“Somewhere along the way … I figured out that there were essentially three ways I could handle challenges that came into my life: I could crumble. I could stay neutral, remove myself and not take ownership of the situation. Or I could rise to the occasion. Crumbling and staying neutral are human responses. Rising to the occasion is something I do through the grace of God.” — Gail Williamson, IN SWEET COMPANY: CONVERSATIONS WITH EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN ABOUT LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE
Several year ago I tagged along on a business trip my husband took to Japan. The night before we left, my friend Kate dropped off some goodies for us to give to her all too distant son and daughter-in-law when we met them in Kyoto at the end of our trip. Kate and I sat on my living room floor stuffing cookies and t-shirts into my suitcase and she began to tell me about a film she’d seen, a historical saga that was a heartbreaking commentary on how isolated and closed people can become when we limit our relationships to the narrow parameters of gender, race, religion, class — to any external divide that belittles the universality of the soul.
Our conversation grew solemn. We talked about solutions, noted a variety of current approaches, when Kate had an “A-ha!” that shifted the tide of our hearts: “Of course we love them,” she said, of those we exile to the fringe of our comfort zone. “We just don’t know it yet.” Kate had found the yellow brick road that crisscrosses the bumpy terrain of every relationship, of any relationship that leaves us feeling distanced or displaced.
We are, in these early and fateful days of the 21st century, at no loss to find examples of relationships that perpetuate “us and them.” None of us are exempt from them: We can call up the faces of people who have evicted us from their lives and those we, too, have turned away in a snap. Prejudice, alienation — woundedness — runs deep.
But we can take heart — literally and figuratively. All the latest research on parenting, education, leadership, caregiving, wellness, aging — on the very biological preservation of the species — points to what Kate said that night in my living room. Positive thoughts and embracing behaviors, repetitive and sustained nurturing, produce happy, healthy, and productive individuals — and by extension, groups of individuals — even under the most adversarial conditions. Loving thy neighbor is actually a matter of enlightened self-interest.
In retrospect, I think one of the reasons I wrote IN SWEET COMPANY was to toss (apologies to the exemplary women profiled in its pages!) 14 very different woman together in one “pot” and come away with a feast that could gratify a multitude of spiritual appetites. When we take the time to learn about others lives, we discover what we have in common; we recognize bits and pieces of ourselves in the other. Deeper still, we realize, on some very profound level, we are not alone.
Primatologist Frans de Waal has a phrase for this experience I like very much; he calls it “emotional contagion.” By empathizing with the other, we catch hold of the things that unite us. My friend Kate would say we just finally figured out what it is about the other we can love. Whatever we call it, it’s sure worth the effort.