A story away from empathy

I’ve been woken by a dream that has me up in the middle of the night hen-pecking out these thoughts on my laptop, my route to the couch only detoured via the bathroom for comfort and the kettle for a hot toddy to soothe a scratchy throat. My quiet companions are the sparkling Christmas tree – just another couple of days perhaps until we have to say goodbye – and the diffuser, offering me its fragrant mist of cleansing essential oils.
And the phrase that is playing in my head and heart, the phrase into which my dream thoughts crystallized, is this:

We are always only a story away from tapping into another hidden reservoir of empathy.

My dream story centred around an NGO called Borders without Boundaries that advocated for people who needed help gaining citizenship (I googled it and an existing organization actually offers pet rescue and adoption in Nebraska!). In the dream I was remembering my initial disconnect regarding their work – “Why are people so passionate about this issue? I don’t get it.” – which was soon followed by realizations about my own experiences of belonging and not belonging, and the ensuing empathy had led me to lend my own time and energy to their advocacy work. Apart from the (“though I say so myself” – my subconscious!) rather creative imaginary NGO, the scenario is a simple one to which I think many of us relate.
We are all so familiar with these experiences:

– What it feels like to NOT feel empathy, to NOT relate to someone else’s struggle or concerns
– What it feels like to break through into a new understanding of and connection to somebody’s struggle and concerns, and the resulting surge of “feeling with”

I expect most of us can relate, too, to the way that empathy can change our behaviour, leading us towards actions we couldn’t have imagined giving ourselves to before – loving actions on behalf of others, and actions that expand our own little worlds and hearts. I don’t know about you – and I expect we may all be somewhat different in this regard – but I very much dislike the feeling of not empathizing. [Note: I regularly do not empathize and am simply not conscious of it but rather just taken up with my own concerns; it’s the awareness of lack of empathy and how it feels that I dislike!] I don’t like witnessing others’ passion, struggle or pain and feeling cut off from them by my own lack of common experience. I often feel guilty or ashamed about this, as if I should be able to empathize with everyone and everything, though I have learnt that the guilt or shame response is usually remarkably unhelpful, only furthering the disconnect. I think what I liked about the simple story in this dream was how it mapped out the path that can be followed from lack of empathy to empathy, and from empathy to action. And as I pondered this path, lying in bed in the dark, it seemed to me that the crossroads on this path is always STORY.

My lived story and our shared story
In the dream, and often in my own real-life experience, the story that leads to an empathy breakthrough is a mixture of my own with the other’s. I have enough of an inkling of the other’s possible concerns to be able to relate them to my own, to my personal, lived history, and find a point of connection that widens my understanding and compassion. This happened yesterday over breakfast with a friend. As we ate and talked, I became aware of similarities between the realities of a relationship in my own life and one in hers, which in turn opened up new perspective, feeling and connection. We shared tea, toast, and moist eyes.

Empathy is a deep well. I became aware of this in a profound way during my spiritual direction training when, during a one-on-one supervision session, a mentor helped me dig beneath my experience of listening to someone and see how my own “graced history” (as we say in Ignatian parlance!) formed the backdrop of my ability to be with them and be present to their story. I was amazed and grateful to see how my own experience had created the empathy I was drawing on to be a compassionate, listening presence for someone else. And this is the wonderful truth: when we walk through our life’s own challenges and pains and receive the “grace” they have to offer, we have new resources at our disposal for ourselves and others. Though we are not always consciously aware of this well of personal history and empathy from which we are drawing – and that’s probably how it should be most of the time – the well is there, and it is deep, and it can flow into our lives and actions in powerful, healing ways.

Another’s story
Sometimes the connection with my own story is less obvious and the other’s story takes centre stage. What a privilege it is to be trusted with the gift of someone’s story in all its beauty, pain and difference from our own, and to be given a window onto another experience of being human. I sometimes wish I could recall all the weighty and simple stories I have heard over my lifetime; and yet I know that even those I can no longer remember form a tapestry of my understanding of the world, of life, of humanity, and of myself. Certain stories I will of course never forget because they belong to those close to me and have in some small or significant way also become my story. Other stories are indelible because hearing them changed me forever. I can clearly picture and feel the moment in our kitchen when I received the gift of a friend’s story of years of hiding and trying to change their sexual orientation, the anguish this caused, and the liberation and joy that were ushered in by a decision to embrace all of who they are. Although my perspective on sexual orientation had already shifted enough to be able to really hear and celebrate this story in the moment, hearing it still brought a whole new level of understanding, empathy, and connection, and generated an ongoing evolution of thinking and seeing. While the “coming out of the closet” story (or “being backstage until the right time to take the stage, revealing parts of one’s identity in different ways to different people,” to adopt an alternative metaphor being explored by queer friends) is not mine, in that moment in the kitchen it became forever personal. What could have been an anonymous “issue” had a face, a name, and a whole history of pain and joy that I couldn’t ignore.

