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by Isabelle Baugé

This is the second blog in a series of four blogs that Isabelle wrote for her final project for the Self-Reg Foundations program.

Why do I need/want to reflect on… Empathy? 

Because in the World News…

October 27, 2022… The House of Commons of Canada unanimously agrees to describe residential schools as genocide. Nunavut MP Lori Idlout, who was present in the House for the vote, referred to it as an emotional moment and called the vote historic: “This defining moment will open the doors for many and it is an important acknowledgement, knowing there are some who try to deny what happened.” (Source: https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/house-of-commons-recognizes-residential-schools-as-genocide/

Why do I need/want to reflect on… Empathy now?

Because in my personal life… 

… In 2022, I became a Canadian citizen. This is a very big deal for me. Not only because this day was the last of a 2540 (or 6 years, 11 months and 14) day-long immigration process filled with uncertainty, moves involving several countries in Europe and Canadian provinces, hope and despair, personal and professional instability. All stressors were triggered, some negatively (biological, emotion), some both negatively and positively (emotion, social), some positively (cognitive, prosocial). 

Canada is my chosen country and this choice encapsulates my story of healing and resilience. I have crossed a threshold to bring back the balance I had lost in my life.

Together with 24 other candidates, I was invited to a special virtual citizenship ceremony to mark Black History Month, attended by the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, as well as several distinguished guests. Among them was Elder Gilbert W. Whiteduck Anishinabé Inini, who welcomed us with a smudging ceremony, and warm, comforting words. He made me feel safe and secure. He lent me his calm. In this moment, Elder Whiteduck was my Interbrain, as he was for the other 24 candidates, and I felt it.

Elder Whiteduck told us about the First Nations and our responsibilities as new Canadians, in these times of Reconciliation. He passed a torch to me; he provided me with a direction. But how do I run? How effectively am I going to burn my energy and build my new identity?

I’ve worked in many different positions, cities, countries, and on two continents so far. But there’s always one thing in common in what I do: I acquire and transmit information, knowledge. This time however, I know that I’m not going to proceed in ‘my’ usual way, in a cognitive way. The process needs to happen in an organic way. 

In this blog, I will present Wolastoqiyik and Third Gender, classically trained musician, tenor, performer, composer, activist, musicologist, and (to me) Ambassador of Empathy in Action: Jeremy Dutcher. 

And I will hold the flame Elder Whiteduck shared with me that day, as a torch to guide me on the path.

Reframing “Empathy”

➟ etymology: The English word empathy is defined as our ability to share the feelings and emotions of other people as if they are our own. Its English synonyms include understanding, rapport, appreciation and compassion. In 1858, German philosopher Rudolf Lotze wrote of Einfühlung, or “in-feeling” as a translation of the Greek empatheia = “passion, state of emotion”. Einfühlung meant projecting one’s own sentiments or memories during an aesthetic or emotional experience, mingling one’s consciousness with the contemplated object (a person, a piece of art, a landscape, etc.). Einfühlung was first translated in 1909 as the new English word ‘empathy’.

The Greek empatheia comes from en/em = “in” + pathos = “feeling”, from the Proto-Indo-European root kwent(h) = “to suffer”. It is important at this point to keep in mind that to ‘suffer’ includes in its various meanings ‘carry’, ‘bear’ and ‘allow’.

➟ Sanskrit and Hindi: In both the Sanskrit and Hindi languages, the corresponding word for ‘empathy’ is समानुभूति, samānubhūti, a compound word made up of sama + anubhūti

sama = identical, equal, same, balanced, resembling, unchanging, constant, impartial, fair, full, whole. 

anubhūti = knowledge, experience, perception, realization. 

sama + anubhūti = awareness of equality, nondifference and oneness with everything; knowledge of wholeness; experience of equipoise and parity that leads to deep empathy, compassion, and understanding; interacting with others in a gentle and non judgmental way.

➟ Self-Reg tells us that the impulse to participate in the feelings of another is biological, rooted in our neurology. Stuart Shanker often uses the image of a Bluetooth connection to describe the Interbrain that he defines as “the substrate for the development of empathy”. The words ‘resonance’ and ‘vibration’ also often come up. 

