A Little Empathy

It has been a hard week in the news for Canadians, Albertans and especially residents of Fort McMurray. The forest fire in this northern Alberta town of 90, 000+ has brought untold devastation to a community already suffering a downturn in the economy. The fire is reminiscent of that experienced in Slave Lake five years back and unsurprisingly comparisons are made.

I lived in both cities some years ago: Fort McMurray in the early eighties and Slave Lake in the early nineties. Both were youthful cities, with young and somewhat transient populations. People from across Canada, and indeed the world, came to both centres looking to make a start in their careers. That was certainly the case for me, and so I know a little of their context.

Canadians are looking at Fort McMurray in a new light. It has long been loved and hated for its economy based on the tar sands and bitumen extraction. But even those who have loathed the city for its ties to what has been called “dirty oil” have newly found sympathy, and perhaps even empathy for its residents. I have been thinking about empathy as of late, mindful that many think that the condition for its possibility is a willingness to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and so in the present case to imagine fleeing house and home with a carful, or less, of hastily grabbed items. But I cannot imagine what this horror is. It simply is beyond the pale of my experience, but I don’t think that this precludes my being empathetic.

Empathy, it seems to me, is not so much about putting myself in the shoes of others, as recognizing that I cannot do this. I cannot pretend to know what others go through and so when I am truly empathetic my first job is to listen: to quiet my need to know, and to let my not-knowing still my tongue and open my ears. A friend from my Slave Lake days wrote a blog of what not to say to the people awaiting news of the state of their property and life in Fort McMurray (you can read it here, just scroll down a little). It holds wise counsel, and invites us all to remember that ours is a tenuous existence.

We are called to walk lightly on this earth and to pray strenuously, seeking from the Creator wisdom for each day, peace among peoples, and healing for the earth. Empathy pours forth in such prayer, I think, and demands from us first a presence that does not pretend to know the answers before we are even aware of the questions.

In the news reports from Fort McMurray and the locales its residents now inhabit, they express anxiety and fear, but also a resilience that envisions their community rising Phoenix-like in the future. I have no doubt that it will, as Slave Lake has done and continues to do. We are all more than we first imagine, and we are a deep gift to each other as we open ourselves to receiving the experiences of others empathetically.

10 thoughts on “A Little Empathy

  1. Mary irene says:

    Thank you so much for this eloquent and beautifully said piece… my sister and her partner have lived in Fort McMurrary for more than 13 yrs and found themselves among many others …grasping for a few precious things before fleeing from the wildfires….they lost their home and a precious family pet in their descent …but not their hope and tenacity to move forward with courage….

    • agjorgenson says:

      Wow. Peace to them. My nephew and his family are awaiting news on their home, as is the daughter and family of one of my colleagues. We can but pray, and give as able.

  2. dianerivers says:

    Walk lightly and pray strenuously. What a good word. The news from Canada has been horrifying this week and my heart goes out to the people displaced by the wildfires. You make an excellent point that we can’t possibly put ourselves in another’s shoes but what we can do is first, listen. This really is a deep gift.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks Diane. And the worry is that this is not yet finished. The whole province of Alberta is a tinder box, as is Saskatchewan. Our prayers are with these folks.

  3. Janet Parks says:

    Hi Allen……….after reading your post, I bet the people in the places you have lived previously are now holding their breath. Just kidding but I thought it was interesting that you had left your footprint in both places that had experience these disasters.

    Thank you for putting the link to Nicola’s blog. I was one of the people that lost my home and her comments are so true. I had only just arrived back in Slave Lake after the evacuation I was in the Post Office along with a few others and someone made the comment ‘ it is only stuff’. There was 3 of us in the Post Office that had lost our homes, the guy that made the comment didn’t loose his home, he was lucky he didn’t get lynched. The comment minimized our loss.

    I appreciate that someone from St. Peters told me about Stillvoicing after we were talking fondly about you one Sunday.

    Sincerely….Janet Parks…..Slave Lake

    • agjorgenson says:

      Hi Janet! How nice to hear from you. I am so sorry to hear of your loss during the Slave Lake fire. I can imagine that this news brings back hard memories. Peace to you in this.

      Gwenanne and I were just talking about our possessions and realize that they hold deep seated memories. I cannot quite imagine being faced with the task of grabbing a few things in the rush of an evacuation.

      As for my track record on forest fires, I can proudly say that I have lived in Ponoka, St, Alberta, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Toronto, and Kitchener, none of which have yet had a wholesale evacuation! All the same, it is a bit creepy…

  4. vidajay says:

    Hello Alan, You mention a friend… > > A friend from my Slave Lake days wrote a blog of what not to say to the people awaiting news of the state of their property and life in Fort McMurray (you can read it here, just scroll down a little >

    …I scrolled down but could not find the link to his post.

    Thanks for your help,


    Sent from my iPad


  5. shoreacres says:

    What struck me about both this entry and Nicola’s is how very similar hurricanes and forest fires can be: at least in terms of destruction and the need for evacuation. The advice she offered on what not to say is perfect, and certainly applied here after Ike (and Rita, and Allison, and Alicia, and….)

    What you say about possessions is true, too. Memories incarnate in “stuff” — and some of our stuff is truly irreplaceable.That’s one difference between hurricanes and fires. Those of us in hurricane country know what’s coming, if not the precise details. So, we gather up our evacuation kits ahead of time, with our treasures ready to be simply picked up and carried away.

    It’s also interesting that some posts I wrote after Hurricane Ike were titled “Gaveston Rising.” Rise we do — even if we’re rising from the tides rather than the ashes.

    One side note: I was going to comment on Nicola’s blog, but the only option I could find to comment or follow was Google+, and I will not use that service. So, you might pass on to her that I very much appreciated it.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Hi there, I’ll be sure to pass on your appreciation to Nicola. I like the comparisons you make between hurricanes and forest fires. The other big difference between the two is that forest fires actually are healthy for forests. They allow forest floors to rejuvenate, and are needed for the germination of certain coniferous seeds. I also read an article today in the paper that noted that animals who live in forests are well adapted to deal with these phenomena, and it is relatively rare for there to be a significant loss of animal life during a fire. All of this, of course, is of no comfort to those who lose so much in a fire. I am, all the same, buoyed by reports of the tenacity of Fort McMurray’s residents.

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