Others’ stories, when they are entrusted to us, have the ability to change us if we will let them. It’s not always an easy process, but isn’t it miraculous to have at our fingertips this commonplace yet remarkable way of enlarging who we are, in order to become bigger human beings? It’s as if others’ stories excavate the well of our empathy, making it ever deeper, giving us more to draw on. Or, to return to my original metaphor, perhaps the next reservoir of empathy was always there hiding, waiting, and a story breaks through into it, making its source accessible to us.

My unheard story
There’s one more way in which I think it’s true that we are always “one story away from tapping into another hidden reservoir of empathy.” Sometimes our own story can feel like the wall that divides us from empathy rather than a conduit for it. Perhaps we just cannot find enough common ground to be able to understand and relate to the other, or any common ground at all, and our different stories feel divisive rather than connective. Or perhaps, amidst some understanding and connection, our different stories feel in conflict. Recently, for example, a friend was sharing a painful part of their story with me, and I became aware that despite the fact that I felt for her, it was triggering anger in me. I am working on becoming more comfortable with my anger but it is still not a pleasant experience for me, and I especially did not like the fact that in that moment I was not as able to be present to her story but was actually living and feeling my own story (though they overlapped, and there were ways in which my anger may have been more appropriate and helpful than I thought at the time). But what that moment put me in touch with was a pool of my own pain that needed my attention. However much I wanted to push it down, my anger insisted on springing up and, later, tears and memories, thoughts and realizations sprung up along with it. And here’s what I’m thinking: When this happens to us, when strong emotions and the story that fuels them rise unbidden, we have surely come face to face with the story that we need to listen to right now. Yes, we may put it aside for a while if circumstances don’t allow us to listen straight away (and if we WANT to listen to the other story at hand!), but we do well to make time and space to listen, feel and explore the story that has risen up inside us as soon as we can. Because I believe that, today, THIS is the story that will widen and deepen our well of empathy.

I suppose this is a relatively new thought for me. I’ve been more familiar with the idea of giving space for another’s story and allowing it to generate empathy, though often in connection with my own experience. The idea that I need to make space for and listen to my OWN untold, unheard story too – sometimes even prioritizing this over another’s story – and that this can also evoke greater empathy rather than just egoistic self-absorption, is still somewhat novel and surprising. But I believe it and have experienced it. I am also beginning to realize what happens when I don’t honour my own story and experience.

In a recent session of peer supervision, a fellow spiritual director and I explored a moment that had come to my awareness – of pain I had felt while listening to a directee’s story. I had definitely experienced empathy as I listened, but I could still recall this particular pain in my chest and how it (I realized as we explored) had an awkward, stuck quality about it. While empathy feels like a force that flows out towards the other, connecting us, perhaps even inviting us somewhere out beyond ourselves, this was a pain that made me hesitant about how to respond and turned me in on myself. I came to recognize that it was my own bottled-up and unfelt pain, and again it was asking to be noticed and given attention. Until I really hear this story and its pain carried in my body, it remains locked up and keeps parts of me locked up too. But what I am realizing, and find incredible, is that listening to and feeling and honouring my story – and its pains, joys and lessons – releases this inner backlog to become part of that deep well of empathy. The well of my tears can become a wellspring of life.

I hope that this transformation can be true, too, when what is triggered by another’s story feels like a blank wall of nothing – “I just cannot relate. I don’t even WANT to relate!” What I’m coming to see and believe is that there is a beautiful path of empathy – or a river, if you will – that we can follow at any moment and from any starting point if we want to, and it always involves listening to the story that is demanding to be told. So when I hit a brick wall of lack of empathy, I don’t need to judge and berate myself; in fact that would be entirely counter-productive. Instead, I can listen with curiosity to my own story as it informs my response to the other (there’s a reason for my lack of empathy and I need to honour it), and I can see where that leads me, whether it may open up a new insight or possibility, what glimmer of desire I might find for new understanding and compassion, and how it may lead me towards hearing the other stories I need to hear in order to stretch and enlarge me.

In these varied ways, what can feel like “the blockage to empathy” – what I can sometimes experience as my irritating, encroaching, distracting or unhelpful feelings and thoughts – are so often actually the conduit rather than the blockage, the path rather than the dead-end, if we will just stop and listen to the story they are telling.

Well, friends, it’s still dark outside but the first bird is singing and I can see tree limbs outlined black against a slightly lighter sky, and I am going to try to get a little more sleep now that I’ve processed the dream and these thoughts. My body is tired but my soul is reinvigorated to follow this path towards empathy, knowing more deeply that stories – yours and mine and ours – are the crossroads and the crux and the conduit. There is a flow and we can join it.
We are always only a story away from tapping into another hidden reservoir of empathy.
May we listen well.

