Part 1: When The Tears Don't Move You
It happens to all of us racial reconcilers. That one day when you think to yourself, "Its finally happened. This work has crushed me. I am a terrible person. I should quit." It's the moment when someone- your pastor, your supervisor, your friend, your coworker, your professor- bursts into tears for the umpteenth time in the middle of a conversation about justice and reconciliation. You almost know the words by heart, you've heard the speech so many times. At the end comes a series of "but I really want to"s and "if I could only make you believe how much this matters to me"s and "maybe if you could just"s. You sit. And stare. And for the first time, you are unmoved.
When you began this work, you lived for these moments when the dam breaks and the emotions flow. You left the table emboldened. You left the table believing. Believing that they are in it with you. Believing in their ability to do better. Believing that if you just [fill in the blank], you can move this thing forward. It made you believe in time.
But now you sit across from them, handing them a tissue. Trying desperately to determine why you aren't feeling anything, especially when you believe them. You believe in their sympathies for racial justice. You believe their heart is broken. You believe they want to do better. And yet, this performance before you deserves no applause.
No, you are not becoming a terrible person. You have not just taken a small step toward hell. You are not suddenly an unfeeling person. You are a savvy one because you are learning. You are about to experience a great growth spurt. You about to discover the very real difference between someone who has sympathy for racial justice and someone who stands in solidity with you to accomplish racial justice. The difference is immense.
And its a lesson you have to learn if you are to stay healthy in this work. You cannot expect that everyone who is sympathetic will stand in solidarity. You will know the difference. This moment. The moment when emotions are erupting around you, and you are clear headed, unmoved, wondering whats next is the moment you know the difference.
Sometimes the work of racial justice feels very much like a well. A constant digging deeper to see what lies below. There are some who though sympathetic, will never go deeper than this. Their bucket will go down into the well of emotions and always only come back twenty-five percent full. In it you will find some key phrases, a couple intense stories and very real tears for the muddiness, the racism, the injustice around them... in them. And you will watch them let down the bucket, and bring it up. And let it down, and bring it up. But always, it is filled only with sympathy. And you can believe them, sort of. Truthfully, it gets harder and harder to believe them. But initially you will. You will believe that the sympathy, the tears, the expressed desire to do better is real. But you will not invest. You will not invest any more than handing them a tissue. This will surprise you. Because you are used to doing much more when someone gets emotional about racial justice. And this time you won't. You will let them sit and talk and empty the bucket. And then you will move on with your day (hopefully not wondering how you became such a horrible person overnight!)
Your reaction (or lack of one) is only because you know the difference now. The difference between sympathy and someone who is actively moving toward solidarity. Those who are moving toward solidarity just look different. There is not an emotional difference. People in solidarity are quite emotional. But the bucket is different. It is filled with more than just sympathies. It is filled with actions. It is filled with an ever growing list of books, articles, podcasts. It is filled with "stupid" questions (they will call them that; you never will). They will let down the bucket and when it comes back it will be filled with repentance and revelation. They will ask hard questions of people, of institutions, of groups they love, respect. They will risk both the love and the respect because they will expect more. Mostly, they will expect more of themselves.
Those in solidarity, or at least working toward it, will help you see that you've not become unfeeling. When they cry, you will hold them. When they have revelations, you will cheer. When they get angry (a very common emotion among those in solidarity) you will react- nod, explain, shed light, direct the anger. You will get to work. And you will love it. Its the work you've been called to. And part of the work is recognizing those who are moving and those who are sitting.
So don't panic. You're okay. You're just seeing the difference. You're determining how much to give. When to give. You'll figure out what you can give to someone who is spinning in sympathy. So don't be alarmed when the first time, its nothing. It may not always be nothing. You might have a go to resource, or go to quote. You might have a standard question or perhaps even a suggestion. Sometimes, all you will have is tissue. Its okay. As long as you remain open to the move of the Holy Spirit. You never know when someone's bucket might go deeper than they realized. But trust that you'll know when its happened.
So keep paying attention to these small changes within yourself. Because you, my friend, are growing.