Fear of Catching Something: A Barrier to Cultivating Solidarity
Nineteen years ago, I quickly became friends with another young mother. We belonged to the same church, and normally we might not have connected. Our religious beliefs were very different from one another’s, our temperaments not an easy match. What drew us into an almost instantaneously deep relationship was our common ground, one upon which few young mothers stand.
I was celebrating the first anniversary of my initial life-prolonging heart surgery when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her baby boy was one year old when she received that news, just as mine had been the previous year when I got my diagnosis.
I accompanied her to chemo. She sat with me when symptoms of my heart failure rearose. We shared our fears of leaving our young sons, of them growing up without our love and guidance. We marveled at how fortunate we were to have these little boys whose needs often provided our sole motivation for getting out of bed on the days when effects of our treatment seemed unbearable. Together, we collected a list of all the silly, thoughtless, sometimes even cruel things that folks said to us in response to hearing about our illnesses, chuckling that we would someday compile a book.
The fear we instilled in others created a fortress around us, one few people were willing to navigate. Many of our friends and acquaintances acted as though they might contract our illnesses by being around us. I knew that they must not have believed this to be possible, so I struggled to discover the source of their fear. One day, I realized what it was -- the two of us, young and fit and seemingly healthy, were a reminder of a fact that most people might prefer to ignore: that young mothers sometimes die. I noticed that other young mothers in particular seemed to avoid conversations with us, especially any that focused on our illnesses.
Their fear disabled them from standing on common ground with us. Merely contemplating what we were experiencing was impossible for some folks; I know, because they shared this with me.
But some people did spend time imagining themselves and their family in our situation. When they were able to abide in that imagined land, where they were also faced with dying and leaving children behind, long enough to experience empathy, they began to cultivate solidarity with us. As they confronted the responses that arose within them, releasing their desires to ignore and distract from the pain, they were cultivating solidarity with us.
There were few who were able to do that. It was obvious which ones they were.
Others bright-sided us, feeding us platitudes about God and miracles and there being reasons for everything. Some promptly disappeared from our lives.
Although we both received a tremendous amount of help from others, it was rare for us to find people willing to truly witness our experience from a place of solidarity. And when we did, we treasured those interactions. Casseroles and cards are sweet; however, there is a particular blend of relief, peace, and comfort that we feel when we know someone really sees us and is not afraid to sit with us through our pain.
Years after my friend and I met, after our boys had grown to tower above us and I had begun to raise a second child, I was asked to serve on a committee at my daughter’s middle school to discuss bullying. After months of devoted work contemplating causes and effects of bullying and brainstorming possible preventative measures, the guidance counselors determined that the best antidote to bullying was empathy. And they worked tirelessly to create an exceptional program to develop their students’ capacity for empathy.
Passionately in support of this work, I naively assumed that all the other parents would share my enthusiasm. During the meeting held to introduce parents to the new program, I learned that I was wrong. Many parents arrived with anger, judgment, and strong opinions that the school should not implement this project. Confused by their response, I eventually asked the group, “I don’t understand. Can you tell me why you are opposed to this program?”
“There are some people I don’t want my child to feel empathy for,” one mother replied.
The following comments made clear an underlying assumption that the more empathy one had for another person, the more likely they were to become like that person. Were these parents convinced that situations like divorce and poverty could be “caught” through empathetic connection? Did they worry that by showing compassion for a peer whose sexuality was different from theirs would someone cause them to change their own sexuality? Perhaps.
And maybe, like the other young mothers at my church years before, they worried that simply being conscious of the existence of something challenging in the world is too much to bear.
It’s actually the people most like us, the ones who seem to stand on common ground with us, who may be the most challenging for us to cultivate solidarity with. Our fears can keep us from wanting to even contemplate their experience. Other moms of young kids may be so terrified of becoming ill and dying or of losing their partner that they are unable to actually stand alongside those who are living through that particular horror. Adolescents terrified of not being accepted by their peers might find someone’s nonconformity frightening.
In such cases, the usual methods we have for finding common ground actually serve to distance us from others. The closer we are in situation to someone in pain, the more challenging it can be to remain on that common ground and allow it to dissolve beneath us, bringing us to an altogether new way of relating to one another.
How wonderful it would be to share solidarity with those closest to us in friendship or family or circumstance.
And when that’s not possible, I take great comfort in realizing that solidarity from anywhere is what is needed.
A group of young widows I support had an experience that reminded me of this truth. Each of these women lost her husband earlier this year, and each is now raising adolescents and teenagers alone. They instantly connected through our grief group and became fierce sources of support for one another. Like my friend and me, they have trouble finding solidarity amongst their peers, even their closest friends and family members.
Recently, though, they found solidarity in an unlikely place. Having met through video conferencing for months, they decided to gather in person. They each made their way to a local brewery, where they planned to sit outside and enjoy summer weather and one another’s company. The first to arrive was seated; her waiter asked if she would like to order appetizers for the group. She explained that she didn’t know what to order, because this was her first time meeting these friends in person. She proceeded to explain what had drawn this group together.
The waiter -- a man in his early 20s -- listened deeply. He expressed empathy and treated her with kindness. He did not rush away or busy himself. He did not let fear or discomfort become a barrier to his cultivating solidarity. This young man, who seemingly has little in common with a group of young widowed mothers, was able to be present with their situation and their pain.
His care of the group the rest of the evening looked, I’m sure, just like that he provides to each of his customers. Solidarity is often like that. It may not change the actions we take, but it changes the energy with which we act.
When we courageously move through the fear of catching a painful situation from someone else, when we stop avoiding the awful truths of what that person may be facing, we remove our strongest barrier to cultivating solidarity.