m angry that I was born into a world overflowing with consumerism, with companies telling us we have to buy things to define ourselves, and for believing that for so long. I’m angry that corporations like plastic industries, cruise lines, airlines, and big oil get bailouts and subsidies while sustainable farming, healthcare, and education don’t. I’m angry that our world is so clearly a dystopia but few people seem to feel the need to break out of the mold or demand better. I’m angry at all of the disgusting, mindless television, the exploitation of people for entertainment, the sensationalized news media on all sides and the people whose brains get molded by them, and how stupid it makes people. I’m angry that so many people perpetuate violence and completely ignore it, based on the hundreds of choices they make each year about what to eat and what to buy. I’m angry that I don’t have more of a platform to invoke change, to help people, to push out injustice, to spread compassion, to contribute positive things to the world. I’m angry at so many people, and human systems, and the messes we’ve created, that sometimes I don’t feel it’s even worth it to want to help. Today I’m angry at the world, and I’m angry at myself for being so angry.

Sadness

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Today I am sad. Sad for the millions of animals crammed together in dirty pens that never had a chance. They didn’t have a chance at life before the pandemic because they were in line to be murdered for steaks, wings, and bacon. No chance at life now because with supply chains broken, businesses are murdering them immediately just so they won’t have to spend money feeding them until supply chains are mended. I’m sad for all the people that never had a chance. The generations of abused and victimized that may have very well changed the world for the better and helped us evolve past our current brutality, if they had ever been given on small leg up and out of oppression. I’m sad for all the people that are so desperate for someone or something tangible to blame external to themselves that they will swallow the most outlandish lies that will only be a slow poison that leads to pain and death. Death of bodies, death of minds, death of potential. I’m sad that even in the midst of a global pause of the biggest machine on our planet – the economy – we can’t conceive of more creative and compassionate futures instead of just ‘getting back to business as usual’. I’m sad that we’ve failed ourselves. That we let our creativity and potential ooze out of us like sweat as we lounge on our couches watching celebrities watch TV. I’m sad that I don’t want children because I don’t want them to grow up feeling guilt, anger, loss, and suffering that, while it has existed through all time, is particularly gut-wrenching in this era. I’m sad that people still believe in ‘progress’ like it is a ladder to material heaven, where you can buy anything you want and everything grows bigger and bigger forever and you stretch so wide you don’t know where your mind ends and the lavish clothes and jewelry and cars and yard décor begins. I’m sad because all I want is to live in a tiny cabin on a few acres of land with woods and water, but this too is materialistic. I’m sad because it takes so much money to live so simply if you want to do it away from other people and noise and business. I’m sad because someone sprayed pesticides outside my apartment and now there are dozens of bees dead or dying on the sidewalk, writhing in confusion as their tongues splay out and they crawl in circles until they lose all hope and energy and give up. I’m sad because I feel isolated from everyone; I don’t want to watch TV, I don’t want to buy things, I don’t want to be happy and optimistic, and I don’t want to go back to normal. I’m sad that I can never choose a side, because I see all the grey and nuance in every situation and therefore ostracize myself from all factions. I’m sad because all of the best things about life – the magic of nature, the spiritual essence of ourselves, the beauty of our universe – is all trivialized by the pettiness of the small amount of our brains that we actually cultivate. I’m sad because I may never know the full capability of my brain. I may never discover whether I have a soul and how to free myself from bodily form. I’m sad that suffering is inevitable. I’m sad that the few in power can harm so many not in power, and that if we could all just band together we could create revolution, but people don’t tend to want revolution. They want to go back to normal. To go back. To revert. To recede. To hide in shells and hope that the waves of war, or disease, or disaster will wash over them and move on so that they can meekly pull their heads out again and continue crawling in circles in the sand. Today, I am filled with sadness.

