Empathy in 1847

A friend shared on Facebook a beautiful story of empathy from one oppressed people for another. The BBC told about how Choctaw people in the southern U.S.,  in 1847, heard about the Irish people starving in the potato famine. They sent them $170, which would be worth tens of thousands today.

As the story related, “The Choctaw people empathised with Ireland’s famine victims. Just 16 years before, the American government had forcibly removed them from their land, moving them to designated parts of south-east Oklahoma.

In what became known as the Trail of Tears, thousands of people walked more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km), having been forced to leave without gathering their possessions. Four thousand people died of hunger, cold and disease.

Historian Julie Allen told the BBC World Service’s Newsday programme: ‘We had been through so much, losing so many of our people thorough death because of the weather, starvation and disease that 16 years later we heard about the Famine and the horrible situation that they were going through, we felt such empathy that we wanted to help.'”

Can you imagine? But then again, it is known that poor people are more generous with charitable contributions than rich people, in terms of percentage of their income. Walking a mile, or 1,000 miles, in the tattered shoes of another, has to increase one’s empathy for them. And yet, the Choctaw could have been bitter, could have turned their backs on the Irish. After all, it was white Europeans who came to their shores who were their oppressors. But they did not.

We must admire their empathetic generosity, their grace and spirit. And indeed, Cork-based sculptor Alex Pentek was so taken with this beautiful act that he has created a 6-meter high sculpture of feathers, honoring the Choctaw. As he said,  “While I was trying to put myself in the shoes of the people suffering I realised that some things are just unimaginable, that the level and scale of suffering that both nations had endured was really beyond being able to think about, beyond our grasp.”

And so, 170 years later, Choctaws went to Ireland to celebrate the dedication of this sculpture, and the empathetic act that had forged this bond so long ago.

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