“That’s not how friendships work,” she said. It wasn’t the most profound thing I’d learned from her. And it was only the second most moving thing I’d heard her say. But in King Solomon’s words, as an apple of gold in a setting of silver, it was a word fitly spoken. Right time. Right place. And the right person to hear it from.
In considering sympathy, compassion, and even empathy, I’ve been describing attitudes and actions that allow me to maintain my superior position in a relationship. That’s not necessarily the case with everyone who expresses sympathy, acts compassionately, or elicits empathy. In fact, I remind myself and others regularly that we are merely conduits between God’s resources (even if we’ve stored some “our” accounts) and the needs we see around us.
What I practice about that preaching, however, can be very different. I like being liked. I like being proof of the claim that “generosity never costs us anything.” I like seeing gratitude and, even in its absence, the effects in others’ lives of needs alleviated, dysfunctions fixed, and relationships reconciled.
But my friend said no.
At issue was a charge account balance with a local merchant. She wanted to keep the account open, not quite paying it off. There were the usual difficulties of opening it in the first place, and so long as there was a balance, she could avoid reopening another when she inevitably needed them to extend her credit again. That made sense to me. But because there would be no doubt about who would have made a payment to the account, I confessed my intentions and asked how much of a balance I should leave.
That’s how I found out that we were friends. Not mentor and protégé. Not benefactor and reclamation project. Not conduit of God’s resources and recipient of His generosity through me. Friends.
|Solidarity in Christ: Not optional. No volunteers need apply.|
Which brings me to the fourth level of unity within diversity: Solidarity. I’ve previously defined Sympathy as “to feel for others,” only briefly and verbally expressing our identification with their circumstances before returning to our own personal concerns. The second level, Compassion, is “to feel toward others,” engaging their experience, but still in a brief, limited manner, but with some tangible action toward their needs. Empathy, “to feel with others” requires some similar experience, and is best elicited from another, rather than proactively shared in hopes of assuring them that “I know how you feel.” (This is not a sentence you should ever utter.)
Solidarity involves a decision “to feel as others,” not as an exercise in imagining their circumstances, but by choosing to experience their circumstances alongside them. It is rarely expressed, largely because we lack the time and resources, but also because we cannot be in two places, or in solidarity with all groups and individuals simultaneously. Therefore, in response to this quandary, we choose to engage at other, lesser levels (if at all).
Toward solidarity, specifically across racial and other divisions, John M. Perkins famously advises three R’s: Reconciliation, Redistribution, and Relocation. I agree with all three. But I also recognize that if I relocate to one community, I am not only leaving another, but choosing not to relocate into other communities. Our uniquely individual calling may not entirely impinge upon our efforts to be “all things to all people.” But it does prevent us from being with all people all the time.
|"I'll come over. But only to take someone back with me."|
Still, we often excuse ourselves from solidarity that might require relocation. For me, that would have prevented me from enjoying life in The Book Cliffs of central eastern Utah; the logging and ranching communities in The Scott Valley of Northern California; the Front Range communities in Colorado; and now, the wide range of challenges and celebrations experienced by the people of The Intermountain Area. What would my life have been like if I had remained where I was comfortable, where my career track was more secure, and where the creature-comforts that I still miss on occasion were far more accessible? (Add to that the futility of searching elsewhere for some of them. The Symphony, Opera, and Ballet occasionally take road-trips, even to Redding, California. But there are only two other places on the planet that compare to San Francisco Bay when it comes to sailboat racing!)
I don’t know what life would have been like had I remained on that conveniently familiar path. But I can recount the significant costs of choosing solidarity with a persecuted minority within an already oppressed and exploited community. I have experienced the awkward mixture of shame and gratitude that comes in receiving a food box from the rescue mission. I know the similarly conflicted feelings of facing creditors’ calls, repossession, bankruptcy and impending homelessness in addition to losing a child because we weren’t “the right kind of people” to receive health care in the community we chose to serve.
|You don' t like your comrades? Consider the alternatives.|
And yet I witness the inexpressible joy of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to progress from homelessness to houseguest to high-school graduate (well, GED, but I think that counts) to holding down a job while training for what might be a life-long career in healthcare, all while raising a beautiful child (who does let me buy them things…or at least doesn’t scold me afterward).
Solidarity means entering into a mutual and equitable relationship. There may be times when my supply may complement another’s lack. But then there are the times when it is my lack that needs supplied by the careful admonition of a friend.