Elizabeth Edwards’ Secret Weapon

Elizabeth Edwards walked that fine feminist line between being a generous, caring, supportive individual and, at the same time, not taking s – – t from anyone.   She had a secret weapon–better yet, a suit of armor.  I met her at a book-signing of Saving Graces, which came out in 2006 when I was researching my book. Her subtitle–Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers–says it all.  This was a woman who cried with a stranger she met in a ladies’ room, who appreciated the checkout guy and the mailman, who shared her grief with strangers on the Internet.  In short, she appreciated, depended upon, and sought out the empathy of others.   Even more important, she knew how vital it was to return the favor.   The September evening  I met her,  I had arranged a brief hello with her publicist, explaining that I wanted to interview her because, whether she had used the term or not, her book was mostly about consequential strangers.  I was first to approach the podium after her talk.

I stood there at first as a journalist and had planned to tell her a little about my project.  But as I handed her a book to sign, I blurted out that my family had just suffered a terrible tragedy.  My great nephew, my sister’s first grandson, had drowned in her pool. At 14, he was already an amazing and versatile athlete, so no one realized he was in trouble.  (Later, we would learn he had a heart condition and that no one could have saved him anyway.) I told her I wanted to give her book to his parents. “So could you please inscribe it to Heidi and Louis?”

“”Oh, dear, I’m so sorry.  When did this happen?” she asked, acting as if no one else was in the room.  It wasn’t fake empathy.   In that moment, I could feel–and her eyes confirmed–that she truly cared and felt my pain. Continue Reading »

Social Movements Need Strong and Weak Ties

(Note:  This was published first as a feature on Shareable.)

Recently, I asked an American woman whether she’d moved to Paris in 1952 because she’d fallen in love with a Frenchman. Without missing a beat, she said, “It’s a little more complicated than that.

The same could be said of the conclusion in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change,” a piece in which he questions the value of social media-based activism:

…[It is] simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Life isn’t lived in the “either/or” extremes.  Today’s social campaigns are not waged on the Internet or off. It’s all of a piece–a “both/and” phenomenon. Modern activists are no different from TV producers, merchants, educators, scientists, sufferers or patients. Social media is but one of the ways they connect. Continue Reading »