When I was 6 years old, I met my first Irish person. The neighborhood pool hosted a potluck and one of the families we knew had a teenager from Ireland staying with them for a few weeks as part of something called the Ulster Project. I don’t remember her name but I thought her accent was cool.
What I didn’t know at the time is that the Ulster Project was a world-famous attempt to heal historical wounds in the communities of Northern Ireland racked by interreligious violence for centuries. For more than 40 years, the project has sent Catholic and Protestant Irish teens to spend a few weeks with one another in the United States to try to experience life together and come to understand that they really aren’t all that different after all. Many of the teens maintain life-long friendships with each other — friendships once thought taboo or impossible. Many credit the project as a major reason for the de-escalation of tensions in Northern Ireland over the past few decades.
The key principle at work behind the idea of the Ulster Project — the secret ingredient that makes it successful — is solidarity.
I’ve been reflecting on solidarity more and more recently as I look around the world and see so much division. I see bitter fights on the news and in social media like never before in my life. Many feel what the social scientists confirm: America has become increasingly polarized over the past several decades. Like me, have you ever wondered: Is there a path to peace amongst so much animosity?
I believe solidarity just might be an answer.
Empathy + community = solidarity
From relationship counselors to hostage negotiators, experts from many fields recognize the power of empathy in healthy human interactions. Empathy attempts to emotionally and intellectually understand another person’s situation — but empathy alone is not enough to bring disparate people together.
I can empathize with a refugee in another country but still continue living an unaffected, privileged life. Simply imagining myself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t heal the divide. How many times have I seen a video about people I could help and realize that I feel compassion for them, but then don’t actually do something about it?
Solidarity goes a step further and puts empathy into action. Solidarity actually walks a mile in another’s shoes — or at least walks next to them. It’s hard to hate people you are sharing a meal with, having fun with, or building something together with. This principle is enshrined famously in Jesus’ Golden Rule — “treat others as you would have them treat you” — as well as many other religions and philosophies around the world.
Solidarity is not a negotiation tactic or relationship hack. It’s a way of life. When two people are “solid” with one another, they see the other not as a “them” but an “us.” Solidarity breaks down the Me vs. You tribalism so seemingly prevalent in human nature.
To be in solidarity with another is to walk alongside someone so as to become of one heart and mind with them — to not only understand them, but begin to share their struggles, hopes, dreams, and history. Solidarity makes us true neighbors with those who are different because we come to share a common experience. It reframes our outlook to see the other as a companion on our journey, not a competitor in a race.
The day after Donald Trump was elected, my friend Andy (whose political leanings are very different from mine) called me. His question to me was this: “How come we like each other and can have a respectful conversation about serious topics even though we disagree so fundamentally?”
The answer is that we lived on the same floor in college. I would come to his room and we would play Xbox, eat Oreos, and make fun of each other’s mothers (sorry, Mom). In short, we are friends. I don’t think of him as liberal or conservative. I think of him as Andy. But if we hadn’t shared those experiences, might we be insulting each other somewhere on Twitter?
How to live solidarity
To be in solidarity with others requires us to step out of our comfort zone. There’s no one-size-fits all approach, but here are a few ideas:
1. Do something fun or constructive with those who are not like you.
I once took a group of American high school students to visit their sister school in Belize City.
Ten American students met 10 Belizean students and spent a week traveling to historical sites, painting the school, praying, and going to the beach together. Despite their very different backgrounds, they were like old friends by the end of the week, with the minds of all opened to new ways of thinking about the world.
How can you do this without connecting with high school students in Belize?
- Volunteer for a charity where you can talk with those who are in need.
- Visit a different church with a friend one Sunday.
- Follow accounts on social media you normally disagree with.
- Make an effort to spend more time with an acquaintance or friend who is significantly different than you.
- Visit a developing country.
2. When someone is struggling, spend time with them.
In the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, many of the friends of the deceased will “sit shiva” with the family for a time of mourning. This means they literally go to their house and sit with them while they mourn. Anyone who has experienced personal loss or tragedy knows the comfort of the mere presence of loved ones.
When my wife and I had our first baby, we had a lot of people say, “Let us know if you need anything.” That was wonderful, to be sure, but we were so exhausted, I don’t think we ever actually reached out to those people. But a couple of friends said, “We’re bringing you dinner. What night works?” Wow! That made a difference. We didn’t have to reach out to them or think about what we needed that they could provide. They came to us with what they could provide.
So, if a friend is struggling, tell them what you’d like to do for them and ask when you can do it. Make it super-easy for them to accept your help. Do laundry, bring a meal, watch a show, baby sit, mow the lawn, grocery shop. Be present to them.
Voluntarily fasting or abstaining from some good thing in solidarity with another who regularly goes without grants you a new perspective and also communicates compassion for them. The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” When we suffer with a person, we come to understand the way they experience the world, and we can unite our strength to theirs.
My wife has Celiac’s disease, which means she can’t eat gluten (wheat, barley, or rye). She often can’t eat what everyone else is eating at gatherings (especially baked goods and desserts). Sometimes, I can tell that this really gets to her so I will also go without eating those things, too. I don’t have to do this and she doesn’t expect me to, but I know sometimes she really appreciates the show of solidarity in forgoing the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.
As a high school wrestler, I had to closely monitor my diet to maintain a certain weight. Our coach would also hold himself to a strict diet and weight during the season as a way of living in solidarity with his wrestlers. This garnered our instant respect. We knew that he wasn’t asking us to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself.
We all see people suffering in our lives. What would the world look like if we intentionally sought to “suffer with” them? Whom am I divided from in my life? Whom don’t I understand? How can I act to live in greater solidarity with them?
These are difficult questions, but they just might lead you to greater understanding. Who knows, they might even heal a relationship — they just might heal our world.