In Reframed, he writes: 

“Through the various nonverbal modes of communication, a group of neurons vibrating in the caregiver’s limbic system causes a similar vibration in the baby’s limbic neurons. […] It is not just resonating vibrations but shared emotions – negative or positive – that forge a right-brain to right-brain limbic connection, a connection that serves as the substrate for all aspects of development.” (p.11)

I shared at the end of my first blog (Being Human) that my son and I co-regulate across the ocean through music. Moving on from where I left, I have chosen music as a vehicle for empathy in this second blog, based on an experience I had one Sunday afternoon while In Concert, a radio show, was playing in the background. 

I wasn’t really focusing on what radio host Paolo Pietropaolo was saying but suddenly…

Sakomawit

Biological: Goosebumps all over my body. Warm, sparkling energy running from my lower back up along my spine. Feeling very awake and energized. I got up and started dancing a weird dance with my arms like wings. Go figure.

Emotion: Happy. So incredibly happy. In Foundations 2, we’ve been told that “a secondary emotion is an emotion that is culturally-shaped. Basic emotions are biological—hard-wired; the same for every human being.” Am I experiencing a basic emotion through this song?

Cognitive: I cannot understand one single word in the song. It’s verbal yet non verbal. What is this singer saying? Who is he? What is this music? Classic? World music? I need to know more. I wasn’t centered before hearing Sakomawit, but now I am alert, focused and ready to actively listen.

Social: At this point, on that Sunday afternoon while I listen to Sakomawit, I don’t even know the name of the artist. I don’t know who he is, from where he is, I know nothing but one thing: our worlds just met and I want to meet him, his culture, his history, his dreams and battles. 

Prosocial: A limbic resonance happens when an artist performs. Of course, the artist cannot feel what I felt that day, it was not an in-the-moment one-to-one interaction for him. We’re talking about a broader, larger Interbrain here. The limbic journey from the artist to his audience through the vibrations delivered by his voice is at the same time a very long process – and an incredibly quick one.

And then comes Oqiton. And Pomok naka Poktoinskwes. Emotion: These songs break my heart and pierce my soul, just to pick up the pieces and put them all back together again. On a physiological level, I feel a slight pain all over my skin, like a bruise. And my heart beat slows down. The songs and their melodies tell me about something I didn’t know I had inside. A memory of something that is lost. Something I… we… have lost. I am in-between. Between past lost and future feared. And my identity is blending with a big unknown-but-felt, like a tiny tiny drop in the ocean. I have a deep feeling for a people and a time I haven’t encountered yet.

Or have I actually just met them?

After hearing these two songs, I did what Isabelle does: researching, reading, listening, sharing in many ways (for example, I asked my students to pick a song by Jeremy Dutcher and share their opinion in a question for their final exam last spring). 

More than 100 years ago, the anthropologist William Mechling traveled to New Brunswick to study the Wolastoqiyik, an Indigenous group in the region. Between 1907 and 1914, he collected more than 100 wax-cylinder recordings of people in Neqotkuk singing traditional songs, while others from the nation spoke in Wolastoqey and played the drums in the background. His collection ended up in archives, unavailable to the very people they had been extracted from. The Wolastoqiyik were displaced from their territory by the government. And the music and culture became out of reach from the community (emotion, cognitive, social, prosocial stressors).

In 2012, Maggie Paul, a Passamaquoddy elder who spent decades preserving and resurrecting once-banned Passamaquoddy and Wolastoqey songs, encouraged Jeremy to study them. He recognized one song in particular, Pomok naka Poktoinskwes, from his childhood, realizing that the forgotten songs from his ancestors were still alive (reframing ‘loss’).

