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When we walk the halls of a hospital – An Integrative Personal Story, Part 7

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By Rodney Frey

In the previous segment, and in my role as Director of General Education, I continued to consider the influences of the intersection of diversity and commonality, and of empathy and intentional engagement in the implementation of the General Education curriculum. Especially spotlighted were the importance of empathy and integrative learning, and the roles of intentional action and intentional reflection for students and for us all.

Part 7

I feel fortunate to have experienced a rich social diversity at an early age, in my community and in a public-school setting.  Be it in the classroom, in athletics, or a weekend social gathering, multi-racial interactions framed much of my life.  So, I ask myself, was I able to effectively engage this diversity, to the extent I did, because I had empathy – somehow already endowed with it?  Or did my empathy grow as I continued to engage diversity, in high school, college and professionally – is empathy somehow learned?  If I had not had these pivotal multi-racial relationships growing up, in what state-of-affairs would my empathy capacity be today? I’ve come to hold that empathy and the relationships doors it opens are each mutually interwoven, co-created, a sort of positive feedback loop.  While more nuanced and with other factors in play, empathy is greatly cultivated by experiencing a rich diversity in one’s life, and diverse relationships are successfully engaged by one’s heightened capacity for empathy.  Rephrased, empathy, the animating fluid, is nurtured as relationships, the structural conduits, expand.  In turn, those relationship expansions nurture the swell of empathy.  And of course, the inverse is also the case.  For me the General Education takeaway was in creating a pedagogical setting, such as the Integrative Seminars and American diversity courses, that was deliberate and rich with all forms of diversity, so even those students previously diversity-deprived had an opportunity to increase his or her own empathy capacity, as well as life-long opportunities for relationship expansion.  “All forms of diversity” include such variants as in gender, race, ethnicity, religion, epistemology, sex, age, gender identity, socioeconomic status and class, mental and physical ability, as well as local, national and global cultural affiliation.  It is necessarily a pedagogy of deliberate engagement with diversity, its meaning presented with some degree of depth, in historic and cultural context, with some degree of appreciation.  Else it be a confrontation with a stranger that can misunderstand, unnerve, repel or even elicit fear. 

This is not to suggest intentional diversity learning would ever result in some sort of culminating proficiency; there is no “diploma” awarded certifying competency to successfully travel the many spokes.  Beyond one’s own birth-spoke, in fact, I am not sure how many other diverse spokes one person can travel simultaneously or at least in consort, successfully?  Certainly, Tom and Susie could each travel two with ease.  I felt I could negotiate two distinct paths during my healing journeys.  The two distinct epistemologically disciplines – the social sciences and humanities – have been part of my own ethnographic research tool kit, along with attempting to impart the applications of both on to my undergraduate and graduate students.  Prior to teaching the ISEM Sacred Journey seminar, I taught a year-long version that besides Native American, Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist religions, included the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  While I feel I could personally travel two of those spokes with some degree of competency, for my students and for myself, even as the instructor, there would be no diploma awarded upon completion of the seminar, only an enhanced appreciation, an enriched awareness, and an ability to ask the next level of informed questions of each religion.  

There are those exceptional few among us who can master competency in multiple languages and travel international or multi-cultural lands with fluency.  But when most of us, with some semblance of aptitude and skill, attempt to engage multiple spokes in consort, with the point of saturation differing for each of us, the strain from cognitive dissonance can too easily overwhelm, our anchorings can crack, and our ability to make decisive judgement can become compromised or confused.  With each new stranger encountered, perhaps the best diversity learning can do is but offer a starting point, bringing to bear an awareness and appreciation of the unfathomable depth and richness of each spoke encountered, as we engage each with human etiquette, respect and all our empathy, and with whatever level of competency thus far mustered.  As the spokes are innumerable, each unfathomable, diversity learning is a life-long endeavor.