Thriving winter (aka life!)

I know I’m not the only person gearing up for winter – some with glee, it seems, but the ones I’m most aware of, and among whose number I count myself, with some dread. And no wonder – the winters here are LOOOONG! With eleven experiences of a white Canadian rather than grey British winter now under my belt – snowy and icy rather than wet, wild and harsh rather than temperate – I know what’s coming, and I know it’s challenging.

But this year, for some reason, I’ve been very aware of what’s happening inside me and how it affects my behaviour, as I anticipate this annually inevitable season – the inner “bracing” accompanied by the onset of complaining about plunging temperatures and the amount of snow – and I’ve found myself pondering and questioning my attitude. I’ve seen and reposted a number of social media posts about shifting one’s attitude to winter, so as not to fight it but instead receive the different rhythm and gifts it has to offer. People’s responses have shown me that I’m not the only one pondering this. But this weekend my thoughts evolved from wondering what it would mean to “thrive” winter instead of merely survive it, to asking myself WHY this feels so important to me at the moment. I decided that it’s because the way I choose to approach winter – do I resist or accept, brace or embrace, enjoy or complain? – so closely mirrors how I choose to approach LIFE, especially its hardest or simply unchosen parts. And I really want to learn how to live life in more open, present, accepting, and joyful ways. In life as in winter, I’m more and more aware of the missed opportunities for joy and growth, and the needless suffering and expenditure of energy, that result from my resistance to reality and futile efforts to control what can’t be controlled.

This realization about why I’m so drawn to reconsidering my approach to winter led me to make a decision!

I’m going to make it my intentional focus and challenge to thrive winter this year.

(Yes, I’m well aware I am defying grammar rules with this use of “thrive” – it’s intentional… and cutely clever, right?!) 😉

So what does it mean to make it an intentional focus to thrive winter? This is what it means for me:

  • Practicing accepting, embracing and enjoying the realities of winter in place of resisting, bracing, and complaining
  • Choosing gratitude about what IS through noticing and savouring winter’s gifts
  • Actively seeking and choosing activities and postures that winter enables or encourages

     

    [Note: Go back and re-read those three points, replacing winter with life, and I think you’ll see the potential for a “winter attitude experiment” to have far-reaching implications for approach to life in general!]

It’s equally important to me what this intentional focus does not mean, though. It does NOT mean:

  • Denying what is hard, unpleasant or limiting about winter 
  • Making arbitrary and simply external goals and commitments about what I do during the winter

To unpack these two thoughts a little more:
I am most interested in my inner attitude or posture, so I don’t want or need to make a legalistic commitment to, say, never respond to a friend’s comment or complaint about the season with commiseration. Too much verbalized complaining can definitely become an unhealthy habit for me, but its power really comes from the inner stance of bracing and resisting. Further, I don’t believe that true gratitude means ignoring or denying challenging realities, but rather that real, deep gratitude is the energy that can help us to live and thrive in all things. (I’ll likely write more about this at a future point so stay tuned.)
Likewise, I most definitely want to have fun playing with my choice of activities in order to make the most of winter – the creativity, crafts, coziness, winter cooking and inner work that the hibernating instinct facilitates, as well as activities that get me happily outside and active – but I have discovered from past experience that I can distract myself from harder but more important “soul work” by focusing on somewhat arbitrary goals such as “get outside at least four times a week” or “take up three new hobbies before March” etc! I know a significant part of any change in my attitude will both result in and flow from embodied choices and actions, and I’m excited about and committed to that; along the way I may well set numerous actionable goals that support my intention. I just want to ensure that I don’t subtly shift my focus to mere externals as a distraction from the inner changes I’m seeking. Because I am motivated to thrive winter as a “trial run” for thriving LIFE! 

So what do you think? Do you want to join me?
I’ve already learnt so much from others about different ways to approach winter (and life!) and I’d love to learn more, to thrive winter/ life TOGETHER, and to share with you what I’m learning, experiencing, doing, and thinking about… If this winter experiment resonates with you, leave a comment here or on Facebook/ Instagram, and let’s start this journey together!
[I’m going to use #thrivingwinter when I post about this, so I invite you to do the same and/or tag me so I can follow your journey too.]

Laudato si’, Perugia

You are the haunting owl cries
rolling over a quiet olive grove
when I cannot sleep

You are the soft rain that begins
to fall on a hot, still night

You are the magic of fireflies in
the dark grass, unexpectedly lightening
my heart in its own darkness

You are the clear bells of matins
and muffled singing of devoted brothers
drifting from the coolness of their ancient church

You are the sweet black cat who joins me
for my morning cup of tea, its affectionate
presence and my solitude our own devotion

You are swallows swooping
free and fearless in a cloudless sky
above terracotta roofs and medieval towers

You are rolling verdant hills around the timeless city,
their swell your nourishing breasts

You are the final hill I need to climb to reach home,
my flagging feet treading uneven stones, my progress
always watched by stony saints and sinners

Laudato si’, Perugia.

