This Sept 30th is Orange Shirt Day, where we remember and grieve the atrocious familial and cultural trauma, disrespect and violence enacted against the Indigenous Peoples of Canada by both government and religious authorities. Children were systematically taken from their families, placed in substandard residential schools, and brutally stripped of their language, spirituality, and cultural identity. This is not my story to tell, but it is a story that I must remember. I remember and grieve because I want to be a good neighbor, I want to listen to and respond compassionately to our indigenous community. I remember and grieve because I believe in restorative justice, in reconciliation and healing. I also remember because as shameful as it feels to acknowledge, I know my ancestors were either directly or indirectly involved in this national history of violence and have benefited from the annihilation enacted. Since the time of colonization and European settlement here, my bloodline has prospered and experienced rich opportunities in ways that the Indigenous Peoples’ have not. Our collective history of injustice and the present state of imbalance between ethnic groups makes it clear that we need to and are responsible for making things right. Our Mother Earth and her story of ecology teaches us the truth of our interdependence and inter-connectivity, cultural and otherwise. We are in this life and with this land TOGETHER.
As someone who aspires to be a responsible and honorable community member it has always felt obvious and natural to me to respect and respond compassionately to the suffering of the indigenous community. However, in the last few years, as I’ve dug deeper into my ancestral stories and lineage, I’ve come to experience new inspiration for a healthy response to their process of recovery: empathy. Empathy is informed by one’s capacity to feel someone else’s feelings. Some people are blessed (or cursed depending on whether this capacity feeds or depletes you) with these natural and intuitive sensitivities and can easily tune into the feelings of others. However, for some people empathy is developed, often through direct experience of similar life events. I like to think of empathy as being able to speak the same language. For some people, unless they’ve experienced a similar event, let’s say of loss or trauma, they are unable to hear the language of suffering someone else is expressing. Whereas, direct experience of a similar event can open our hearts to hearing the grief song sung by another soul. Sometimes we start to hear and understand the language of someone’s grief and without skilled awareness choose to practice sympathy in place of empathy. Sympathy is when we feel with someone but where we could choose to shine the light of our awareness on their feelings we instead focus on our own. Here’s an example, say someone is telling you a sad story, and aside from noticing their physical, emotional, and psychological cues of their grief, you suddenly notice that your heart too is feeling heavy and sad, and that your eyes are starting to wet at the creases. If you chose to practice sympathy you might respond by saying: “Oh geez, I feel so sad as you tell me that story. That’s such a hard story for me to hear”. Whereas, with empathy you might instead say: “Oh friend, that is hard; it sounds like you’re feel really heavy and sad right now.”. Practicing empathy helps us connect to others, whereas sympathy helps us connect more to ourselves. There is not a right or wrong way of being, and there is a skilled place for both sympathy and empathy. However, if our intention is to be a support and caring person for someone in pain, then practicing empathy is our vehicle of choice.
I have always been someone whose been sensitive to the world around me, to the emotions and thoughts of others. Although my sensitivity has at times been a challenge for me, it has ultimately served as a strength, especially in light of the vocation I have chosen. However, my sensitivity has not stopped at tuning into the inner world of other humans, it has also made me available to the consciousness and needs of the Earth and my other-than-human kin around me. Reconciling my sensitivity to the wilder world has been much harder won than that to humans, and it has been this journey of personal reconciliation that has deepened my empathy for the losses the indigenous community of Canada have experienced and still do. In order to understand my gifts of sensitivity I needed to better understand who I am, and this remembering of the self inevitably led to knowing where and WHO I come from, who my ancestors are and what land I am indigenous to.
My ancestry is rich and varied, and much of it lost to me, but some of it can be remembered. I descend from the indigenous Nordic, Celtic and Hellenistic peoples of what is now referred to as Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Spain, Scandinavia, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy and Greece…and maybe Turkey and/or Egypt 😉. I descend from the indigenous peoples of those lands, and also from the colonizers: the tribes of Indo-Europeans who invaded them from the east. The most commonly shared cultural trait of my indigenous European ancestors was what is referred to as paganism: earth-based spirituality and traditions. Like the indigenous peoples of Canada, prior to colonization my ancestors also lived in harmonious relationship with Mother Earth, with their animal, plant and elemental kin. Their sacred sites were stone circles; rivers and lakes; mountain tops and caves; and the sacred groves of oak, yew, and European cedar. Remembering my ancestry, the sacred oak groves, and our painful encounter with colonization has catalyzed a deeper empathy in me for the indigenous people of Canada. Reclaiming the history of my bloodline has taught me that both cultures share a past story where ancestors were poisoned by those who believed in cultural supremacy. Some of my ancestors too were stripped of their mother-tongue, earth-based languages, spirituality and cultural identity, it just happened so long ago that we’ve nearly forgotten about it…I know I had.
Similar life experience is not necessary for practicing empathy, but it can deepen one’s sense of connection and care, of responsibility. Today is Orange Shirt Day and regardless of whether we can relate to the traumas experienced by the indigenous peoples of Canada or not, it is a day for us to remember our nation’s unjust past, and to take responsibility for restorative justice. Every child and every one has the right to cultural freedom. The teachings of interdependence, reciprocity and connectivity, seen in earth-based, animistic cultures that all humans descend from (at some point in their ancestry) and more strongly in the greater-life affirming teachings of Mother Earth and our ecology remind us that ‘Variety is the spice of life’. Diversity informs relationship and reciprocity, which leads to creativity and sustainability. We are all in this together, and our differences (cultural and otherwise) not only keeps things interesting, but literally keeps us alive, and allows the creative story of evolution and life on this planet to continue in a good way.
Here’s to remembering the history and ancestors of this place, to remembering the history and ancestors of the places we all come from, and to using our stories and remembering as means for making things right.