It was the beginning of a 5-year long work to bring the album to the world (growth-promoting cognitive stressor), a collection of songs in Jeremy’s native Wolastoq dialect, a dying language spoken by only one hundred people within his First Nation community (cognitive, emotion, social, prosocial stressor)

Empathy is at the very core of Jeremy’s work. Here are a few quotes I found in the numerous interviews he has given (emphasis mine):

“You know, I believe there is a synapse in our brains that connects communities. […] I like to think that humanity and all creation is this big net, and we’re all healing machines. That’s one of our great gifts, this ability for complex emotional thought and specifically empathy. Through sharing our experience and being able to hear others’ in return, we are changed. We move differently, we see the world differently, we interact differently. When we hear other people’s stories, there is an exchange of something that can not be taken back. […] Now we are faced with two roads: one of kinship, family, and of coming together, and the other of continued exploitation and selfishness. Some people consider their kin as whoever is in their house, but if we extend our kinship to our community, and even past that, our nation, or even all of humanity and creation, we can make a real change.(Source: May 14, 2020 https://phi.ca/en/antenna/perspectives-with-jeremy-dutcher-to-become-anew-we-must-first-let-go/ 

“We better start creating pathways to empathy. We better start telling each other stories. We better start listening instead of talking so much.” (Source: March 26, 2021. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5551f1b5e4b0cd8834641be1/t/5c999b2d4785d35db93b4fa3/1553570605397/S03E06+transcript.pdf)

I was reading a few articles about empathy these days and found out that in the academic field, many scholars call empathy “a fragile flower, easily crushed by self-concern.” (David Brooks. “The Limits of Empathy”. New York Times, Sept. 29, 2011.)

Studies suggest that “empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.” (David Brooks, ibid.)

The journalist who wrote the above mentioned article leaves his readers with this conclusion:

“Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code.The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.”

The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict. (David Brooks, ibid.)

I might be wrong (and I hope that you, the reader out there, will help me figure this out), but… isn’t the journalist thinking from an externalized, socialized control/self-control point of view?

Self-Reg, and Jeremy Dutcher, reframe empathy as built from its very core and center: its biological foundation. 

As Jeremy Dutcher explains:

“It’s a continual dialogue between past, present and future. Rather than seeing it as a limitation, I draw on all of those things and think about the way I am collapsing that time for people. The old and the new coming together, it’s really sacred and that’s what we’ve been doing as humans all along. This is how trees grow, how sediments grow: it’s just one layer after another, adding just a little bit more each time and always growing from the past. (Source: https://phi.ca/en/antenna/perspectives-with-jeremy-dutcher-to-become-anew-we-must-first-let-go/)

Empathy is organic, growth-promoting and active. Jeremy Dutcher’s art helps me ‘go there’ and experience the connection, oneness, knowledge and perception of wholeness, awareness of parity that leads to deep understanding, as described by the Sanskrit word समानुभूति, samānubhūti

He helps me reflect and enhance my stress-awareness. Layer after layer after layer. One person at a time, story after story, song after song. What an incredible teaching. My first lesson in embracing my new Canadian identity, holding Elder Whiteduck’s bright torch.

You can listen and watch how Jeremy Dutcher builds empathy in action, humming with his audience in one voice for a Love Song here

It is an amazing example of how we can restore the energy. And reduce the stressors. Together. One complex voice. One breath.

Epilogue…

When I woke up on February 24, 2022, my worst fears had come true. Russia had started its infamous genocide in Ukraine. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk.

And I was so deeply worried for a lady artist I had never met in person nor talked to. But I appreciate her, through her art, so much. 

I was just a customer of hers. I knew she lived in Kyiv and feared she was there, under attack.

I was able to dig out her address from a parcel she had sent me a few months earlier and decided to write her a letter, to simply let her know I was thinking of her and offer my support. 

Message in a bottle.

To my great surprise and relief, she replied a few weeks later. She was safe, far from Ukraine and was expressing so much gratitude for my letter. 

We are now pen pals (old-fashioned, with paper and ink) and also share links to pictures, videos, etc. via emails. She loves music and is the only person (so far) who shared her passion for throat-singing with me.

Throat-singing: a wonderful channel for empathy that I happen to love since I discovered it a couple of years ago, during a festival in Nova Scotia. So I sent her a link to more throat-singing, this time a traditional Inuit Arctic Song. She enjoyed the song and wrote in her most recent letter: “My cat loves this music too 🙂 As soon as I turned it on, he jumped on my knees and started purring.” 

Building empathy… across generations, across species, beyond borders.

Artwork: “Nuhkomoss” (My Grandmother) by Aura.

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