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Give a FECK!: Chaz Ebert on Her New Book About Forgiveness, Empathy, Compassion and Kindness

It’s Time to Give a FECK: Elevating Humanity through Forgiveness, Empathy, Compassion, and Kindness, launching on May 7, 2024, is a book by Chaz Ebert, publisher of RogerEbert.com. In it, she combines personal stories, academic research, news events, and practical steps, and warm encouragement on how to make the world more humane and connected. She also explains the surprising impact practicing these qualities has on our own sense of purpose and happiness. 

It was a great pleasure to interview my friend and colleague about this heartwarming and inspirational book. 

For a serious, even spiritual subject, your book has a very lighthearted title. Why did you chose that

FECK is an acronym for Forgiveness, Empathy, Compassion and Kindness, all pretty weighty concepts. Most people don't think of fun when taking steps to help elevate humanity. But if applied in the right spirit these things can absolutely bring us joy! And besides, the title is a bit catchy and makes people laugh when they think it can be good to Give A FECK!

Your book has a very engaging combination of your personal experiences and references to news stories, academic research, and even a Broadway musical. Why was it important to include your own stories?

I was told by other published writers that when you include your own stories it personalizes your message and makes it less preachy. I had to put some skin in the game, so to speak. And believe me, it wasn’t easy, I would rather write and talk about other people. However, I know that when I read another writer’s work I appreciate them letting us in and allowing us to get to know them better. It makes for a more authentic experience. I have to admit it was emotional to relive some of the personal experiences.

What discovery surprised you most in your research?

I was the most surprised and touched by the stories of “Forgiveness.” It makes me weep when I think about people whose family members were killed, and yet they found that very profound capacity to forgive the perpetrators. Whether it was the congregation at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or the Nickel Mines Amish Schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, discovering that you forgive for yourself as much as for the other person was a revelation. It frees you and keeps you from being imprisoned by the pain and resentment. Forgiveness is really difficult and really important. That fact was brought home when we hosted Israelis and Palestinians at Ebertfest after the showing of the film "Disturbing The Peace" about their paths to forgiveness.  

You make an important point in your discussion of Archbishop Desmond Tutu that forgiveness is not only a spiritual obligation but in the most practical sense “political expediency.” Many people might think that because an act helps to achieve a political goal it is somehow less “pure.” What do you think?

Yes, that’s a good observation. Because Archbishop Tutu was a man of the cloth you would think that his basis for forgiveness would be only the bible. And yes, he does talk about the biblical basis, but he also expounds on the political expediency. He and President Nelson Mandela led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to unify South Africa after the abolishment of apartheid. He said he lost many friends over it because some people wanted revenge more than reconciliation. However, they knew that after a publicly remorseful confession of wrongs by the offenders under the old apartheid system, there had to be a road to redemption in order to avoid bloodshed. That is no less pure than any other type of forgiveness.

Roger famously called movies “empathy machines.” Do you have three or four favorites you found especially powerful?

I loved Roger's emphasis on empathy. One of my favorite movies when I need a good cry is “Terms of Endearment.” Shirley MacLaine’s character is tough and not very warm, so at first you shy away from her. But you empathize with her pain when she is at the hospital bed of her daughter played by Debra Winger. One of the movies that I mention in the book is Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” She found different ways to help us empathize with characters, even those like Dr Martin Luther King,Jr, (who was portrayed by David Oyelowo) who is usually presented as more of an icon than a real-life man. She humanized him.  But you don’t have to have a serious movie to exhibit empathy. One of the best empathetic movies is the animated feature “Inside Out.” There, they literally label each emotion of the little girl Riley, and let you experience those emotions along with her.

Your book has many wonderful examples of acts of forgiveness, empathy, compassion and kindness, and often the smallest gestures are the most meaningful. My favorite is the one about the health care professionals putting photos of their faces on their PPE garb. Another was just about saying, “Hello.” Why do those actions make a difference?

We think that unless we have the majesty of a Nelson Mandela or an Archbishop Desmond Tutu, our actions don’t count, but they do. Even the smallest gesture of compassion or kindness can change someone’s life for the better. I spoke with neuroscientists while researching this book who told me that more and more research is proving that acts as simple as saying hello to our neighbors have an affect on our state of well-being. And there is no doubt that the healthcare workers who cared enough to tape photos of themselves on their PPE gear so that their little patients felt a connection to a real human being provided a measurable uplift. It made those patients feel less isolated and afraid. And that is what is the most exciting about the stories in the book. You will find that you don't have to be "born" with it, you can develop the muscles of empathy, and compassion and kindness and even forgiveness by practicing them in ways big or small on a consistent basis.

How do we get better at deep listening?

Nell, it is partly intentional. Our lives are all so busy that it is not always easy to stop and take the time to put ourselves in the shoes of another. But when we do we often find the benefits of truly listening to another is a two-way street. The listener is rewarded as much as the person we are listening to. When I was growing up my mother told me that if you took the time to really pay attention to people you will find something amazing about even the most ordinary-seeming person. And so I guess another answer to that question is to develop a curiosity about what amazing thing you may find out. That helped me to become a better listener. Now, the truth is you don’t always discover that “amazing” thing right away. Ha! But you do find that by giving someone the respect of your attention, there is an exchange of “feel good” hormones. You make the person feel honored by being seen and heard, and you feel good by discovering that light in another human being. It also goes far in our efforts to Give a FECK!

I love your description of your mother. To be so sunny and loving is quite a challenge with nine children! You say everyone has a mission. How would you describe your mission?

I am only now putting all the pieces together about the image I have of my mother, and how that helped shape me. Sometimes I wonder if I am painting too saintly a picture of my mother, but when I talk to the people in my family or even my friends who knew her, they say it is an accurate picture. She really did bring the sunshine with her when she walked into the room. Now she was also very human, but she just seemed to have been gifted with an inordinate capacity to love. When she looked at you she made you feel as if you were better than you thought you were. It was so healing. We see so many who may have a "child within" who is yearning for that kind of healing. Or just in our everyday interactions whether at work or in politics, we see a need for a renewed decency and unity. And so I see that as part of my mission on this earth. I want to Give a FECK and make the stories and exercises available to help others do this too. My mission is to help spread some of that compassion and joy and kindness that she exuded. In the end, it is really all about love.

To pre-order It's Time To Give A FECK: Elevating Humanity Through Forgiveness, Empathy, Compassion and Kindness, click here

Nell Minow

Nell Minow is the Contributing Editor at RogerEbert.com.

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