In hindsight, I wonder if, during that summer of 1974, it was something we, two perfect strangers, the overt differences so glaring, shared in common that brought us together, “as if we’d known each other all along.”  Let’s not forget that to jumpstart a relationship with a perfect stranger, with empathy guiding our way, there is also the shared hub.  We want to engage the stranger certainly by exploring the diverse spokes, but also by searching for what is shared in common.  Intentional integrative engagement entails divergent thinking and convergent thinking.  In its year-long version, the Sacred Journey seminar explored the spokes of seven diverse religions and what they possibly shared at the hub.  We should not let the spoke’s different as different could be, its glare, blind us and get in the way of discovering what is right in front of us.  A difference so different in one’s own or another’s politics, religious convictions, ethnicity, age, sex, nationality, status and privilege, gender identity, whatever “ism,” and the list goes on, should not get in the way.  If only for a moment, can we put the spoke on pause?  This can be the greatest challenge, but with the greatest reward.  In the diversity pedagogical setting, having students juxtapose the varied spokes alongside their reflective selves can facilitate the highlighting of the distinct as well as the shared contours of that stranger’s and those students’ landscapes.  Finding common ground, if only a small parcel, is a start.  With a pause and a juxtaposition, followed by reflection and action, comes the possibility of jumpstarting a relationship with a perfect stranger.  Perhaps this is an argument for the value of intentional diversity engagement for us all?

And I ask, with empathy guiding our way, perhaps empathy is to be revealed upon arriving at our destination, at the hub?  As conveyed in the words of the Indian Name Tom would bestow on me, Maakuuxshiichíilish, a Name implicit with perhaps something he saw glimpses of in me and certainly a hope for what would become even more so, was that what two perfect strangers shared in common that summer of 1974?  In sync, I know I felt and saw that same something, fully expressed, in Tom from the beginning.  Empathy, a means to and the end itself?  Empathy imbued throughout the Wheel, along its spokes and at its hub.  Something at the core of our humanity, shared in common, revealed in its depth at the depths of my liminal state in 2009.

I am convinced, that a General Education curriculum, with an integrative “back-bone” and arteries flowing with empathy-infused “blood,” would result in graduates with “nimble minds – flexible bodies.”  In their intellectual and artistic endeavors, empathy and integrative thinking would lead them to be more adaptable, innovative, a creative thinker, a critical thinker, with effective skills in communication and collaboration.  As artists, not only be able to clearly and attentively feel, but think.  As scientists, not only be able to clearly and attentively think, but feel.  For both, able to clearly and attentively distinguish the pieces, the parts, while also reimagining and re-connecting the parts into new combinations, a new or a renewed whole.  Empathy and integrative thinking facilitate self-awareness, and with it, clarity in and responsibility for choices we make.  With empathy and integrative thinking, the graduates could better identify and address various forms of social schism, expressed in such behaviors as bigotry, scapegoating, tribalism or balkanization in a society.  Integrative thinking, premised on empathy, promotes tolerance and respect for difference, the ability to feel and understand something of another’s perspective, to listen and be attentive to the diverse spokes.  Integrative thinking also facilitates making connections and re-connections, and finding common ground, the possibility of a ubiquitous hub, with once strangers, now opponents no longer.  In living deliberately, with empathy-infused integrative engagement, would not each one of us be nimbler and more flexible in the world we now find ourselves?

The final part of this series will run Feb. 20.

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Rodney Frey

About Rodney Frey

Rodney Frey remains affiliated with the University of Idaho, as Professor Emeritus in Ethnography, while continuing his involvement in his local church and hospital. He's been with the university since 1998. Parts of this series were inspired by previously published materials he authored in "World of the Crow: As Driftwood Lodges" (University of Oklahoma Press 1987) and in "Carry Forth the Stories: An Ethnographer’s Journey into Native Oral Tradition" (Washington State University Press 2017), and with Tom Yellowtail and Cliff SiJohn in “If All These Great Stories Were Told, Great Stories Will Come” in Religion and Healing in Native North America, edited by Suzanne Crawford and Dennis Kelly (ABC-CLIO 2005). Core elements of this personal series appeared in a sermon he gave at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, in Moscow, Idaho, on the 16th of June 2019.

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