A Sympathetic Bird Told Me

Mount Eerie’s 2017 album “A Crow Looked at Me” is not an easy listen, but it’s an important listen. Phil Elverum wrote the album after losing his wife to cancer, leaving himself and their daughter grieving. The songs are glimpses into their life, without her and with each other.  There are rare moments of beauty here, both lyrically and musically.

Yesterday’s note (and a few other things) triggered the thoughts that sympathy and empathy are two essential components of authenticity sensitivity. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need a mental definition refresh: Sympathy is understanding the feelings of another person. Empathy is sympathy PLUS sharing the experiences and emotions of another person. Both are essential for participatory social groups. How you process and interact with art like Mount Eerie’s album is a helpful lens.

Michael Kitces has an in depth conversation on his podcast with Amy Florian on the topic, specifically related to people in the service industry. Florian labels grief as what occurs whenever there is a break in an attachment. A break can be good or bad (retirement or death as examples). She says to imagine you’ve just been kicked out of a room and find yourself in a hallway with 5 new doors. You’re dealing with the sudden exit and unsure of where to go next. This is grief. This is the position we find Elverum in on the record.

Where empathy hits home as “sympathy plus,” is where Florian labels it as a form of companionship. If you’ve been there, you can go there.

Wherever your own life has been when you listen to “A Crow Looked at Me,” you’re guided by your own experiences, whether they are understood or shared. Those experiences lead up to you sitting in the proverbial hallway, connecting with him and his album sympathetically and/or empathetically.

We’re all regularly interacting with people in transition. The hallway metaphor helps. Recognizing if you can be sympathetic or empathetic to their situation helps too, because avoiding inauthenticity is key to making a worthwhile connection. Mount Eerie is an extreme example, but it’s a very honest one to reflect on. These are the interactions that build bonds, we have to focus on them.

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