Exhaustion

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Today I am exhausted. Everything in the world makes me tired. My brain hurts from the millions of repeated messages and useless soundbites perpetuated across every media platform. I’m exhausted by people who’ve lost all sense of empathy for their fellow humans – or anyone else for that matter – and who for some reason want to slave away for an inanimate ‘economy’ instead of figuring out what a system would like that could support peoples’ livelihoods AND their wellbeing. I’m so tired. Tired of seeing the same tone-deaf stories over and over that never broach the root causes of all our problems. I’m tired of fighting for the narratives that have been buried, I’m tired of being angry about all the misrepresentation, misleading, misquoting, misogynism. I’m tired of people. I’m tired of everyone complaining about not being able to go to concerts or Disneyland. I’m tired of people in power telling us that workers want to go back to work and we should let them – they don’t WANT to go back to work, they just need to be able to survive. I’m tired of a lying government, and of an entire country and world that for some reason is afraid to hold that government accountable, so afraid of one insane man that they let him destroy people’s lives, destroy the environment, lie to the public, and get away with anything. It’s absolutely exhausting. I’m tired from trying to stick by my ideals while I watch the majority of people revert to tribalism, violence, prejudice, laziness. I’m tired of the memes, of the ‘let’s use this pause to expand our consciousness’ tropes, of the people who say they appreciate this pause but aren’t planning to do anything different when life starts speeding up again. I’m tired of living in my brain that won’t stop churning with anger, sadness, and disappointment. I’m tired from reading about all the productive things everyone else is doing while I lay in bed wrestling with mental darkness. I’m tired of people wanting a cure but not once thinking about how they could have helped prevent a pandemic in the first place by choosing to support fair, compassionate, sustainable entities that don’t destroy or exploit animals, wildlife or the environment; but instead they buy everything on Amazon, from China, on sale, in bulk, never considering that the better the deal, the greater the behind-the-scenes suffering may be. I’m tired of trying to explain that disease is not something that just appears, it’s a direct result of our interactions with the world and our choices. No one wants to listen, so why put the energy into it? I’m exhausted from spending the better part of my life fighting to get people to care about how they treat our world, only to see that world continue to disintegrate under the weight of willful ignorance. I’m exhausted from trying to avoid all the news that’s pure vitriol, all the entertainment that’s nauseous distraction, and all the opinions that want to be heard regardless of whether they need to be. I want to be far, far away from it all, alone, in solitude, where I can rest, where my body can rest, where I can learn to move with the currents and cycles that we evolved with, not the ones forced upon us by corporations. Today I’m completely exhausted.

Resolve

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Today I am resolved. I’m resolved to feel the emotions that rise and fall within me and acknowledge from whence they came, and resolved to let them subside so that I can begin to learn what equanimity is, what a baseline of peace is, what it means to not be ruled by emotion but by one’s inner voice, one’s intuition. I am resolved to find little (and maybe big) ways to feel like I am contributing something of value to the world around me, whether it’s through an attitude, a behavior, a creation, or a conversation. I resolve to not berate myself too much on those days where I lay in bed for hours bemoaning existence and suffering, and resolve to have days where I do get out of bed and practice gratitude for the ability to recognize beauty and compassion. I am resolved to not let the narrow-mindedness, prejudice, fear, or anger of others be my own downfall. I’m resolved to learn how to not rely on my outward mask (not my physical mask of course, but the mask that holds in my true self) for protection, and to instead worry less about how people perceive me and focus more on how to be true and strong. I’m resolved to live by my own ideals even if the ideals of those around me continue to deteriorate. I’m resolved to search for the essence of my creativity so that I never succumb to the greed or anger that so many others are buried in right now, that is so easy to sink into. I am resolved to give myself time and space to breathe, to look inwards, and to practice letting my intuition guide me. I’m resolved to express gratitude to those who help me thrive, or help me see beauty, or love. But I am also resolved to not be lulled into false contentment by an overflowing stack of gratitude journals, 30-day yoga challenges, and mindfulness podcasts that end up as temporary distractions. I am resolved to find the real source of equanimity and peace, which is found by nothing else other than looking within, without distraction, without external noise, without checklists or stickers or material rewards. I am resolved – no matter what emotions may well up within me – to always enjoy the wonder of a blooming flower, the bright whiteness of floating clouds against a blue sky, the flutter of a surprise butterfly, the superb jaggedness of mountain peaks, or the reflected light of sunset on the ocean water as it creeps up the beach. I am resolved to nurture compassion and positivity in my interactions with others, even when I am internally outraged or saddened. I am resolved to continue advocating that animals deserve their lives, that the planet deserves our respect, and that our actions always affect those around us, even when I temporarily feel that advocacy is futile. I’m resolved to confront my ego on a regular basis and adopt a lifelong practice of recognizing its limitations and never considering myself better than anyone else. I am resolved to go on, even when I may not want to, and to speak my mind when I need to. I am resolved to listen to my heart, to be kind to myself, and to do the best I can to live a life that is light, that transmits beauty and love, and that transcends the pitfalls of egotistical drives. I am resolved to be who I need to be in this world.

