Inhabiting a space of pain together

January 1, 2020 - 12:00am -- Amy Uelmen

Inhabiting a space of pain together
Gearing up for the 2020 political campaign

By Amy Uelmen

As we gear up for a new campaign season, I’m wondering what I can to do fortify my relationships with friends and colleagues who may not completely align with my own political perspective on some issues. I am currently clearing my calendar to make sure there is enough space to cultivate in-person, face-to-face time for conversations across deep differences.

I know that when I take the time to nurture these kinds of friendships, I generally find I am more cautious about labeling the differences I encounter in my work and other interactions. I sense that I have greater access to the insight I need to welcome others as they are, and even to discern in our conversations their sincere desire to connect, learn and grow.

With one friend in particular, we have tried to meet once a month to discuss something we have read together. When we get together, I like to take off my watch and put my cellphone out of sight and earshot. Over time, we have experienced the freedom to stop mid-sentence, backtrack, reformulate and try out other ideas, without worrying that what we have just said is fixed in stone or already under the bright and unforgiving lights of social media.

We are also taking in the National Museum of African American History together. I still have stamped into my soul that afternoon when we absorbed together the exhibit with the coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. As I was squinting with horror, taking in for the first time the Jet Magazine 2x2 picture of the boy’s beaten face, my friend quietly explained how the picture was published every year as she was growing up.

After watching the video of his mother explaining what had happened, we sat together in silence. As a person of German-Irish ethnic background, I could not claim — in any way — personal access to the experience of the kind of violence and exclusion that my friend, her family and her community had suffered as African-Americans. Yet, our friendship let us in some way inhabit that space of pain together. Stunned and overwhelmed by what sheer evil had wrought, we were quiet together, our tones were hushed. For me the museum had become like a church.

Then walking out of the museum together, aware of just how difficult the summer had been for me in the midst of the Catholic Church scandals, she gently asked, “How are you doing with all of that?” Again, the space was such that I could pour out my heart, even across our pretty strong differences in perceptions about Church teaching on some significant issues. Our empathy for each other’s pain, for pain in the world, for the weight that we each carry, had created this incredible space in which I could share from the depths of my heart what I was living in that moment.

Since that time, our conversations have wandered in and out of politically controversial topics, including issues on which we still disagree. But the bonds of empathy still hold, bringing us to deeper insight and appreciation not only for our different perspectives, but for the difference we encounter in the world around us as well.