Tag Archives: Culture

“Feeling with” and “Sharing joy”

One of the syllabus subtopics in grade 12 psychology is social responsibility, which includes a study of prosocial behaviour: Why, how, and in what circumstances do people do good things for others? As part of this topic, we look at theories of altruism and empathy. My students are very often familiar with the words themselves, but the definitions can be tricky, especially because the colloquial use of these words does not always match their actual meaning, or the way that they are defined for purposes of psychology research. When defining altruism and empathy in class, we also consider the word compassion. According to Merriam-Webster, these three words can be defined as follows:

altruism – unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others

empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

It follows from here that empathy is feeling for and with others without the reliance on personal experience, compassion is awareness of others’ negative feelings and the desire to lessen pain, and altruism is doing something good for others without the hope for personal gain.

This is one of the circumstances in which I wish English had better words, and in which I am inclined to lean on other languages for their definitions. Learning other languages allows us to learn a great deal about how we see the world due to the language that we use, and I am indebted to my own studies of different languages, as well as exposure to several languages from childhood, in forming this critical understanding.

More recently, I learned the German word Mitgefühl from one of those pithy sayings that sometimes accompanies teabags. I looked up the word and thought, “Aha.” Literally translated, this means “feeling with” and is the German word for compassion. To have compassion is to feel with someone, which therefore clearly implies wanting to lessen the pain of negative emotions. It’s normal, totally okay, and even healthy to sit with negative emotions. We cannot, and should not, be happy and positive all the time, because being so would mean blocking out much of the real world. But it is not enough to wish away the bad; to be compassionate requires doing something to get rid of the bad. I can feel with you and hold your hand, and perhaps this is the action. Perhaps this is the tiny step from just feeling. After all, can I claim to feel with if you don’t know I’m there?

Mitgefühl explains what is required by compassion in a way that the English word does not. When I expressed my delight with this finding to a German friend, he taught me another word that doesn’t exist in English, though the idea certainly does. Mitfreude is not classified as a word in the first German-English dictionary that I checked, but it appears on discussion forums, blogs, and also in other dictionaries. Mit means with and Freude is joy, so Mitfreude can be defined as shared joy. I like that this is a word in German because it sets a tone for the way people relate to one another. Once upon a time, as I was slowly and poetically picking up the pieces of my broken heart, I kept a note on my phone that said, “When those we love are happy, be happy for them.” Mitfreude describes what I felt amidst all the other turmoil, and I remember feeling lighter as I wrote myself that note. Maybe having a word would have given me a place to situate myself without needing to come up with my own inspirational saying.

One thing I am learning about Germany, and this is demonstrated by words like the two described here, is that there is an emphasis on the collective. There is a focus on others, on being part of a group, and on togetherness. This is reinforced by the German school system, reflected to some degree also at my school, in which classes move as a group for the entirety of their time together, making them a bit like a family in which they are attuned to one another and responsible for each other. Upon learning the word Mitgefühl from a tea bag, I had a better appreciation of why this is the way that it is.

Language and culture are inextricably linked and it is through learning one that we can access the other. It is then through learning that we come to better understand ourselves, where we come from, and how we fit into the different worlds in which we wander.

“Learning another language is like becoming another person.” – Haruki Murakami

Different Eyes

“I don’t understand how you live in different places,” a close friend once said to me. “I just feel so much better knowing how things work.”

I can absolutely understand this. Sometimes, it really is tiring to attempt something utterly banal and find yourself needing to learn a new way of doing it. For example, ATM cards in Singapore only work in bank-specific ATMs and those of their partner banks. And I don’t mean being charged a fee – I mean the card actually being accepted by the machine. Just a few months ago, a quick trip to the grocery store for flour turned into a research project about which German flour is closest to North American all-purpose flour. So I completely understand my friend’s comment. Figuring out the intricacies of living in different societies, all the small things that we take for granted until forced to think about them, can certainly be inconvenient.

