Frame is something I’ve regularly thought about since the crisis of my 32-year faith. My frame is the perspective I have of the world. It’s the way I see things. It’s my philosophy and my values. It’s what I lean on when I have nothing else to lean on.
Losing my faith wreaked havoc on my frame.
Part of frame I keep in the back of my head is my kids' frame. How am I helping them establish a frame that will be reliable? Not one that I give them but one I help cultivate so when they leave the house they are equipped to handle whatever threatens their reality.
A good frame is like a structure to a building. There needs to be both rigidity and flexibility. Rigidity provides stability, but being too rigid prevents flexibility with changes in weather. Being too rigid when the earth shakes means destruction. But too much flexibility leaves me wanting stability I can build and come back to time and time again.
There is an evolutionary process when developing frame. Moving from one stage to another as we mature and learn. Unfortunately, there is no way of skipping steps. Building frame runs through the process of:
The process is a matter of taking things apart and rebuilding.
Different aspects of frame can develop at different times under different circumstances. As much as I want to make sure my kids have a solid frame it is ultimately their journey.
Part of the benefit of teaching my kids (the teaching process generally) is that it reinforces my principles. It is an opportunity for me to reflect on my own insecurities. Working and reworking through ideas and values again and again. Similar to these newsletters, it forces me to get the ideas out of my head into practice.
To illustrate this idea of frame I want to look at the definitions and evolution of sympathy to empathy to compassion.
As a kid, my frame was based on the trust I had in what my parents taught me. Because it’s was familiar I assumed it was rock solid. I had no reason not to trust it. Kids need that structure and stability to develop. It gave me something to lean on and embrace.
When I came across something that didn’t fit into my frame it was dismissed or met with sympathy. Sympathy is an interesting emotion to feel. There’s a clear separation between myself and the other person or thing. Whatever they were feeling is sad, but it’s over there. It has nothing to do with me. As a young person, it was my frame that prevented me from feeling anything more mature than sympathy.
I talked about this with my kids recently when we came across a homeless person. Inside our current reality as a family, it is hard to understand how someone becomes homeless. Without having an understanding of this very complex social problem it is easily dismissed.
Over time cracks in my frame started to form as I was exposed to new ideas, new people, and new understandings. Recognizing the reality my parents had painted wasn’t 100% accurate. Exposure to these new ideas eventually broke down my frame and allowed me to be more open to new things. This opening evolved my sympathy into empathy.
Empathy changed my perspective. Developing the ability to take on others' emotions altered my frame. The more exposure I had to different ideas and the more empathy I had the more altered my own frame became.
Empathy is the process of seeking to understand. Of placing myself in their circumstances in order to gain a deeper sense of what it must be like. Empathy not only allowed me to feel what others were feeling but I started prioritizing those experiences over my own.
For a period of time, I was interested in psychology. In college, I talked with a psychologist about getting into his line of work. He told me to read the book Loves Executioner. A collection of psychological cases from a psychologist in San Fransisco. He said if I could get through the book then I likely had what it took to become a psychologist.
I didn't make it.
I had too much empathy. Reading the stories caused me to see myself in their shoes. I couldn’t separate myself from the patients. This lack of separation was a reason acting was so interesting for me. I was supposed to take on the character. It was my job to get the audience to empathize with my performance.
But that lack of separation in real life makes things messy. Not having clear boundaries of where the other person ends I begin causes problems.
Giving up the benefits of empathy and reverting back to sympathy is like trying to plug back into The Matrix. I can’t unsee what I’ve already seen. Wanting my kids to have a stable and flexible frame requires me to have one. This is the kind of thing that needs to be backed by example.
Compassion is the next step in emotional maturity. It provides the best of both worlds. Rooted in stable frame compassion is a vehicle in which I can experience empathy without losing my sense of self and reality. A way for me to maintain frame while still allowing empathy to inform me when and how my frame can evolve.
Just like the mark of an educated man is his ability to entertain an idea without accepting it, the mark of a compassionate man is the ability to entertain an emotion without making it his own.
Now, getting to that point is a whole other story. Developing a frame rigid yet flexible enough is a topic for another letter.