A paradigm that has helped me quite a bit. Maybe it could help bring us together.
Updated: May 20
"Who are you? Are you some kind of motivational speaker or something?"
I am not a motivational speaker, but I knew what he was getting at. The class had just shared a particularly powerful moment of reflection during our "Life Map Activity." It's my favorite workshop, when I ask some hard questions related to our past, present, and future, and several participants had gone public with their pain.
I replied, "No, I am not a motivational speaker. What you are feeling is not about something I said. It's the power of shared pain."
What makes a room full of diverse young men in the juvenile justice system in NYC feel a moment of palpable solidarity? We were all so different, some were probably affiliated with rival gangs, yet the connection was unmistakable. It happened when a couple of them were brave enough to go there and tell it like it is. I was a witness to the power of shared pain.
The year of the pandemic has brought unprecedented divisiveness. I don't think many would argue with that. The frustration has led to billions of dollars of damage, many lost lives, plenty of traumatization, and countless broken friendships. What is the way forward?
One thing that keeps sticking out to me is that disenfranchisement especially in its extreme form has its similarities. It struck me again during the vaccine rollout. I heard almost identical words from my Black Lives Matter activist friends as I did from my White, rural folk. It was the feeling that the country as a whole doesn't get it, the system is aligned against them, that their pain really doesn't matter.
But what if we could see the commonality in the pain itself? The issues causing the pain might be different but the pain itself is eerily similar -- loneliness, anger, marginalization, an uncertain future, feeling like your perspective is dismissed like the deck is stacked against you and not just in one incident but in multiple areas of life.
How do we see each other's pain?
It occurs to me that we have a strategic choice.
Pain can either connect us or divide us. It can either be a point of dynamic commonality or of divisive competition. Which paradigm we choose goes a long way.
Let me use a different example. What if I have a loved one in prison for sexual abuse, and I happened upon a conference for sexual abuse survivors. I have a choice. Either I can say, "Why is there no conference for the pain and shame I feel?" or I can say, "What incredible shame these survivors have been through. What incredible healing they are getting! I want some of that healing for my shame too. It is, of course, the shame of being forever associated with a criminal."
We can see exposed pain as a point of competition, a zero-sum game, of limited resources where empathy for one necessarily means condemnation and coldness to the other.
Or we can see the commonality in pain itself, and admit that we all carry shame that needs to be healed.
When someone shouts, "Black Lives Matter;" some White person yells, "All lives matter." Technically, it is true, "all lives do matter," but it sounds more like a competition. It ignores the true meaning and intent behind the phrase, "Black Lives Matter." Basically, "all lives matter" is saying we can't acknowledge the unique pains we feel because then maybe my pain won't matter.
We can engage in this competition for empathy or we can reach for something more. As a White person, I can ask, "When have I felt like my life didn't matter? If I can't think of a time, I can ask, "I wonder what it would feel like to be in a situation, where your life did not matter to the person who has a gun pointed at you. Personally, I would find that terrifying."
Commonality or competition, it doesn't seem like that hard of a choice, yet it is.
Let me unpack it with 4 final thoughts.
1. We choose the competition paradigm because we haven't been healed. We have been told our pain really doesn't matter, so we would like a movement to validate us or give us permission to grieve for our losses and heal. Hearing about someone else's pain is translated to us as another voice telling us our pain doesn't matter. The good news is we don't have to wait for a movement or a public outcry of empathy. The God of the Universe already said, "Come unto me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28). We can begin that healing, restful journey today. Sadly, not many take Jesus up on this offer. I personally have offered this healing journey to several fellow White folk, and most do not want to think about their own pain.
I wonder if Jesus still looks down sadly like he did when he sat on a hillside to lament, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who continue to kill the prophets and to stone those who are sent to you! How often I have desired and yearned to gather your children together [around Me], as a hen [gathers] her young under her wings, but you would not!" (AMPC Luke 13;34). Jesus offers us healing. Unfortunately, the power brokers prefer competition. Not long after Jesus said these words, again Jerusalem chose competition. They killed Jesus himself. It doesn't have to be that way.
2. We choose competition when we think that there are scarce resources. When we forget that we are provided for, competition makes sense. We think if we validate someone's pain, we will owe them something. This sort of thinking forgets the truth of Jesus' declaration that it actually is "more blessed to give than to receive." We think it is more blessed to be self-protective.
3. A word of caution. The choice for commonality should not be used recklessly. There is something about pain that is entirely unique to the individual. I am not saying pain should all be seen as equal. If someone just lost a child in a car accident, it's not very helpful for me to say that 7 years ago my wife and I had a miscarriage, and we got over it. While we reach for commonality in our pain we don't want to overdo it and assume sameness, that our pain is equivalent. It's not. People deserve to have the respect of having entirely unique pain; glib comparisons are hurtful. Such comparisons are really more like competition than commonality.
One way to handle this is to reach for commonality in your own heart, but don't necessarily say it. The choice for commonality can be an internal process. You ask yourself what might this person be feeling? Is there anything about that feeling I can identify with in some way? You search your heart for similar feelings knowing that there will always be a gap between what I have felt and what they are feeling. You use your own pain to get you partway there, but you always stop short of saying, "I know what you are feeling" because you really don't. The point is that you use your pain to validate in your own heart what someone else is feeling.
Here's a somewhat silly example. Once not long after I moved to Columbus, Ohio, I walked into a barbershop for a haircut. After I sat in the chair, I looked at all the pictures of haircut styles and every single model was Black. At that moment, I thought, "Oh boy, do these guys know how to cut White people's hair? Do I ask? Would that be awkward? Do I just assume?" I didn't say anything, and the guy didn't either. He proceeded to give me a very bad haircut -- poor guy didn't want to ask me to leave but it was just too awkward to say anything. I thought to myself. "I wonder if this is how some of my Black friends have felt." No one was mean to me at all. I just immediately knew I didn't belong in that barbershop. It was designed without me in mind.
If I would choose competition, I could talk about reverse racism I suppose, but instead I waa given a little drop of insight into what systemic racism feels like at the most benign level. There were no dire consequences. My hair grew back quickly -- but that feeling of being in a place where you obviously don't belong I will always remember. It has made me want to be attentive to little things that tell people they belong.
Now, I wonder what it feels like to be the only Black person in other spaces designed by White people -- my office, my church, a court room where there are much greater consequences of not being understood. That moment in the barbershop turned into a gift that has helped me find some empathy and a bit of awareness. I saw the commonality in the discomfort I felt in the barber's chair with what Black people have been telling me for decades. Seeing the commonality, helped something click in me even though I don't actually ever feel exactly what Black people feel.
4. The good thing about choosing commonality over competition is you can get healing along with other people. You can join people in the healing process instead of waiting as if healing is a scarce commodity that may or may not ever actually reach you. This is why I like racial equity events so much. Every time I go I get healed a bit more. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes.
“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” - Lila Watson
To state it differently, when you sing, "Amazing Grace" for someone, you generally feel a bit of grace yourself. When you give grace, you don't have less of it. You just become aware of how much you need and have access to as well. Competition for grace, on the other hand, leaves us all feeling condemned.
It's not expensive, it's not that difficult. It's just a simple choice. When you experience something uncomfortable or painful, ask, "who else has felt this? What commonality can I find in this pain?" When you hear someone else's pain, resist the urge to put it up against yours in a sort of psychological competition for empathy. Just listen long enough for some commonality to emerge while respecting the complete uniqueness of everyone. I think you will find that this simple choice for commonality over competition makes a big difference.
Noticing commonality before the cross leads us into a community of the crucified.