However, it can also be a phenomenal opportunity to learn that there are multiple ways of doing things; that there is not necessarily right or wrong, but often just different; that people of the world have so much to share with one another.

Life in Malaysia got easier when I let go of expectations for processes and procedures. The thing would happen, just on a different timeline and with more paperwork than I was used to. There would probably be setbacks and changes. No one else was agitated or anxious, so there was no reason I should be. Just because I wanted something and had a picture it my head of what that might look like did not mean it should, would, or needed to turn out that way. Things happened and society functioned. (Full disclosure: Steep learning curve and many tears, but I am far more relaxed about procedures and waiting times than I used to be.)

It’s not only a matter of bureaucracy, though. Being in a new place requires letting go of certain deeply ingrained values, or at least a willingness to look at them carefully. The issue of media censorship in Singapore was particularly interesting to me, as someone raised in American schools in which freedom of speech is touted as the value above all values. Just because I had always understood this issue one way did not mean I should only understand it one way. Just because one society functioned based on a certain set of norms did not mean the other should, or needed to, adhere to the same norms. My understanding of the word “free” has become far more nuanced, and I have a different appreciation for the types of roles that governments take.

More recently, a comment to a friend that came as naturally to me as breathing has given me pause. I listened for a few moments and responded, “Sounds like a productive day,” something I’ve said without thinking in response to many descriptions of many days. And then came the reply: “It was a nice day. A good day. It didn’t have to be productive.” Oh. Right. (I knew I moved to Europe for a reason.) We went on to talk about productivity as an American preoccupation, one used to judge how worthwhile our lives are. A few years ago, I wrote about the problems that lie in looking to be, and claiming to be, constantly busy. I argued then that we can choose differently. In my own life I often do, but there’s clearly a deeply rooted cultural understanding or expectation of which I was unaware.

It is interesting to have this pointed out, and confronting in that it requires me to look into myself and at how I am made. We are all shaped by our experiences, and I find these compelling to dissect. This does not mean discarding all of the “old” in favour of the “new”, but rather understanding the influences I want to maintain in my current worldview and those that might benefit from revision.

As I see it, cultivating open-minded curiosity about the world around us is how we grow. This is what I have learned in my journey through the world, and this is what I hope to continually learn as the journey moves forward.

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

Travel Guide: Nuremberg

Prior to visiting, most of what I knew of Nuremberg (Nürnberg in German) was that Nazi war criminals had been tried there and justice had been served. However, there is a great deal more to this medieval town and I was glad to spend a few days there.

My favourite part of European cities, and the thing that painted my fantasies of the Europe I first read about in historical fiction novels, is the old town. And now that I live somewhere with an old town, I can attest that it remains as charming as on the first visit.

Although Nuremberg’s famed Christmas market was closed due to Covid regulations, the main market remained open and I was pleasantly surprised by its variety. Nuremberg is a city of just over 800,000 people, several universities, and what seemed to be a large immigrant community. I heard more languages than I have heard in a while, which was fun, and there was a greater variety of vegan food here than I had expected, as well as cuisine that I cannot get in my small town.

I had been told that Nuremberg has beautiful churches, and this was certainly true. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth came to mind; I know the building of churches and cathedrals was anything but romantic but they certainly provide an atmosphere to a place.

I had also been told to visit the landmarks of the Weisser Turm and Ehekarussell, the latter of which is a rather whimsical look at a marital relationship.

But no city is charming alone. No city is without a history, and sometimes that history is dark. I had two destinations in mind to pay homage to Nurember’s more recent history, which is why I caught a tram to the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds on the first afternoon. The air field and still unfinished stadium complete with grandstand was the site of the Nuremberg rallies from 1933 to 1938. It was a cold afternoon with bright sunshine and shocking blue skies, and it was beautiful around the water. I am familiar with the history, but I never think about it with blue sky. Maybe that’s what made it difficult to be there.

