“In harm’s way” – Empathy expands our sense of community

Love Walk

On September 29, members of the community march down Mill Street and up Main Street in downtown Grass Valley, as part of the Love Walk. Photo by Zach Bruce

From Richard Drace, Board President

On a bicycle ride through Loma Rica and Bangor, we rode through about 5000 acres of recently burned over area. Wondrously, virtually all the homes were saved, yet when we would pass by a home lost, the sadness we felt for people we didn’t know except as fellow human beings was so palpable. Even going by the homes saved, we could feel some of the fear each of those families lived through as they evacuated – or didn’t – not knowing if their homes – or they themselves – would survive.

Usually, we think of community as those we directly encounter – in the store, in our neighborhoods, at the events we attend, or in the organizations we support. Yet after recent hurricanes, shootings, and fires here and elsewhere, our empathy for so many people who have been in harm’s way and suffered so much expands our sense of community way beyond our local scene.

Of course we still care about our local scene. Fire losses here are just as significant for those affected even though – thankfully – the numbers are much less than in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. And our recent outpouring of support for a young man subjected to racist slurs connects us to other communities where intolerance and bigotry and similar “unnatural disasters” occur. So we might say our community is still our neighbors, and that recently we’ve acquired a lot of new neighbors.

Empathy – to feel personally emotionally touched by others’ emotional experiences – is a most unusual human attribute. We feel the joy of another’s blessing, and we feel the weight of another’s loss.

Beyond natural disasters and human-caused tragedies, we’re experiencing an expansion of our community as so many of us feel a national malaise with the current state of our political affairs. Whatever each of us may feel about those in charge, there’s a great uneasiness about the very obvious deep divisions and suspicions among us. Ironically, are we united only in our collective worry about our disunity?

As the holidays approach, “holiday cheer” may seem a bit out of place, even though we have so much to be thankful for, made all the more obvious for those of us unscathed by hurricanes, fires, and shootings. This holiday season is not unique. Throughout history we’ve experienced holidays in the midst of wars, depression, sickness, bereavement – this list could go on and on.
In such times, when we are more aware of how much we care about and want to care for each other, we need to listen to lessons people have been taught as long as their have been people:

Take care of ourselves – but not in a selfish way. Make our own homes more fire safe. Hold on to empathy for others’ misfortunes without getting dragged down into too much sadness ourselves.

Find cheer in seemingly small yet actually large things. Whether it’s the card from someone you meant to stay better in touch with, a local march for justice, or the newborn child that balances somehow the recently departed.
Accept that we humans are awfully good at making a tremendous mess of things, but that we do manage to rebuild and restart. New homes will be built. Forests will regrow. Our countrymen will sometime again feel we have more that binds us together than drives us apart.