4corners: embodied empathy, part one

I’m in Belfast at the moment, participating in the 4 Corners Festival. The festival is an annual event which seeks to bring people out of their corners and camps and into fresh perspectives and different locations. This is the first in a series of meditations and reflections.

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clonard monastery: west belfast

As the walkers were introduced to the purpose of the walk, which was called a “Wonderful Wander” through a few significant miles of West Belfast, I paused to think about what it meant to walk down one side of the “peace wall” and up the other. We were starting in a consecrated Catholic space and ending in a Protestant one, walking with people whose history and opinions, narratives and pains were unknown to us. We were tourists in spaces that did not belong to us, but not tourists in the town.

I thought a lot about empathy as we walked and the physicality of what was demanded. In a divided city, where space is policed both by the police themselves and by the communities who claim certain space, it is so very easy to accept the narrative of your space as the only valid one. When you’re breathing the air you’ve always known, why would you believe any other air is valid?

On the nationalist side of the wall, I was invited by two different practitioners to embrace silence and safety and refuge. (The juxtaposition of running in a political rally was stark, by the way, and a discussion for another post!) On the unionist side of the wall, I was beseeched to not forget the sacrifices made by the people of that area, to remember the pain they have felt for the creation of a new world.

To be in physically uncomfortable spaces, and emotionally uncomfortable ones, is key to embodying empathy. For the best way to create a new normal is to do it. To walk new paths that circumvent the walls, to hold hands with new colleagues in the work, to breathe air from a different place. To listen to the pain, the joy, and the call of others, to give their narrative space in ours – that is empathy and that is the engine that powers new normals.

Next up: thoughts on benches, lived gospels, and how to cultivate listening.

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Author: kristen

msw, mdiv (baylor university): phd (queens university belfast) : researcher, social worker, human resource director: focus on intersection of gender and religion: wife, daughter, friend, banyan tree

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