And maybe that’s why it was important to be there. The woman with the hula hoop illustrated the juxtaposition of the atmosphere and I paused for a moment for think.

The following very cold morning, I returned to medieval history to visit the Kaiserburg, Nuremberg’s castle dating back to the Holy Roman Empire. It provided wonderful views of the city and the museum, which I visited as a respite from the cold, provided a nice overview of the previous nearly 1,000 years.

As someone who grew up in North America, I am still tickled by the thought of structures that have been, in some form, in the same location for such a long time. And I am saddened by the fact that North America, though it is not often considered in this capacity, has an equally old history, so much of which was destroyed by people who found no value in knowledge of the land and its environs.

As a contrast, though times are changing, I had earlier passed a memorial for LGBT victims of the Holocaust. This was a reminder of how we move beyond atrocity.

There is a history of hurt the world over and it is only through active awareness of it that we can live up to “Never again”. This attitude is also what made my later destination, the Way of Human Rights so poignant. And perhaps I am looking for signs (I don’t believe in signs but I also don’t not believe in signs) but the sunlight did take on significance that was likely undeserved.

I intentionally stopped at the Way of Human Rights on the way to the Memorium Nuremberg Trials and Courtroom 600, the room where the trials took place. It is still in use today and the audioguide provided a clear description of what the room would have looked like at that time.

It was eerie to be there, strange to see bright sunshine on the walls and to sit quietly and listen to a historical overview that I had often brushed off. I now remember why, after writing my undergraduate thesis on the Hitler Youth movement, I took a long break from Holocaust reading and research. The sense of obligation that I felt to read every single word has not gone away and each word takes a toll.

I was surprised, though, to find myself angry, and it was over Glühwein and my journal later that evening that I was able to place it. I was not angry at the perpetrators or at the bystanders. I was not angry at the deniers or those who continue spreading hate in countless communities. Rather, I was angry because the Nuremberg Trials meted out justice in a way that was reasonable, fair, and largely undisputed. These were actual trials with evidence and sentencing. Individuals were convicted as far as the evidence could provide and sentencing was carried out swiftly and with due process. These trials paved a way forward for how to deal with crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, crimes of war.

And yet, there is so much bias in legal systems today. Trials have outcomes before they happen. Consequences are seemingly inconsequential. I thought about this, I thought about recent global political news, and I was angry. The Nuremberg Trials provided a framework and an opportunity and I wondered at where this legacy has gone.

I learned a few things at the Memorium, too, like the fact that simultaneous translation was used for the first time here and that the translation staff numbered 350. The proceedings followed Anglo-American legal traditions, which differ from continental European legal traditions, and this created some controversy. There were follow-up trials in later years, including of Japanese crimes in the Pacific war, but the later trials in Europe never generated the press or popular support of the first trials.

It was dark by the time I set my journal and book aside and left the café where I had taken refuge hours earlier. Sometimes it’s just good to be around people.

As a medieval city, Nuremberg’s old town is still surrounded by walls and I found myself quite taken by them.

This fascination remained even without sunlight. The morning of my last full day was warmer than the previous days, and I was glad of this. My plan was to walk the 5k trail that is maintained around the walls. The walls are imposing and I can imagine how impenetrable they were when first built; they seem that way now, even with playgrounds for children, a skatepark, and courts for basketball and racquet sports.

Finally, I visited the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, which has an impressive and overwhelming collection of artifacts dating throughout human history. There were also installations from the Global Art Festival scattered throughout the exhibits and I enjoyed those very much. If you’re happy to spend a few hours wandering through a museum that makes its home in a former monastery, I’d recommend a visit.

The city of Nuremberg today prides itself on being a city for human rights, which is a tall order. Perhaps this is why I saw greater diversity there than I had expected, or why different languages were so prevalent. Or perhaps this commitment itself created the environment of the place. I was glad for the opportunity to be there and look forward to a return, perhaps when there are Christmas markets again.