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.