existentialist friday epilogue

I wrote my last post in a fog – a mixture of anxiety, sadness, nihilism and hope. Super dramatic for a Friday night, I know! And reading it today, I’m a little surprised by how intense those feelings were, and how clearly that intensity comes through.

Maybe I should be embarrassed – it was a very vulnerable piece of writing that might be better suited to a private journal. But even after reading it today, and considering that, I decided to hit publish because I do not believe I’m alone in those feelings or thought processes, and I think there are few things more important in this world right now than community with others in our feelings and thought processes.

Not necessarily validation, or reassurance, but community.

That’s what those people in those Christchurch mosques were engaging in last week when they were murdered. It’s what I did at my own church yesterday, feeling sad and uncertain and comforted by the knowledge that I was sitting among a lot of other people feeling the same things. We sang and meditated together, called out the elephants in the room (racism, hatred, violence, intolerance, ambiguity) and continued our ongoing conversation about how to live with and wrangle them. Lately I’ve come to view this as the most beautiful and important thing about being human – existing in community with one another. It sounds pretty and easy but it is one of the most complicated and difficult things I’ve ever done. I am grateful that I woke up today and get to keep doing it.

It’s also amazing to me how clear these ideas are after a couple of days of letting them simmer inside me. I avoided social media as much as possible this weekend. I exercised while listening to an audiobook, watched people of all ages fly kites in perfect weather, watched my husband make sourdough bread for the first time and beam with pride, ate delicious crab cakes and pizza, toasted to friends’ birthdays, read, sat in community with my friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, drank a lot of water, took a bath, and let my brain breathe a little.

On the other side of all of that, I feel like things might be OK. I wonder what I can do to bring this feeling with me into every day, not just Mondays after a social media detox, while also respecting and cultivating the community that exists right there on social media too. They are different kinds of communities, but they overlap in so many ways. This is more true for me now that I live outside the New York City bubble than ever before, so maybe that’s why it might seem like I’m grasping for something others have known all along. But again, something tells me these things I’m wrestling with are more common than we like to admit.

Do you have your tech accountability buddy yet? Maybe you can admit it to each other?

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Beyond simulation

 

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One weekend in college, I drove up to Washington, D.C., from Burlington, North Carolina, with a group of my friends, all of us wearing white t-shirts with red duct tape X’s on them. We carried handmade signs and sleeping bags, and marched our way onto the Mall, right near the National Monument for a demonstration. We weren’t alone – there were a couple hundred other young people there, some building shelters out of cardboard, some passing out water. And the organizers of the event, called Displace Me, set up a big screen on which we could watch documentary footage of people in northern Uganda who had been displaced by war and famine (and a recorded message from then-First Lady Laura Bush). We chanted, gave statements for our own video messages, wrote letters to our representatives and the president of Uganda, and sat silently for 21 minutes to mark the 21 years of war in that country. It was an “experiential” demonstration, meant to draw attention to a cause, but also an attempt to give participants a taste of what it was like to be “displaced.” To, in a way, force empathy. In those of us participating, but also, I guess, in those who would see what we’d done and wonder at our choice to put ourselves in that position.

It was April in D.C. so it was kind of cold that night, and there were a lot of bugs. But remember the sleeping bags I mentioned? And the bottles of water? The cars? The cardboard? Yeah, none of us really believed we were experiencing displacement. Still, it felt like a worthy statement at the time. There are lots of similar experiences you can take part in today – homelessness simulations are probably the most popular. They are, unsurprisingly, controversial. After participating in Displace Me, I was part of a homelessness awareness group and we briefly considered doing a homelessness simulation, but someone brought up that this was effectively appropriation, and it served little purpose. Why did we have to pretend to be homeless to get people to care about homelessness? Apart from shock value, what did it achieve?

Now, in the age of augmented and virtual reality, simulations are ubiquitous, raising new ethical and effectiveness questions. A couple of days ago, JD Thorpe wrote a piece on Bustle about disability simulations that broached this issue, and brought up another important point: these things don’t actually work. Some research released in April found that experiences in which people wear goggles that make them “blind” or earmuffs that make them “deaf” or use some other prop or tool to simulate a disability usually come away less with empathy than with “fear, apprehension and pity toward those with disabilities.” And just like sleeping on the street (or on the National Mall) in a sleeping bag when you don’t have to, none of that is as useful as actual empathy, which is shown to lead to action.

A few weeks ago I attended the Games for Change conference in Manhattan. While standing in line to try out a virtual reality “game” that simulated vision loss, I spoke with a representative of the company that had made it. The goal of the game was to maneuver through a grocery store and pick up certain items with only about a pinhole’s worth of vision. As we chatted, I mentioned something that Amy Green, one of the creators of That Dragon Cancer, had said earlier in the day: sometimes attempts at empathy just make people question whether the person suffering really has it that bad. He said that hadn’t really occurred to him (he didn’t create this game, to be fair), but he did have another concerning experience to share: a few minutes earlier, a man had put on the headset for the game, taken a look around the store inside it, then initiated the “blindness” simulation. He’d gamed the game. “Kind of defeats the purpose, huh?” we both said.

I decided to skip that experience and try another one. I put on an Oculus for Across the Line, a VR experience created by Planned Parenthood. In it, you approach a clinic in a car, past dozens of angry and pleading protesters. It’s real 360-degree footage at first, and then when you get to the clinic the footage switches to animation with the voices of real protesters and hecklers. The latter experience shook me up more than the former. I came away really feeling like I’d been yelled at. That felt more like empathy to me.

In the Bustle piece, Thorpe makes some suggestions for actually being an ally to people with disabilities, and they all involve employing empathy through asking questions, listening, and letting the disabled person take the lead.

I don’t think empathy focused simulations are completely useless, but I do think we need to get better at creating them and making sure they actually achieve something other than “oohs” and “aahs.” As technology and content-creating abilities continue to improve, better and more useful VR experiences should be a natural outgrowth. Especially if the people creating this stuff are diverse in ability, gender, race and sexuality.