7 Qualities of a Respectful SciComm Community

This was originally a guest blog I wrote for shareyoursci.com. They’re a great site for science communication resources, so you should go check them out!

The theme for the 2019 Science Talk Conference in Portland, Oregon, was ‘Community’, a fitting topic considering how quickly the field of science communication is growing and evolving.

Science communicators engage with both science and non-science communities, and must be adept at maneuvering between the two. But what about the SciComm community itself? How can we nurture a space where science communicators of all kinds can feel connected and supported in their efforts? The importance of building a strong SciComm community—one that welcomes diversity and practices inclusion—was the focus of much of Science Talk.

Many of this year’s presenters talked about the qualities that they feel define a strong community, and these same qualities were discussed in the workshop I led on the second day of the conference. I’ve distilled these qualities down to seven key components of a successful community, which just so happen to spell out the acronym R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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1. Representation

Keynote speaker Maryam Zaringhalam addressed the question of who speaks for science head on. “Representation is a big problem in SciComm,” she said, encompassed by sexism, racism, and elitism.

Most people immediately think of Bill Nye when they hear the term ‘science communication’. Many of us have cringed at being called “the Bill Nye of…(fill in the blank)” or “the female Bill Nye”, as if this one well-known (white, male) person sets the standard for what a science communicator looks like and acts like. Nothing against Bill Nye—he’s done a lot for SciComm—but its problematic that other types of SciComm identities and perspectives may be considered less valid or visible in comparison.

Representation is important because we all need to be able to see ourselves in our community, be able to relate to others, and feel confident in our individual identities.

2. Empathy

This is a huge one for me. I believe that a lack of empathy is at the root of many of our societal problems, from political polarization to the detrimental “war on science.”

While as science communicators our goal to responsibly present science by being transparent, and often objective, we must also recognize that we are all driven by personal values. If we can’t acknowledge and respect the values of those we are communicating with, we will likely fail to reach them or build lasting relationships. We need to be able to empathize with others, even if they hold different values than our own.

As many presenters at Science Talk mentioned, being a successful science communicator means being a good listener. Listening to your target community is a big step toward making meaningful connections. Indeed, if you can connect with that community based on some shared values or goals, they are much more likely to be receptive to new ideas. This extends to our own SciComm community too; we should be able to respect that we each have valid experiences and perspectives.

3. Support

We all want to feel supported. How do we create a community where we can effectively support each other? Susanna Harris, founder of The PhDepression website and social media platform, spoke to this in her talk about creating online communities. According to Susanna, a successful community is a place (virtual or otherwise) where you gain something by participating, but also feel responsible for the wellbeing for other people in the community. It’s a place where we lift each other up and feel mutually supported, where we can celebrate our differences while recognizing what binds us together.

4. Protection

I’m not talking about Godfather-style mafia protection, but a strong community should create a ‘safe space’ where its members can be themselves without being judged or harassed. For science communicators, having a strong community means that your peers have got your back when you are attacked by trolls or abusive voices.

Building a community where members feel protected involves creating rules and guidelines for that community that establish a foundation of respect and inclusion. Panelist Sarah Myhre emphasized the importance of creating safer institutions where women, ethnic minorities, LBGTQ+ individuals, and others are free from abuse and prejudice. Without safe communities and institutions to support us, she argued, how can we focus on being successful communicators, scientists, etc.?

