I, like so many others, have often fallen into the trap of only making friends with people who are quite similar to me. But occasionally, just occasionally, I have had the privilege of becoming friends with someone who is really quite different from me.
For many years I have lived and worked around social housing estates in the UK. My Dad was brought up in a similar community, so I have some things in common with the friends I’ve made there, though perhaps at one step removed.
Something I am learning from Black Lives Matter and from black writers recording history from their perspective, is the power of friendship with those who are different from you. James Cone describes eloquently in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree how various big name white theologians in the midst of the civil rights movement in America failed to make friends with their black colleagues, and how this is partly why they were anaesthetised from really feeling the full force of injustice and the hideous suffering and loss of life caused by the lynchings. The lack of awareness and feeling, coming from the lack of friendship with black people in turn stopped the white theologians from acting or speaking out / campaigning quickly to bring about a change in the law so the lynchings would be stopped. If your friend’s brother has just been lynched, and now his children have no father, you feel something, right? And you are motivated to bring about change, even at risk to yourself.
All of this is resonating with my recent learning as a coach to do with how people can move from not seeing/not knowing there’s a problem to seeing it, then onto feeling the significance of the problem emotionally and physically (opening our hearts and bodies to it), and then onto taking some action to address it.
What is interesting is that most of us most of the time halt this process of change quite early on. For example, we refuse to see/recognise that there is a problem in the first place, in spite of the evidence all around us. Or, we acknowledge the problem, but then we refuse to feel and engage with the discomfort of what it means. Or, we see the problem, engage emotionally with it, but then still fail to act to do anything about it. There is ample evidence of all of this sort of behaviour in the Covid-19 pandemic, regarding reluctance in mask wearing, physical distancing or avoiding unnecessary travel, for example. How we are engaging (or not) with the climate crisis is another example.
Sometimes my friends who are different from me give me an awkward feeling. Often, they don’t share my middle class language of polite niceties, which cover over a multitude of sins. They also don’t always share my convictions about what is most important during the pandemic or about the climate crisis. They are more inclined to say frankly exactly what they think or feel, without any attempt at hiding it or pretending to be considerate towards others who may think or feel differently.
There’s a certain kind of clarity that comes when someone just says exactly what they honestly think. At times, it presents me with real discomfort, because I completely disagree with what is being said, and I find the language very harsh, with little or no allowance for the possibility that they may be wrong. But just this morning I have been wondering… What if the depth of my discomfort is coming from a realisation that, if I were being really honest, I would have similar thoughts on these, or other topics? And I would similarly admit no possibility that I might be wrong…?
With all these thoughts in mind, here are some questions I will be pondering:
What are the situations where I fail to see there’s a problem still, in spite of the evidence around me?
What are the situations where I know there’s a problem, but I fail to let myself be friends with the victims and start to really feel the discomfort of the repercussions of it?
What are the situations where I know there’s a problem, I feel something of the repercussions of it, but I still haven’t actually taken action or spoken out?
and…What steps will I take to move beyond where I currently am?
Another thing some of my friends have been teaching me, is about knowing what you deeply want or need. I am no psychologist, but when someone states repeatedly what they want and defends their right to have what they want, what I hear is a small child who is clawing their way back to life. Maybe what that child needed when they were younger was ignored? Maybe they were mistreated instead of cared for? In which case, their asserting their right to meet their own needs irrespective of the needs of others could be the frail beginnings of a recovery? How do we co-create safe spaces for each other to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and begin to face them undefensively and find some agency? How do we make these spaces safe, open, honest, gentle and mutual, without colluding with self centredness or aggression? Is it even possible?!
In response to this, I am also wondering how aware I am of my own needs, and how prepared I am to own them honestly and openly, regardless of other people’s responses to my vulnerability?
It can be tempting to condemn people who express themselves directly and honestly with no niceties. But what if my friends who are different are in some ways like a light shining on my darkness?