portrait of The Empathetic Penguin

Saturday, January 2, 2021

thoughts from The Empathetic Penguin

My feet are dragging over the frozen ground today. My beak pulls my head down so my eyes only see a small section of snow in front of me. My wings have never been so heavy. Every feather pulls toward the earth as if they are collectively willing me to stop moving. Heaviness weighs on every cell in my body.

All-encompassing sadness is not unfamiliar to me; I am one who feels deeply for others in my community. Today, the sadness is woven together with threads of anger, sprinkles of shame, braids of frustration, fibers of confusion, and tiny specks of hope. I’m visiting a neighboring community where an individual has died. The death of an individual duck has been symbolic of the generations of hardship for the community and has therefore thrown the life of this bird into the public eye in such a way that images of their ordinary plumage, average bill, and typical feet are now recognizable by all.

I am an outsider here, so I know my presence could easily be misinterpreted. I watch as individuals grieve together. Four ducks sit side-by-side on the shore. They do not speak, they do not hold each other, they do not yell out their frustrations. Each duck is silent as the light snow falls around them. Their grief is palpable. My crunching footsteps stir them, and one blinks open an eye in my direction. I give my best effort to offer a nod of solidarity in this climate of sadness, and the duck resumes its grieving posture. I breathe a sigh of relief and continue my slow walk along the shore.

I feel my own version of pain, but I also listen to understand the pain of others. A small circle of community members invite me into their conversation, and I listen to their stories. I have been learning about peace-building. I have been learning that grieving is a journey and that healing is an even longer one. My role today is to sit with my neighbors who are most affected by the death in the community, to validate their sadness rather than reject it, and to join the community of shoulders that hold this heaviness together. My role in peace-building today is to notice the needs of those who are hurting and be there to support the collective healing. This is not easy.

The air here is heavy. The blanket of emotions I carry weighs on others as well. I continue my walk along the shore and gaze into the water. I’ve never been in this water, but I need to re-charge. I dive in and instantly call out my overwhelming gratitude for this privilege: escape. The cool water glides over my feathers and tickles my tail. I spin and dive, surface for an instant, then dive again with an eager energy to cover as much distance as possible. Faster and faster I swim. The ripples of water flying off my tail spiral and dance. My entire body works to propel me through the refreshing water. There are no waves-- I’m not accustomed to this calm-- and I accelerate to speeds unlike ever before! The weight of sadness and pain peels off my body as I swim faster and faster. I’m like a snake slithering out of its old skin and discarding it with relief. The physical exertion leaves my body as exhausted as my mind. Now perhaps both can rest.

There is a renewed calm in my body and mind after my swim. I sit on a rock on the shore and watch the mourners from a distance. My role in peace-building tomorrow, and every subsequent day, will be to support changes that prevent deaths like this from ever occurring again, to continue to hear and honor the lived experiences of those around me, to stand back so their voices sing out to be heard by others, and to support systems that continue to reduce the unfair weights that this community has carried for generations. And I will swim so that I have the stamina to continue to show up.

Minter, Donna, and Crixell Shell. “STAR-Lite Training: Learning Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience.” Training, Virtual, July 22, 2020. www.mnpeace.org.