You are timeless and you are today.
You are sacred and profane,
refuge and challenge.
You are beautiful stranger
and beloved friend.

Laudato si’. Laudato si’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Umbrian phrase Laudato si’ means “Praise be to you” and is the title of Pope Francis’ 2015 social encyclical, and originally from Saint Francis of Assisi’s 13th-century “Canticle of the Sun.”

What I miss

“Do you miss England?”
you ask, or
“Does Canada feel like home?”
and my tongue and heart twist
in attempted response,
always convoluted, shifting,
the story I try to tell
torn
first between people,
and also between where I am planted
(through house, work, purpose, community)
and the land of my roots.

It’s past midnight
when we return from seven weeks of travel
to our silent, musty house.
Everything is as we left it
but slightly strange.
The kitchen’s low-beamed ceiling
bears down on me
as I walk to the sink.
I reach easily, unconsciously,
for a water glass
but then am surprised
by the selection of shapes and sizes.
For a moment in time I am
not quite at home
in my own home,
experiencing the paradoxical nature of familiarity,
which can be both created
and disrupted
by daily repetition.

My home country
is similarly familiar yet alien to me
when I return after years away.
There are things I’ve forgotten
through absence of repetition,
and so much that has changed
in over a decade
– new towns, new roads,
and the old roads crammed
with more cars than is reasonable.
But as we slow down one day
(another traffic jam
on another winding country lane)
I am captivated
by the burgeoning hedgerow we are passing,
which seems to sweetly summon recognition
from deep within my bones.
I see hawthorn and fragrant honeysuckle
tangled through
with bramble and ivy
and the radiant white heads of bindweed,
crowned with bolting beech, elder,
and the surprise of delicate hazel,
feathered below with bracken, cow parsley and
– I strain to name the ragged, pink flowers –
is it campion?

There is a quiet delight
in knowing these plants,
like a long-awaited family reunion,
or as if, in naming them,
I prove I still belong here.
It’s true that our home’s blazing
orange daylilies
and towering maple trees
greet me like old friends
after a long separation,
but so much of Canada’s wildlife
remains unknown or exotic to me
(there is a different pleasure
in that foreign wildness)
and I wonder,
am I also unknown to it,
can I ever fully belong?

I know that belonging,
like familiarity,
is formed largely by time and choice,
but if you ask what I miss,
I think I can tell you now.
I miss the green, wayside witnesses
to my childhood,
the plants my parents helped me
to notice and name;
and I am sad not to have passed on
this generational knowledge to my own daughter.
Grateful for the wide, wild land
where I am now planted and nourished,
my roots still reach back
to the soil in which they first grew,
interlaced with the roots of bramble, beech and bracken,
hungry for the deeper sense of continuity
and belonging that grows there too.
So my answer to your question
may be strange or incomplete,
but it is the only answer that I have:
I miss the hedgerows.

All our winters

How did these woods I’m walking survive such a winter?
How can they ever hope to be resurrected
from six months in the stranglehold of ice and snow,
roots frozen solid in frost-bound earth,
brittle branches bare of bud and bird?

And how will we survive
the terrible winters of our souls?
For don’t we know such raging, howling winters –
winters that lay us bare with grief and despair,
snatching our breath and our bearings,
leaving us blinded, ragged?
And what of the interminable winters
that are nothing but a long, grey, loneliness,
slowly burying us alive
with our bright hope and our golden dreams?
How, I wonder, can we ever survive?

Then I look around at this forest
newly emerging from its winter death,
the ground still sodden, heavy,
and already the moss that for cold, covered months has clung
in desperation to roots and trunks
is vibrant velvet,
and though many trees still stand asleep, bleakly waiting,
others are ever wakeful, ever green.

So maybe we too will emerge –
not unharmed, not untouched, but still standing.
Perhaps buried parts of us that have clung to life
will be unveiled vibrant.
Perhaps we will come to recognize
a hidden resilience that has been growing in us all along.
It could even be that the winter has killed what needed to die,
offered rest to what could not go on,
and now new growth can finally rise unfettered.
It could be.

I do know that as I leave the quiet forest,
still wondering if we will make it –
you, me, the trees, the unseen creatures –
I am greeted by the ocean, endless and beautiful,
and I remember it has faithfully caressed these changing shores
since the world began,
not subject to the ceaseless seasons and
deaths and resurrections that we all undergo.
And somehow this thought, in this moment,
in one salty surge of waves and tears,
breaks my heart and mends it.
We live and we die and we hope to survive.
and the ocean endures.