5. Equality

In a similar vein, equality is critical to maintaining a community where members feel like they can contribute effectively without bias or prejudice. Many Science Talk participants spoke about their experiences as minorities being blocked by gatekeepers to media, journals, institutional leadership, or other avenues of power controlled by non-minorities.

The tide is slowly turning in some institutions where leadership and participation is diversifying—but we still have a long way to go. Creating a strong SciComm community will require conscious effort toward supporting equality, diversity, and inclusivity; and as Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan (founders of Girls Talk Math) mentioned in their presentation, this in turn will help diversify science more broadly.

6. Connection

A common thread among Science Talk presentations was the important role of storytelling in connecting with your audience. We all have personal stories, and sharing those stories helps us connect with others—whether they are part of “our” community or one we are reaching out to.

As one Science Talk audience member said to panelists, “I want to know your personal story, what got you here, what kept you going. I want you to go beyond reason, and into emotion.”

Hearing how others overcame obstacles (internal or external) to get where they are today helps inspire us and connect us to each other. Many presenters emphasized that a “successful” SciComm interaction means making a meaningful connection. This applies both within and between our communities.

7. Trust

Finally, any community must be built on mutual trust. We must be able to trust that we have each other’s best interests in mind, are willing to support each other, and that our communication is based on integrity. Just as we as individuals want to be considered as trustworthy sources of science information to our audiences, our community should reflect this same trustworthiness by upholding the values we feel are important for respectful scicomm.

Just A Little RESPECT

Feeling supported, connected, and heard are the things that lay the foundation for effective science communication (or effective anything). It was encouraging to hear such wide consensus among SciComm-ers of all kinds about the need for building a community based on mutual respect, where we can boost each other and in doing so boost ourselves and raise the bar for SciComm as a whole.

While the seven elements I outline above are relevant to any community, there are a few additional qualities identified at Science Talk that are particularly important for catalyzing our science communication community: namely, enthusiasm, creativity, and curiosity.

The youngest presenter at Science Talk this year was Parin Shaik, a freshman in high school who participates in the Science & Us SciComm program led by and for high school students. She described how entering the world of SciComm helped her overcome her fears about studying science, and opened up a world where “Sailor Moon and photosynthesis can co-exist!” In other words, SciComm allowed her to integrate her love of art and entertainment with her interest in science. She found her enthusiasm.

“Make your enthusiasm for science contagious.” Encouraged Dianna Cowern, YouTube’s “Physics Girl”, who gave the final keynote address. Her talk galvanized participants into celebrating their curiosity and making it ‘go viral’.

I think this is one of the things that I love most about our growing SciComm community—our common enthusiasm for and curiosity about the world around us, and our passion for sharing what we learn with others. In the workshop I led, participants described their aspirations for a strong SciComm community. You can review the list of aspirations and measurable results we came up with, and even contribute your own, on this google doc. I hope that the ideas captured in this document provide a basis for ongoing conversations about the qualities we want our SciComm community to embody into the future.

I hope we can use the elements of RESPECT to create a space where science and scicomm welcomes everyone. As Maryam said in her keynote, “the greatest asset we have is our community.”

Do you even empathize? How empathy training and communication can save us from ourselves

One word keeps surfacing in my mind over the past several weeks as headlines reveal the latest stream of human rights and environmental atrocities undertaken by our own government. Empathy.

As I learn of children being separated from parents in the name of border control, presidential decrees opening all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, and the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act, I can’t help but wonder—what place does empathy have in our current society?

This word, coincidentally, popped up on a number of articles and videos I’ve seen recently. Obviously, I’m not the only person distraught both by these troubling media headlines and by people’s callous responses to them. Whatever the ultimate consequences of our current political leaders’ actions, they’ve certainly shone a spotlight on just how wide the spectrum of values is in our country, values that run much deeper than political views alone.

