Empathy and Reconciliation

Empathy and Reconciliation

Empathy.  The capacity to sit and really feel what someone is feeling.

Sometimes empathy makes us uncomfortable because we have to take on board feelings we would rather not have.  Sometimes we have to take on board responsibility for hurt feelings when we empathise.  Empathy is therefore an act of courage – and only the strong will truly empathise with others.

Students have talked a lot about empathy with their Mentors in their Wellbeing Wednesday activities.  One of these sessions focused on the video below – which also featured in a recent Wellbeing Hive Article.

The video features a little fox who is sad.  There is a huge beautiful bear who climbs down into the pit of sadness with her and sits with her and allows her to express her pain.

And then there’s the goat.  Now the goat is the guy in this situation who you just do not want to be.  He sits up above the pit and refuses to come down.  It’s too dark for him.  He doesn’t want to ruin his mood.  Instead he calls down to the little fox – “hey – do you want a sandwich”?

It’s so comical a moment that you almost laugh out loud – is a sandwich really going to solve her problems?  But this is often how we try to deal with the uncomfortable feelings of others.  Instead of being the brave bear who is ready to sit and feel and take on the pain, we are the goat and use small tokenistic measures to try to make things better.

Reconciliation Week began next Thursday, and this video came to mind as I was planning my speech as Acting Head of Berwick Grammar School for assembly. Why?  Because I think that reconciliation is a space where there has been a little too much goat, and perhaps not enough brave bear.

If we really want to understand what reconciliation means to indigenous Australians, we are going to have to try to get down there in the pit with them, so to speak.  We need to be willing and able to virtually sit with them and hear and feel their pain.

And how do we do that?  First we can start by talking and asking questions.  If you know someone who is indigenous, perhaps ask them what Reconciliation Week means to them – and if they feel we as a nation are on the right track.  Really listen.  Be prepared to feel even if those feelings make us uncomfortable sometimes.  Remember it takes bravery to be empathetic – but it is the kindest gift you can give someone.

If you don’t know anyone you can talk to – why not try picking up a book?  One of my favourite things about books is that they open me up to worlds and perspectives beyond my own.  This time last year I read Tara June Winch’s The Yield, a work of fiction exploring the sense of place that is such a strong part of the culture of our indigenous people.  This is a modern story of a family fighting to protect land they had lived on for thousands of years from big business and industry.  It’s a story that really allows you to understand the hurt of watching a place you love be destroyed in the name of progress.

For Reconciliation Week this year, I opened up the pictured collection of short stories edited by Anita Heiss.  These are all true stories of people reflecting on growing up in Australian society with indigenous heritage.  There are certainly joyous stories in here, of families who shared and took pride in a rich culture – or even in the reclaiming of that heritage in their adult years.  Interestingly, one of the most positive and hopeful stories in this collection comes from AFL footballer Adam Goodes – a man who would have every right to use his story here to focus on the hardships he has endured at the hands of a narrow-minded public and media. Instead, he talks about how sport brought him and his family together in their happy childhood, and he pays tribute to this wisdom of his tribal elders who helped him achieve all his goals.

But there are also plenty of stories littered throughout that made my heart ache – and I have not even finished the collection.  There are stories of bullying from abrupt, direct racism to the kind of casual cruelty and intolerance that we work so hard nowadays to stamp out in all its forms.   There are stories of ignorance – of people asking you how Aboriginal you really are, and if so, why aren’t you blacker than you appear?  There are stories of young people made to feel so ashamed and embarrassed of who they were because others were unkind, uninformed and prejudiced, that they denied their Aboriginality.  They saw it as something to conceal rather than celebrate.

I read these stories and I realised one thing – that my generation has taken a step forward towards reconciliation.  But we have more steps to take – and it will be the upcoming generation – our students, our children –  who will take these steps even further.  So our role is to encourage them to inform themselves and draw upon their superpower of empathy to understand how important it is to continue to make a difference.

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