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When we walk the halls of a hospital – An Integrative Personal Story, Part 8

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By Rodney Frey

In the previous segments, influenced by the mentoring of Tom and Susie Yellowtail and the Wheel of their Ashkísshe Sundance Way of Life, and by experiences during my own healing journey with cancer, I considered in greater depth the nature and importance of diversity in the Wheel’s spokes and of the shared in common in the Wheel’s hub in our learning experiences and in our interpersonal relationships .

Part 8

Now let me leave you with a few final thoughts and questions.  When we walk the halls of a hospital and enter the rooms, or upon graduation, walk from the commencement stage and enter the many doors awaiting, or as we simply walk the streets of any town or city, I wonder if empathy, attentive to our diversity and our commonality, is not the key in helping jumpstart relationships with perfect strangers?  Even, with only deep attentiveness, can come the possibility of finding gratitude for the strangest of strangers.  Even with only focused listening can come the possibility of having gratitude for the different as different could be.  

Doesn’t it start with an empathy that is honest in its motivation and action to be deeply attentive to another, a self-effacing empathy?  An empathy that, in its quintessential expression, removes separation and dissolves the “self” into the “other,” as if two hearts beat as one.  A non-discriminating empathy.  And not an empathy that is in any way shrouded in ego, hubris or ulterior-motive, a self-serving empathy.  Not an empathy imbued with a rush to judgment.  If ego over empathy is brought to the door of a stranger, surely that door would be closed.  And isn’t it only after gaining a sense of the stranger’s perspective that we can begin to assess and critique the one now engaged, that we can bring the interests of the self to bear in the unfolding relationship, that we bring a helping hand, or simply walk hand-in-hand, or perhaps hold another at an arm’s length, or even bring a stiff arm to the relationship, depending on the context?  Of course, the first action the most likely option for a chaplain! 

I wonder if it is not self-effacing empathy that is at the core of the various relationships sought in our aspirational principles – empathy imperative for relationships of acceptance, respect, and understanding – empathy a prerequisite for justice and equality, and above all, empathy, brought to its conclusion, into action, compassion?  Compassion, without the guiding hand of empathy, can miss its mark.  I wonder, if empathy, attentive to our separate traditions and our shared humanity, and attentive to the possibilities of transformation, is not essential in helping create and sustain all our most meaningful relationships?  Something at the core that helps define the essence of our humanity?  As asked and affirmed by so many traditions, in so many ways, when we lose our capacity to feel the suffering of others, we lose our humanity.  And I wonder if empathy, born of diversity, growing into compassion for one another, maturing at the heart of our shared humanity, has the possibility of rebirth into . . .?

In today’s society, stories that celebrate, bridge and reconcile differences, that speak to our shared spirit and common humanity, healing narratives of all kinds, sure seem to be in short supply.  There are far too many strangers amongst us!  But if there’s truth to the old adage, doesn’t it all start with each one of us, within us, with the stories you and I tell one another?  One voice, then another, still another, and another yet can become an omnipotent chorus.  Let’s re-affirm our highest and most noble aspirations, and each of us roll up our sleeves, and live our lives deliberately, intentionally, with díakaashik, re-telling stories akin to that of Tom and Susie Yellowtail’s Wheel, with its diverse spokes and ubiquitous, transformative hub, emanating throughout with an outflowing of empathy.  Truly integrative stories, truly basbaaaliíchiwé stories.  Stories, infused with snukwnkhwtskhwts’mi’ls, that allow us to celebrate and respect our differences, while also facilitating a harmony of those differences, revealing our shared humanity, as there are no differences, stories that make all the difference!  

As a Lay Chaplain, with empathy having opened the door and now standing or seated beside the bed of someone less a stranger, I continue to listen with deep attentiveness.  My hope is that the patient might feel welcomed and safe to share something, if only bits and pieces, of his or her own unique story, now in crisis.  To do a little of their own basbaaaliíchiwé.  We continue in spoken and occasionally in unspoken dialogue; so much can be said in silence, as through the eyes.  And I seek to bring to bear a helping hand.  Eventually I’ll offer the words of a poem, or of a parable, or of a prayer, as best I can, words aligned with and appropriate to the patient’s spoke yet cognizant of our shared hub.  And if those gently-spoken words bring a calming, a reassurance, a hope, if they touch the heart, there just might be seen on the face of someone no longer a stranger – a sparkle in an eye, a glimmer in the corner of a lip, or an eyelid closing in restful peace.

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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