Fear Leads to the Dark Side

In a 2017 HuffPost piece titled I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People, author Kayla Chadwick expressed this growing angst over a seemingly unbreachable moral divide among U.S. citizens:

“I don’t know how to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy. I cannot have one more conversation with someone who is content to see millions of people suffer needlessly in exchange for a tax cut that statistically they’ll never see. Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society, how to be a good person, and why any of that matters.”

Chadwick implies that today’s conservative values reflect a lack of empathy for those in need (especially those outside your immediate family/ingroup), instead emphasizing one’s own financial wellbeing over others. While I agree it’s pretty obvious that the current Republican administration is driven by self-aggrandizement above all else, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute our country’s steady loss of empathy and compassion to one particular political party. To me, lack of empathy seems to correlate with a much more deeply rooted tendency that knows no political boundaries—greed.

Greed is closely allied with fear; i.e., the fear of losing possessions, losing power, and losing one’s sense of identity. “Our society is paralyzed by fear, making our compassion paralyzed,” says Dr. Joan Halifax, a medical anthropologist and Zen practitioner. Halifax argues that compassion is an inherent human quality, but stimulating this compassion often relies on activating specific conditions.michael-fenton-512963-unsplash.jpgIn other words, you can’t force someone to feel empathy. But what you may be able to do is provide the right enabling conditions that allow feelings of empathy and emotion to emerge. This concept of ‘compassion cultivation’ isn’t just the fancy of new-age healers and Buddhist monks. Plenty of scientific and medical studies have shown that feelings such as compassion, altruism, and empathy can be enhanced via specialized training—and that the results are beneficial to the individual as well as society at large.

Stanford University’s medical center, for example, has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education that hosts workshops and other specialized trainings that teach participants ‘how to train your mind to intentionally choose compassionate thoughts and actions and develop skills that help you relate to others—and yourself.’ Their courses, designed by clinical psychologists and researchers from Stanford, include lectures, discussions, meditations, breathing practices and more to help people reduce their anxiety and build their emotional resilience in professional and personal environments.

This type of self-introspection training stretches far back to ancient eastern philosophical traditions, including Vedic and Buddhist teachings, centered on compassion via mindfulness and equanimity – meaning that you can cultivate feelings of compassion by listening to your inner voice, strengthening intuition, remaining calm in the face of adversity, and being present in each moment.

Empathetic Science?

In this era of runaway capitalism and blatant disregard for scientific consensus, what does it mean to be a scientist and a concerned citizen? Historically, being a credible scientist meant remaining objective and apolitical. But can scientists afford to stay disconnected from today’s critical ethical and moral crises? Or can they maintain credibility and perhaps even build more trust in science by engaging more fully in ethical and moral debates?

According to climate scientist Sarah Moffit in a recent interview with Grist Magazine, being a scientist and an advocate do not have to be mutually exclusive. “I think you can be both rigorous and objective and be human at the same time,” she says. “And I have come to a place where I’m no longer willing to divorce my humanity from the science that I have participated in and am stewarding.”

As a science communicator, I’ve come to see my role as a science empathizer and a human empathizer. In other words, I am committed to accurately communicating about scientific research, and equally committed to understanding human values and concerns—ideally breaking down barriers of understanding.

My goal is also to make us stop and think about the way our worldviews and cultures shape our assumptions about reality as much as (or more than) factual knowledge does, and how these assumptions often lead to misconceptions, fear, and prejudice. Many research studies have proven that our perception of ‘factual truth’ is shaped by our partisan beliefs and bias.

Even our ability to discern whether a statement is fact or opinion is based on whether we agree with the statement. The more we can reflect on our individual subjective experiences and how they affect our connection the world, the better we will be able to empathize with the views and experiences of others. We don’t have to share the exact same values to respect and empathize with others—we only need the capacity to be self-reflective and to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Science, philosophy, and intuition tell us that cultivating empathy and compassion is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing (including immunity, psychological health, and spiritual growth), that of our friends and family, and that of society as a whole. What greater reason could there be to emphasize these qualities in a time when they are needed perhaps more than ever?

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